Last Updated: Sun Oct 17, 2010 00:21 am (KSA) 21:21 pm (GMT)

Iraqi Kurd digs up landmines after losing legs

Hoshiyar Ali keeps defused mines scattered through his home -- even in his bedroom (File)
Hoshiyar Ali keeps defused mines scattered through his home -- even in his bedroom (File)

Hoshiyar Ali lost both his legs to landmine blasts in northern Iraq and uses prosthetic limbs to walk, but he forges on with his life's work, digging mines from the ground with a knife to save others from his fate.

A retired major general in the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Ali not only lost his legs but his 9-year-old brother to some of the millions of landmines that pepper Iraq's farms, railways, roads and rich oilfields, causing lingering damage to its efforts to rebuild an economy battered by war and economic sanctions.

 After mines ripped my brother's body to pieces I started doing this work, which I will continue until the day I die 
Hoshiyar Ali

Demining experts say individual deminers like Hoshiyar Ali make the work in minefields more dangerous because they don't use scientific methods.

The area where Ali works, the border between Iran and Iraq, is particularly littered with mines after the 1980s war between the two that killed a million people. Mines claimed 14,000 victims in Iraq between 1991 and 2007, according to the U.N. Development Program.

Ali, 47, joined the Peshmerga in Iraq's semiautonomous northern Kurdish region in 1986 to help defuse mines after the death of his little brother.

"After mines ripped my brother's body to pieces I started doing this work, which I will continue until the day I die," said Ali, who is married and has two daughters and a son.

"The repeated threat of landmines exploding will not stop me. My legs were amputated in 1989 and 1994, but this increased my determination to continue moving forward and remove the last landmines from Kurdistan."

Ali keeps defused mines scattered through his home -- even in his bedroom -- in Halabja, a town made famous when dictator Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on its residents in 1988, killing some 5,000 people.

He claims to have personally cleared more than 2 million mines across 540 acres (220 hectares) of Kurdish border land since 1986. That would amount to roughly 230 mines every day for 24 years.

Though not doubting his dedication, experts are skeptical of his figures.

 The number given by Hoshiyar is exaggerated and unreasonable because he works with simple and primitive tools 
Haji Massifi

"The number given by Hoshiyar is exaggerated and unreasonable because he works with simple and primitive tools," said Haji Massifi, general director of the mines department in the Kurdistan Regional Government.

"I know Hoshiyar Ali," said Mark Thompson, technical director at Mines Advisory Group, a British humanitarian group that has cleared 60 million square meters of Iraqi land.

"However, MAG Iraq is not in a position to confirm whether his claims of the removal of more than 2 million mines are true or not."

Groups like MAG, as well as some government officials who know him, have mixed feelings about Hoshiyar Ali.

"We appreciate his efforts. We gave him his pension because he lost his legs," said Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, the government minister in charge of the Peshmerga. "But he must work more cautiously. He should work with competent mines organizations so as not to expose himself to death."

Landmines are seen as a major threat to Iraq's goal of rebuilding its war-ravaged economy and infrastructure by climbing into the top echelon of global oil producers. The government has signed a series of deals with oil majors to develop its under-utilised reserves, the world's third-largest.

The Iraqi government is aiming to clear all minefields by February 2018 in line with its obligations under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

Massifi estimates that some 20 million mines were laid in the border regions between Iraq and Iran during their 1980-88 war, including some 9 million in Kurdistan alone. He said just 10 percent of mines have been cleared.

Mines hamper efforts to rebuild roads and railways that will be crucial in aiding the transport of oil.

But while the work needs to be done, groups like MAG and Norwegian firm NGO, which have cleared millions of square metres of land, say individual deminers make their jobs more difficult.

"When we go into the minefield ... and there are people who have removed some of the mines but not all, our work becomes more difficult and dangerous because their attempts may affect the scientific removal methods we use," said Shirko Hama Rasheed, chief of NGO, a branch of Norwegian People's Aid.

Hoshiyar Ali is undeterred. Clearing landmines is his life.

"My goal behind removing the mines is to serve and save the lives of innocent people and animals," he said.

"I love mine lifting and I feel comfortable doing it. I look at these mines before I sleep and they mean more than anything in my life."

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