How to Stay Safe and Avoid Mines in Northern Aleppo
Investigations Team – Enab Baladi
Not a day goes by that the medical and relief organizations working in the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo do not announce the death or injury of a number of civilians by exploding mines scattered in farmland and by the side of public roads.
Since the beginning of their entry into the “war” taking place on Syrian territory, ISIS has relied on two military weapons. The first consists of using plans and tactics that confuse its opponents. The second weapon is more deadly and has affected not only fighters but also civilians. Its deadly effects continue even after ISIS has left the areas it previously controlled.
In this report, Enab Baladi aims to inform people in northern Aleppo of the types of mines widely deployed in their area, how dangerous they are and how to detect them, as well as the procedures that civilians must follow in order to avoid being exposed to them and reduce the number of casualties and deaths.
This report also provides contact information for those responsible for dismantling and removing mines. If you suspect a mine is present, you can speak to those responsible at the Mine Clearance Center, which is in charge of removing mines, alongside military commanders and medical and emergency relief organizations.
There are no accurate statistics on those who are injured and killed by mines and weapons left behind in the region by the war but Enab Baladi obtained figures for the city of al-Bab and its countryside alone, which has the largest share of victims.
According to the statistics produced by Ambulance Without Borders, an organization operating in the region, there were 77 civilians in the city who were killed by mines after ISIS left, including six women and eight children. In addition, more than 100 were wounded and more than 200,000 people risk being injured by mines that remain in the city.
Haitham: A victim of ISIS’ “traps”
The young Haitham refused to talk to Enab Baladi, held back by fear and shame. The injury he suffered while he with his father in their farm, which they had returned to after ISIS left the village of Sawran, has made him withdrawn and shy. The incident left him totally paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, which his brothers take turns pushing to help Haitham move around the rooms of their house and to the toilet.
Haitham did not think that a stroll with his father would be his last but his is not the only such case. He is only one of dozens of children in the area who have become the main victims and targets these killing machines. They risk death when playing, on the way to school, and while walking around in their neighborhoods.
Mahmoud Abu Ahmed, Haitham’s father, recounted the incident that took place in Sawran after they returned. A landmine, which they did not see buried in the ground, exploded while they were plowing the land. They were both taken to Turkey for treatment.
Abu Ahmed told Enab Baladi, “My son’s leg was amputated, and his other leg was seriously injured. He can no longer walk or move”. He added, “We didn’t notice the mine when plowing the land. ISIS planted it very deep inside the ground, in a way that made it hard to be seen by the naked eye, so that you are surprised when it suddenly explodes.”
Haitham’s father also suffered severe injuries to his right hand, paralyzing It completely. The mine that hit them contained big explosive materials and steel fragments that were scattered wide during the explosion.
Abu Ahmed called on specialist organizations to help his son, “My paralyzed son cannot go to the bathroom by himself. He’s been deprived of going to school, playing with his friends in the neighborhood and of all his rights.”
How to stay safe
Enab Baladi posed several questions to Ghiyath Ahmed, Director of Community Services at the Fi Aydi Amina Demining Center. The questions focused on advice for civilians to help them avoid the dangers of mines as well as what they should do if they notice any unknown object they suspect to be a mine.
Ahmed explained that the first step that a civilian must follow is to “collect information from people nearby and residents before going to any area, as well as keeping children away from suspected areas and teaching them to walk on the pavement and paved roads.”
He also advised “staying away from any suspicious or unknown object, placing a sign to mark the suspicious area and keeping children away from the area for a radius of at least one kilometer, in addition to immediately communicating with the Center’s staff”.
In addition, he advised people to “be sure that the area is completely clean of mines before entering it and, as far as possible, to seek ample information about the area through local councils, for example, and friends and neighbors.”
The Center has held workshops in dozens of areas in northern Syria. After the withdrawal of ISIS in October 2016, they completely cleared the town of Akhtarin and, in cooperation with the local council, declared it to be safe and clean of mines. Villagers returned and the land was sown again after being cleaned of around 400 mines.
The Center’s work to date has covered various areas of the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib including Tilalyan, Maree, Kafr Kalbin, the outskirts of Jarabulus, the city of al-Bab and its rural outskirts, in addition to other villages and towns outside the control of ISIS.
