Due to the intensity of the bombing in Syria, experts estimate that it will take at least 30 years to clear areas contaminated with high concentrations of explosive remnants of war. To avoid further casualties and permit rebuilding and development, removing these explosives is essential. Handicap International’s regional coordinator for action on mines and explosive remnants of war, Emmanuel Sauvage, tells us more.
How serious is the problem caused by explosive remnants of war in Syria?
I’ve been doing humanitarian work for 22 years, and worked in conflict zones in Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, and many other places, but I have never seen anything on the scale of the massive destruction in Syria.
Mostar in Bosnia was besieged for 36 months between 1992 and 1995, and it caused an appalling loss of life and the destruction of the historic center and several buildings. By comparison, in Kobani, Syria, almost the entire city was demolished after just four months of fighting and bombing.
The conflict in Syria has already lasted for five years, and the level of brutality and destruction is hard to grasp. Humanitarian organizations can access Kobani because its on the border with Turkey, but we have very little information about what’s going on further inside Syria, because it’s impossible to access the areas that have been bombed. We can only guess that what we have seen in Kobani is representative of what’s going on in other parts of the country.
The country’s major cities—Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo—have been or still are affected by fighting between government forces and armed groups, in addition to the bombing by the international coalition led by the Americans or by the Russian air force. A significant proportion of bombs do not explode on impact and are embedded in the ground or in buildings. We can safely assume that these cities will have a high density of explosive remnants which will pose a threat to civilians in highly populated urban areas.
Many rural areas have suffered the same fate due to constant fighting between a multitude of armed groups. It is likely, then, that the Syrian countryside will never be entirely cleared of weapons, just like parts of northern and eastern France and Belgium, where shells left over from World War I and II are still found every year.
If the conflict were to end today, how long would it take to remove and destroy all of the explosive remnants of war in Syria?
The international community will have to launch an unprecedented clearance operation in Syria. It will probably take more than 30 years to eliminate the risk entirely. Clearance operations are essential because they allow people to move back to their cities, homes and fields.
We can’t start weapons clearance in Syria until the hostilities have ended. To use the example of Bosnia again, only half of the country has been cleared of explosive remnants despite 20 years of clearance operations and the investment of a lot of resources. More than 500,000 Bosnians are still affected by the problem of landmines and unexploded devices. According to the Bosnian authorities, there are still an estimated 120,000 explosive remnants of war in the country.
What’s unusual about the conflict in Syria is the use of improvised explosive devices by armed groups and government forces. The charges used in these improvised devices are a lot higher than those used in conventional anti-personnel landmines. The protection equipment worn by landmine clearance experts is useless against these improvised devices. So we need to change our clearance techniques.
The aspect that’s going to make clearance much harder is the existence of “multiple layers of explosives” in urban areas affected by the conflict. A study we conducted in Kobani in April 2015, found an average of ten munitions per square meter in the city center. We will need to deactivate a first layer of bombs, before we get to the first layer of rubble, under which there is a potential additional layer of explosive devices. This will place our clearance experts in a very dangerous position and the clearance operations will take much longer. Nevertheless, in Spring 2015, Handicap International’s clearance teams removed and destroyed more than ten tons of unexploded devices found in the rubble. This proves that clearance operations effectively remove the threat to the lives of civilians living in areas affected by remnants of war.
Can Syrians move back to their homes under these conditions?
Whenever there’s a lull in the fighting, displaced families try to move back to their homes. In order to survive, they often try to remove explosive devices themselves from their homes, immediate environment, and fields.
This is highly dangerous, because these people are generally not aware of the dangers posed by explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices. There are not enough local, trained, monitored, and coordinated teams to guarantee the safety of people who have moved back to their homes.
If we want to help Syrian refugees return home, we need to bring a swift end to the conflict. This is vital to guarantee the safety of humanitarian operators, to make it easier to conduct clearance operations, or simply to rebuild cities. And the longer the conflict lasts, the less realistic their reconstruction becomes. You can’t rebuild a city on ruins that are packed with explosives.
How is Syrian morale after more than five years of conflict?
After more than five years of war, we’re seeing a dramatic decline in the living standards of refugees in neighboring countries. The civilians who have stayed in Syria don’t have regular access to essential services such as healthcare, because humanitarian operators cannot these areas or no longer have the means to provide them.
In addition to the economic and social impact of the war, the trauma of it will last for a very long time. It’s vital to provide people with care and treatment, otherwise an entire generation of Syrians is going to be lost.