Mountain minefield rescue at night in Iraqi-Kurdistan
I couldn’t leave him there. He was going to die.
Over a hubbly bubbly and sweet chay in Dohuk this week I met Faris Zubair Ali – a highly experienced deminer and Operations Manager for the Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency.
My co-producers Karlos Zurutuza and Borja Portuondo had interviewed Faris and his team at work in 2007, but his extraordinary account of a minefield rescue on a mountain at night had us sitting up in our seats and drawing back hard on the shisha.
At around 9pm on November 23, 2008, Faris was called by local civil defence authorities in Dohuk seeking his help. Four hours earlier, two teenage shepherds had unknowingly walked into a minefield near the village of Bagera. They were cousins. One lad had stepped on a landmine – it killed him severing his legs and injured his cousin in the back. The mine was an Italian made Valmara 69. This bounding fragmentation landmine contains 500 grams of explosives and 1400 pieces of shrapnel.
By the time Faris and two other deminers reached a trail leading to minefield it was well and truly dark. Emergency services had lit a fire to guide them up the mountain – rugged stoney terrain with a lot of low bushes.
When they reached the minefield Faris and his team took stock of the situation. Time was critical and they only had one metal detector between them.
By torchlight, the deminers cleared a path to the injured boy – 150 metres long and one metre wide – within an hour. To put that in context, a team of deminers in daylight and under good weather conditions can clear 20-30 metres in about six hours.
We were not following standard procedures. We were not following our own rules. It was an emergency.
Deminers never work at night and avoid working in areas where they have not surveyed or conducted a reconnaissance. Faris said that they decided not to use protective clothing as it would slow them down.
The deminers used sticks to mark the cleared lane and whatever was at hand to mark the mines. At first they were able to mark the location of mines and move around them. But as they edged closer to the injured shepherd, Faris had to disarm and remove mines to make the area safer for the paramedics.
Along the path they cleared, the team found five different types of landmines. They had to remove seven mines linked to trip wires, including a mine underneath the injured boy’s arm. Faris says it was fortunate that the boy had a spinal injury that prevented him from moving too much.
Faris gave me video footage shot on a mobile phone by a rescuer accompanying the deminers. It’s quite rough and sometimes the camera was held the wrong way but this clip shows the conditions and Faris working quickly to disarm and remove a mine.
Extraordinary. Brave. The injured boy survived and Faris said he is slowly making a recovery.
These photos taken after the accident show the area where the boys encountered the mines and the path cleared though the minefield.
Faris told me the boys and their family moved to Bagera from Mosul and were unfamiliar with the local terrain. Yes, they had received MRE – minefield risk education training – but as I found out in Georgia last year, sometimes the lessons about the dangers of landmines are sadly learnt the hard way.