The Commander-in-Chief of the National Police and Security Service in northern Aleppo, Brigadier-General Abdul Razaq Aslan, stressed what the Center’s director had said. When interviewed by Enab Baladi, he asked civilians to “inform the police of any foreign object they might notice in the area and warn children not to play with foreign objects”.
He explained that the mines are buried at a shallow level and can be seen with the naked eye, “which calls for immediately reporting the issue to police stations which can be found in all towns, who in turn will tell the mine clearance team to extract the mines and completely demine the area”.
In addition, the Commander-in-Chief cautioned against “walking in suspected areas. We have to keep away from roads that have not been approved and cleared, and to be suspicious of anything that has unusual wires”.
He emphasized the importance of “collecting all information about the area that you want to travel to, paying attention to warning signs displayed on public roads.”
In the last few months, the villages and towns of the northern and eastern parts of Aleppo have experienced significant urban movement, after these areas were fully secured. This has been accompanied by agricultural movement in areas that were not cultivated when ISIS was in control, followed by the current harvest season.
The Center’s director added, “When digging and carrying out construction and digging canals, you have to be careful. If you notice anything strange, you should stop working and evacuate the area and inform local institutions immediately.”
The Civil Defense organization had a similar message. Haitham Jaber, a senior official in the civil defense teams in the northern countryside of Aleppo, called on civilians not to approach the suspect blocks or objects before informing the Civil Defense, which will undertake the task of clearing the area and dismantling any objects. If it is an explosive mine, they will do this in cooperation with mine clearance teams.”
He pointed out that ” mines have been placed in all kinds of places that you wouldn’t even think of, such as in household utensils, for example”. He pointed out that there is “joint cooperation with the Center for Mine Clearance and military officers in Free Army factions”.
Keep in touch with mines clearance teams via WhatsApp and handheld transceivers
When spotting a suspicious foreign object that they fear might be a mine, civilians can communicate with the teams at the Mine Clearance Center. Ghiyath Ahmed emphasized this and explained that “any complaint concerning mines and explosive devices must be communicated by residents to the local council, which in turn communicates immediately with the Center and identifies the name and location of the person, which then sends a specialized team.”
He added, “Our main objective is to be at the service of civilians but given the danger of mines and of the liberated area in question, ISIS might have sleeper cells in the area, so we only accept complaints from official bodies such as the local council and the free police, in addition to the judiciary and courts.”
The dedicated telephone numbers that can be called immediately upon suspicion of any foreign object are 00905385649464 and 00905356645350. These phone numbers have been disseminated widely through brochures and promotions in the cities that were targeted by awareness campaigns.
He continued, “If there is a breakdown in the telecommunications network, we communicate via means of handheld transceivers, which are spread throughout the region and by those in charge of local councils whose offices are spread throughout the villages and towns of the countryside of northern Aleppo.”
The Center’s teams work hard to always be present in civilian gatherings, especially in demonstrations and celebrations. According to the community services director, they try “to work in absolute secrecy and contribute, through their expertise, to the protection and assistance of civilians.”
In addition, the Center’s officer in charge of mine clearance in the city of al-Bab, Younis Amin, noted that “the team is in a permanent state of readiness” and welcomed any requests from affected civilians.
He identified the areas in which mines are most heavily present in northern Aleppo. They are concentrated in the front lines where former ISIS fighters were located and the homes they occupied, which he considers to be one of the most dangerous places for civilians.
He pointed out that it is unadvisable to enter homes suddenly. Instead, it is advisable to examine the corners of all doors, since ISIS tended to plant mines behind doors, and to beware of foreign objects such as wires and cables, wires that contain many nodes or anything out of place like large plastic and jute bags placed anywhere inside the house or outside.
Five types of mines you should be aware of
According to Enab Baladi’s sources, more than 50 people were killed by mines near the city of al-Bab before the Syrian regime took control of the area and evicted ISIS on 23 February.
Enab Baladi has listed below the most common types of mines used by ISIS, based on information obtained from mine clearance teams:
This is a mine in the form of two rulers, one on top of the other, connected to an explosive device and placed between the house door and frame. It explodes as soon as the door is opened and “causes immediate death”.
