Kurdistan's 'Reckless' Deminer
Kurdistan’s ‘Reckless’ Deminer
SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQ - A dust cloud trails behind a metallic grey, Kia Sportage as it meanders along a rocky dirt road toward the last town on this thoroughfare before reaching the Iraq-Iran border.
People walk along the road, waving at independent landmine deminer Hoshyar Ali as he drives by, recognizing him by the red flag on his antenna, indicating the vehicle is transporting explosives, and by the stickers of various landmines adhered to his vehicle.
The vehicle comes to a stop beside a mosque, an area where Ali cleared more 750,000 landmines and unexploded ordnances, in the town formerly known as Kuri Gapla. The town now bears a new name, Hoshyari Village, to honor Ali for all he did, including losing his left leg in the area in 1994, to clear the valley of explosives. The village isn’t the only place that carries his name, the village’s mosque bears his name too, so does a police station, a hospital, a school and a valley.
Ali is a local legend.
“Everywhere I go people give me free stuff,“ he said. “I rarely pay for gas and people give me free things.”
Even those critical of his work style admire him.
“He’s a very good person,” Imam Kamarin Ali Namiq, a landmine survivor who lost both arms while working as a deminer for MAG, a non-governmental organization working internationally to remove unexploded ordnances afflicting various countries. “He loves what he does but he’s reckless at the same time. If he was better organized, it could help more.”
By Ali’s own account, he’s cleared 104 villages, rescued 182 people from minefields, demined 540 square kilometers of land, taught landmine awareness to at least 700 schools and rendered safe more than 2.5 million landmines and unexploded ordnances, many of those he cleared as a double amputee having lost his right leg to an Italian landmine in January 1989, from Kurdistan, an autonomous region in Iraq, “one of the most contaminated countries by landmines and explosive remnants of war,” according to a report by ReliefWeb, a humanitarian information service provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
He’s also sacrificed and lost much during his pursuit to make Kurdistan safer. Not only was his eldest son killed when his son went demining with Ali, multiple family members have also been killed. His brother Mukhtar Ali and cousin Bamo were killed, and his cousin Faisal and brother Rebwar Ali, were injured when an Italian Valmara 69 landmine exploded on July 14, 1992. Rebwar maintained his limbs but lost his left eye.
Farmer Mahmoud Ahmed, a handsome man with short black hair and a short black beard, dressed in a button-up, white shirt, sleeves rolled up above his elbows arrives on his motorcycle from Tazaday, a neighboring village across the valley. With a welcoming smile he reaches through Hoshyar’s open window, greeting him with a handshake. Ali cleared Ahmed’s 7,000 square meters of land when Ali cleared the valley.
“Before he cleared it, no one could use this road, it was a minefield,” Ahmed said, pointing down the road then across the valley. “Now you see there’s a farm, electricity, it’s a village [again] and the people came back.”
“I feel like we own the land, because of him we are going back to work and doing agriculture,” he said, smiling warmly again while pointing to Ali with both his hands. “He does [demining] for free and helps people. You can not pay back to this person, everything we pay is not enough.”
A few minutes later Ali is on the road again, heading to a village near Penjwen District, where a farmer called Ali after losing 13 livestock, killed by landmines.
Sweat trickles down Ali’s face in random streams from his ink black hair and across his smooth cheeks as he navigates another uneven dirt road. The vehicle tilts from side to side as he drives by green watermelon fields, guarded by scarecrows with buckets for heads. Other fields, like the field the roadway vanishes into, are golden and brown.
Ali, a stocky man wearing an olive drab shirt with matching pants, exits his vehicle with the help of his cane, masking his athletic history.
“I was really good at football, they called me ‘the rocket,’ I was the fastest,” he said earlier, speaking of his youth. “I wish I could get a smart prosthetic so I can play football again.”
The vegetation crunches beneath his prosthetics with every step, the plants lost their moisture long before the day’s dry, 39 degree air hits like a furnace’s breath.
Up the mountainside, the farmer appears in a white pick-up truck, he forges his own path as he makes his way down toward Ali.
Ali pops open the rear door as his younger brother, Rizgar Ali, exits Hoshyar’s vehicle holding an AK-47, serving no functional purpose for demining, with his left hand. Hoshyar opens the rear door, revealing a metal detector to find hidden explosives and a landmine cache he removed the detonators from. He keeps the landmines in his vehicle as photo props for when people want a picture with him.
Hoshyar climbs into the farmer’s passenger seat while his brother grasps the tailgate and clambers over the edge, taking his place on the truck’s bed with the rifle and metal detector at his feet. The vehicle lurches forward, carrying the men up the unmarked path the farmer came down toward a shady tree grove near a brook, Hoshyar’s vehicle no longer in sight, and parks on a dirt road, which dog-legs left from the route they ascended on, that continues going uphill.
The truck comes to a halt, sheltered from the sun by the trees’ shade. All aboard dismount.
