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Iran: Hidden Menace of "Iron Soldiers"

By Mahdi Afruzmanesh, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)


Nearly four years ago, Ali Haq was playing near his home in the western Iranian province of Ilam when an explosion left him disabled for life. Now 11, Ali Haq has to cope with life with one leg and one eye, and deal with the daily expressions of sympathy - and occasional mockery too - from his classmates, teachers and relatives.


Born long after the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Ali Haq nevertheless counts as a victim of that devastating conflict.


His home in the village of Firuz Abad lies close to the border with Iraq and was in the zone of territory heavily strewn with landmines. Two decades on, millions of these deadly devices are still there - and it was one of them that injured Ali Haq.


He is just one of thousands of children injured by unexploded munitions left behind in the war zone. It is estimated that 10,000 people have died in mine blasts in the last 14 years alone.


Iranians call the unexploded mines "iron soldiers", buried weapons waiting in the ground to kill or maim a curious child, a farmer or a careless passer-by.


There are an estimated 110 million landmines in 64 countries of the world, and according to the trauma research centre at the Sina Hospital in Tehran, Iran's share is 16 million - a huge proportion of the total.


That puts Iran in second place, after Afghanistan, for the number of unexploded landmines. Egypt follows in third place.


Iran is also among the seven countries with the highest number of casualties of mine explosions, the others being Iraq, Cambodia, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Columbia and Angola.


On a visit to mined areas of Iran in November 2004, the head of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, Stephen Nellan, said the volume of mines in the country was beyond compare.


According to the former secretary of the country's National Demining Committee, General Hossein Vaziri, the Iranian government would need 300 billion tomans, or 324 million US dollar, to clear mined areas completely.


The main provinces affected are Khuzestan, Ilam, West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Kermanshah, all in the frontline zone of the war with Iraq.


As Vaziri said, "The landmines have made two million hectares of land unusable and dangerous."


The Mine Clearing Collaboration Association, an active non-government group, estimates that there are an average of 2.2 cases a day where individuals are left permanently disabled by landmines.


The current head of the official Demining Committee, Brigadier-General Murtaza Habibi, says that as a result of government measures, the latest figures indicated that this casualty rate had fallen to 1.5 a day.


As in other countries with large numbers of landmines in the soil, a substantial proportion of fatalities and injuries involve children who come across a mine while playing, or women who are out farming the land. Often the villages they live in are remote and poorly provided for, so casualties have to make a long journey to get to hospital and some die on the way.


A study conducted about six years ago by the University for the War Disabled, an average of 7,000 mines have exploded annually over the last 16 years. Ninety-five per cent of the casualties were civilians.


Demining in any country is a costly and time-consuming business. In Iran, though, international politics have added to the problems - not least because sanctions make it harder to bring in the right equipment.


"Not having access to the latest available technology for identifying and neutralising mines has created a host of difficulties for Iranian deminers," said Shirin Ebadi, the noted human rights activist who set up and now runs the Mine Clearing Collaboration Association,


She noted also that demining is made more complex because even after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iran and Iraq have not yet exchanged maps of the minefields they laid during the war.


It should cost between 300 and 500 dollars to make a landmine safe. In Iran, however, this can rise as high as 1,000 dollars because of the obstacles to importing modern technology, the lack of maps, and the fact that landmines may have shifted position over the years.


The defence ministry currently has overall responsibility for mine-clearing, but has devolved some of the work to seven private companies.


Brig-Gen Habibi, who is in charge of the Demining Committee and is also deputy head of the ministry's engineering department, says the international community has tended to ignore Iran.


"International organisations have not paid the required attention towards Iranian minefields, and do not do so now," he said. "And this is despite the United Nation's statement that Iran is far more hard-hit by landmines than its neighbour Afghanistan."


Habibi conceded that the Iranian authorities used to view the landmine problem as a security issue, and this made it difficult for both domestic and international non-government groups to get involved.


Now, though, he said, "Our view has changed, and we are also waiting for a change of view from international and human rights organisations."


He added that as part of new plans to reduce the number of mine casualties, monthly training and education programmes were being run in frontier areas, in conjunction with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Iranian Red Crescent,.


The training is designed to familiarise people with the various types of landmines they might encounter, and their relative risks.


Mostafa Salimi, who worked in demining during the war with Iraq and is currently using these skills with a non-government group, explains that the classes teach children not to go near, let alone enter, areas where there are warning signposts.


It may be too late, but Ali Haq is among the children attending the classes, although he says he does not understand much.


About the author: Mehdi Afroozmanesh is a freelance journalist in Tehran.


This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.


About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

... Payvand News - 06/17/08 ... --

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