This is a necklace of beads that explodes as soon as someone touches or stands on it. It may contain more than one knot and its explosion range reaches 80 centimeters. It is used to target children and women in particular.
The laser is in the form of a lens that explodes as soon as someone passes behind it. It is the most dangerous type of mine.
It operates through a light sensor that gives a signal to explode the mine as soon as someone passes in front of the laser lens, or allows it to be detonated remotely. Its danger lies in the fact that it is difficult to detect.
ISIS makes stone mines, which explode as soon as they are touched or after the electric wire connected to them is touched.
ISIS relies heavily on the well-known “doussa” mine, which explodes when someone walks over it. It is usually covered with dirt or hidden in the ground.
In addition, there are other types of mines that could be seen as comical and tragic at the same time, such as cans of water containing toxic substances and explosives. The detonator is placed under the cover and it explodes immediately after opening. It is not as deadly as the above types of mines but is poisonous as it burns the face and can contain acid or chlorine.
What to do in the first hours of an injury?
Civilian injuries caused by the explosive remnants of war vary depending on the type of exploded mine and the range of explosion. Injuries range from from shrapnel that spreads throughout the body to serious cases such as amputation and permanent bleeding.
Despite the spread of a number of medical Centers in the villages and towns of the northern countryside of Aleppo, their range of work is narrow, especially in terms of immediate emergency care. This represents a significant threat to the lives of civilians who suffer serious injuries.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, the Director of Training and Rehabilitation at Ambulances without Borders operating in the northern countryside of Aleppo, Alaa al-Hattab, presented several pieces of advice must be followed and implemented immediately after being injured by an explosion, pointing out that they can help save civilian’s lives.
Al-Hattab advised that “if hearing is damaged by the sound of an explosion and the ear starts to bleed, the head must be immediately lowered to let the blood out. Then, the injured person must be transferred to the nearest treatment Center.” He added that this kind of injury requires immediate rest.
The medical officer explained that in the case of a slight injury caused by shrapnel, “no foreign object should be removed from the body. A simple band-aid must be applied and the victim must be transferred to the nearest medical Center. In case of a deep injury and injury to large areas, the same steps must be followed and a band-aid must be applied until the bleeding stops completely”.
Ambulance without Borders is a medical organization founded in May 2013 by a group of young volunteers and supported by a number of traders in the northern countryside of Aleppo, as well as some relief organizations operating in the region.
It mainly operates in al-Bab city and its countryside. Emergency services are provided to civilians on a daily basis by a team of paramedics with medical and emergency care experience, a consultant doctor and medical staff to monitor the situation of patients at home.
First aid for deep injuries
The organization’s medical officer explained the steps that should be followed in an amputation, “The amputated limb should immediately be cut off from the rest of the body by firmly tying the upper area of the amputation with any kind of strap, except for rubber, and lifting the tip up”. This helps the bleeding to stop until the victim is transferred to a medical Center.
However, head, neck or spine injuries are treated differently. The injured person should not be moved, unless there is an emergency, and compresses should be placed on the injury. The victim should then be transferred with care or by a trained instructor to the nearest medical Center.
Abdominal injuries should be cleaned immediately. If the intestines have been exposed, a wet medical bandage should be placed and the victim’s legs should be folded towards the abdomen.
Hattab spoke about many injuries related to different types of bone fractures in every part of the body, which must be treated with caution. As a first step, the broken bone should not be moved or returned to its natural position. The fracture must then be fixed as it is.
Family views and responses are an important part of psychological treatment
Mines and the weapons left behind by war have effects that extend for many years, with civilians increasingly becoming mere numbers on the lists of victims or persons with permanent disabilities caused by limb amputation or deformities, which can reach the loss of one of the five senses.
Ramiza al-Sheikh, a psychologist at Syria’s Bright Future, told Enab Baladi, “During the six years of the Syrian crisis, children have suffered the most. In addition to losing their regular routines (safety, family, school and friends), which contribute to their psychological stability, they have suffered physical damage as a result of the bombing or the explosion of mines and remnants of war. They have lost a limb or been paralyzed, and later suffered a temporary or permanent disability, depending on the type and the degree of the injury.”
