Feel the fear and carry on

In Iraq a growing number of women are now doing the dangerous work of removing landmines – previously a male preserve. Adrian Margaret Brune reports.

A woman in protective clothing kneels down and searches for explosive ordnance
A woman in protective clothing kneels down and searches for explosive ordnance. Credit: MAG

Landmines these days come in all kinds of different forms, buried and unburied. They range from round, plastic-cased and waterproofed VS-50 anti-personnel mines mostly used in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s; to much larger anti-tank VS-500s; to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that can be tripped in a home with the flip of a light switch or by lifting the lid of a pot on a stove.

In Iraq the landmines problem is vast. Since the early 1940s, the country has been involved in some internal conflict, mostly between the defunct kingdom and pan-Arabists, then with the Kurds, followed by a serious contest against neighbouring Iran and culminating with the two Gulf wars. But none has been as deadly as the seven-year clash of Daesh (or Islamic State) versus the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Army and, at one point, the US. ‘Iraq is a hugely contaminated country. There are still more than 1,700 kilometres-squared of minefields – an area larger than London – to clear,’ says Jack Morgan, the country director of Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a British NGO. ‘The government is about to unveil a strategy to make Iraq mine-free by 2028, but the more we survey the more [landmines] we find.’

Although demining work in Iraq had traditionally been done by men, in 2016 MAG decided to open it up to women. After all, the organization had first recruited female deminers as far back as 1995 in Cambodia.

Since then all-female and mixed teams have been hired to demine contaminated areas in Sinjar, Telafar, Hamdaniyah and other districts in the Nineveh plains previously occupied by Daesh. Work is also ongoing to clear minefields dating back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. In 2020 an open call for women to join demining teams in Mosul received 120 applications in two days. The area had been the locus of the genocidal campaign waged by Daesh against the Yazidi minority. In 2021, MAG hired the first female team in Sulaymaniyah governorate, Kurdistan. ‘Women are not treated any differently; they have the same courses, same equipment and same supervision as the men,’ says Morgan.

‘Be aware of every step’

For the women involved it is a life-changing experience to be doing work that is as essential as that done by the male deminers. ‘Women are incredibly detail-oriented and conscientious,’ says Sahar, 27, as she appears on a video call in a tan hijab and black fur-lined puffer jacket after a day’s work. ‘Out in the field, you must be able to concentrate – be aware of every step – because if you make the wrong one, you could lose your life or cause another person to lose theirs.’ Sahar was an eight-year-old girl when the US invaded Iraq to push out Saddam Hussein. She hardly remembers the era – aside from playing games in her Mosul neighbourhood. These days, she is up at 3.00am to arrive at the MAG base at 5.00am, where she gathers the day’s remit. She and her mixed-gender team of 14 drive together to the contamination site, where they don their camo-patterned personal protective equipment, flak jackets and helmets and pick up mine detectors to begin clearing the site. Work ends around 2.00pm.

‘Every day, I have a lot of feelings,’ say Sahar. ‘Sometimes I feel fear, but I just forget it. I think of the people that I save when I go in. I am making a living for my family. I feel like we are superwomen and supermen to save people’s lives – to save my country.’

The Directorate for Mine Action (DMA) in Iraq has set an ambitious schedule during this period of relative stability and, despite the level of contamination, wants the country cleared of mines by 2028. Demining is supervised by two main authorities: the DMA is in charge in federal Iraq, while the Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency (IKMAA) covers the Kurdistan region. Daesh is ‘down, but not out’, according to Morgan, and continues to place more mines and IEDs, as well as launch attacks against the Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces. Countrywide lockdowns, curfews and movement restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a slowing of the demining pace in 2020.

Whoever puts mines in the ground, or puts any explosive where an unsuspecting person can trip it, is merciless’

But more donor funding became available in 2021, after a lull of four years, and MAG keeps hiring. Sanarya, 28, a deminer in Sulaymaniyah, who grew up near a minefield, joined in August, trading in her job at a medical lab for the field. Since completing her four-week training in late September, she has helped clear a number of mortar bombs left over from the Iran-Iraq war, as well as Italian-made Valmaras and V69 bounding fragmentation mines – mines that shoot spikes or shrapnel.

‘When I was approved for the training, my mom was really hesitant to give me the green light,’ says Sanarya, ‘but my father was a big supporter and convinced her.

‘I know what it’s like to live near bombs – not only how it affects people’s safety, but also their quality of life. They are afraid to leave their homes or go to nice places. Whoever puts mines in the ground, or puts any explosive where an unsuspecting person can trip it, is merciless.’

Despite can-do attitudes, a proven work record and the ‘excitement they bring to the field as trail-blazers’, Morgan acknowledges that the work is long, arduous and – at times – traumatic. ‘That said, many of MAG’s deminers have worked with the organization for several decades, and I hope that Sanarya and Sahar will remain for the long term.’

Sahar says that she ‘loves this kind of job and will be in it to the end, until all the mines are gone in Iraq’. But she also acknowledges societal pressure for women to marry, have babies and give up work outside the home. ‘In Middle Eastern societies women find it hard to proceed with their jobs – they need the permission of their fathers and the support of the family,’ she says. ‘Women need to get a stronger position in society.’ Sanarya reflects this when she talks about her future, saying: ‘It’s important [for me] to stay in the job now, so if I have to leave some day, it will have inspired other women to do it.’