Hoshyar, holding his cane with his right hand, leaning on his brother with his left, laboriously makes his way up the dirt road following the farmer, who stops at a clearing about 150 meters up the hill. The farmer points to a bundled barbed-wire heap, one of several signs indicating landmines may be present, about 15 meters away, and Hoshyar surveys the hillside.
A few minutes later the group descends down the hill, passing the truck, continuing another another 10 meters further and approach a spot where the small stream is now visible in the shade.
Hoshyar and his brother edge closer to the water, stopping on rocks large enough to stand on. Rocks are safe places, but the dirt around the rocks are places landmines may be hidden by vegetation or buried beneath the ground. They check for trip wires, then Hoshyar, now wearing earplugs connected to the metal detector, begins sweeping the ground from left to right and back again, his trained ears knowing which frequencies indicate danger. He cautiously makes his way across the brook, metal detector in one hand, cane in the other, and disappears from sight. His brother follows.
About 15 minutes later, between a break in the leaves and branches, Hoshyar emerges propped up against a tree branch he cannot step over. He lifts a prosthetic leg from beneath him, meticulously placing it on the other side of the tree limb, his other prosthetic leg still attached, hidden by the trees. He pulls himself onto the branch and repeats the process, then hops down, rejoining his prosthetics, and disappears again, occasionally appearing between the bushes and trees.
Suddenly, Hoshyar shouts, signaling he found a landmine to the farmer across the brook. The farmer looks but Hoshyar’s actions are hidden, obstructed by vegetation and dark shadows. An occasional glimmer shining off the polished metal detonators in Hoshyar’s hand are all to be seen.
Minutes later Rizgar reappears from the trees near the brook, retracing the path he safely navigated into the minefield, carrying the Italian Valmara 69 landmine Hoshyar successfully rendered safe.
“I think about everyone I save,” Hoshyar said earlier about how he feels with each explosive eliminated. “Not only the people, but also the animals.”
Hoshyar appears again further downstream and the group make their way to the truck. Their work is only temporarily done, Hoshyar needs to come back and start at the top of the hill, he said.
They return to the truck, ride to Hoshyar’s vehicle where he places the landmine with the other landmines in the back, and make their goodbyes. The farmer thanks Hoshyar, then Hoshyar and Rizgar load into the Kia and drive to Penjwen for tea.
They’re sip their scalding hot, black tea at a teahouse when Peshawa Hares, a 25 year old slender man with a scruffy beard from the nearby village, Serdera, tells Hoshyar about the abandoned rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells on his property. They finish their tea and Hares joins the Ali brothers in Hoshyar’s vehicle and begin the journey to Hares’ farm.
Hoshyar’s SUV comes to a stop, parking beneath a tree. The three exit the vehicle, Hoshyar takes a spot in the cooling shade and sits, Hares and Rizgar follow the dirt road until they reach where the road T’s, then turn right, keeping a field green with vegetation at their right, and at their left a dirt and rock embankment separating them from an elevated field. They walk parallel to the berm for about 150 meters and take a sharp left, heading uphill again until they reach a cliff about three meters high. Hares points out the safest way and they scramble down the rocky face. At the bottom is a small, defensive rockwall, leftover from the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, that runs parallel to the cliff about a meter away. They take calculated steps, carefully placing each foot on the wall, avoiding the minefield beyond the defensive position.
Haphazardly placed at the wall’s end are more than a dozen RPGs and mortar shells. Rizgar examines the war remnants as Hares watches. Then, almost as quickly as they arrive, they retrace their steps, climb the cliff, and leave the explosives behind.
They detour on their return to Hoshyar, choosing to walk above the embankment until they reach a shrub. Hares points to the base where four mortar shells are hidden. Rizgar hands one to Hares and carries the remaining three.
Back at the vehicle, Hoshyar examines the unexploded ordnances his brother recovered, then places them with his other landmines.
“I’ll come back after Eid,” Hoshyar says, speaking about when he’ll remove the other explosives while referring to Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday occuring about two months after Ramadan.
The men climb back into the Hoshyar’s Kia and drive toward Penjwen. Before they leave Serdera, a middle-aged man with a moustache waves Hoshyar down. The two men greet and shake hands before the man tells Hoshyar about a landmine that washed down from a nearby mountain top, an area Hoshyar says he cannot demine without a helicopter, during the last heavy rainstorm.
Hoshyar remains in the vehicle, chatting with the man while Rizgar disappears on the man’s property, returning a few minutes later, holding an Italian VS-50 anti-personnel landmine in his left hand. He has the landmine’s detonator in his pocket.
The man thanks Hoshyar, and the Kia drives away, creating a dust cloud that obscures Hoshyar’s bumper-sticker warning to landmines, “I am ready to eradicate you where [sic] ever you are.”
“I just do this for God,” Hoshyar said earlier at his home. “I will keep doing demining until I get too old to keep doing it, but hopefully I will do it until [I die].”