The psychologist, who is a specialist in promoting psychosocial well-being and providing mental health services continued, “The psychological impact of this loss is great and cannot be ignored, as it starts with the child feeling lost and disabled. He sees himself as different from other children and unable to do the simplest activities that his peers can do. He looks at other children racing or playing ball with eyes filled with sadness and sorrow. A lot of injured children suffer from anxiety and fear of the future, which they are constantly thinking about”.
Al-Sheikh explained that injured children “may be in a bad mood, undergo a period of depression and a sense of hopelessness, and feel that they lack value because they cannot be like others. They may also suffer from sleep disorders and recurrent nightmares”. She added, “It has been observed that injured children may refuse to talk about the traumatic incident and avoid remembering it and sharing their feelings with others because it brings them fear and anxiety. These are symptoms of mental disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which are experienced by children who have been subject to violent trauma”.
The psychologist pointed out that “children’s response to such harsh life events and their adaptation to them are linked to several factors, including the age of the child, his individual character, the intensity of the event and the support he receives from his surroundings, especially his family”.
The child’s positive adaptation to these difficult events is linked to his own view of himself, of the future and of others and especially to the way his parents see him after the incident. Many parents reinforce the frustration and helplessness of their children when they consider him to be helpless and vice versa.
According to the specialist, parents are put under a great deal of pressure as a result of their child’s injury, including psychological pressure (grief over their child’s condition and concern about his future) and material pressure (providing treatment for children and artificial limbs, etc.). This negatively affects the type of support they provide to their children. In order to help them better adapt to the new situation, rehabilitation services should be provided equally at the psychological and medical level in a coordinated way.
Fi Aydi Amina: A new Center working to remove mines and remnants of war
The Syrian Mine Action Center (SMAC) operates the first organized campaigns to remove mines and the remnants of war from cities and towns in northern Syria. It has more than 50 active volunteers who work to demine and educate people about the dangers of mines through five programs, the most prominent of which is a project to destroy weapons stockpiles.
The Center was established in 2015 in the city of Azaz in the province of Aleppo as a youth initiative and includes activists from Aleppo and Idlib. It emerged following the retreat of ISIS at the hands of Free Army factions in different regions in northern Syria, and the appearance of the problem of mines and a “complete lack” of solutions to this problem.
At the end of last year, the initiative became a working system called the Syrian Center for Mine Action and War Remnants, after consistent policies, standards and programs were established by the Center’s operators, in line with programs run by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS).
The Center is currently working in cooperation with civic institutions in northern Syria, including 50 local councils in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Lattakia, as well as the Civil Defense, the Ambulance and Rehabilitation Committee in Aleppo and the National Police.
Five programs were developed in order to deal with the remnants of war in liberated areas, namely rapid response services and assistance to local residents, mine clearance, education on the dangers of mines, mine victim support, and destruction of weapons stockpiles, which is the only program to be implemented to date.
The Mine Action Center relies on one type of device in order to detect explosives, which is intended for metal detection but not explosives. This means that it is difficult to detect mines recently planted by ISIS inside plastic containers.
The Center is also facing several difficulties, the biggest of which is the lack of funding, especially in the current period when the Center’s senior staff are trying to turn it into a team with a similar structure to that of the Civil Defense. However, they were surprised by the prices of some equipment, with one mine disposal suit costing 3,000 dollars or more at times.
According to Ahmed, one of the Center’s senior staff, “The Center is facing a lobby led by Bashar al-Jaafari (the Syrian ambassador to the UN), who is pressing the United Nations to stop the funding of clothing and equipment for demining operations.”
Concerning the programs proposed within the Center’s workplan, Ghiyath Ahmed, an official at the Fi Aydi Amina Center, referred to ongoing efforts and discussions with several organizations that fit artificial limbs and conduct difficult and precise surgical procedures, in order to obtain moral and psychological support for the injured and victims of the remnants of war.
He added that the Center had reported the names of 70 victims so far to international organizations and the Turkish Government, including the full name of the person, the place of residence and the degree of injury. The Center was also able to carry out 11 eye surgeries.
According to Ahmed, the Mine Action Center is based on personal efforts and small-scale communication. The Center’s senior staff are currently working on a census of all mine victims and are coordinating with Relief International to sign a joint memorandum in order to establish a program for these victims.