Simon Elmont is a demining expert protecting civilians from explosive remnants of war in Iraq by clearing areas contaminated in previous and ongoing conflicts, including the territories occupied by the Islamic State. Simon recently made time to tell us about his work.
When did you arrive in Iraq and what were your first impressions?
I arrived in October 2015, just after we opened our base in Kirkuk. I was really struck by the situation. It’s impossible to compare this place with the countries I’ve worked in before. The level of contamination in Iraq is unique, because of the geographical location of the explosive remnants of war and the quality and variety of the unexploded devices we’re finding. People living abroad often don’t understand how serious the situation is, and don’t realize the extent to which contamination affects the day-to-day lives of Iraqis.
How does the situation in Iraq affect your daily work?
We currently operate very close to the front lines, which obviously has an impact on how we implement our actions, and means our work environment is constantly changing. What holds true today may not hold true tomorrow, and in the same way, the access we have to certain areas could be blocked in an instant. You need to constantly adapt if you work here. You also always need to remember that conflict is part of daily life in Iraq, and respecting security procedures is even more important than usual.
How does mine risk education complement demining?
Our goal is the same: making sure everyone is safe. One of my responsibilities is to train the staff providing mine risk education sessions. I show them the different types of explosive devices that exist, I teach them how to identify them, and how to protect themselves, so they can pass on the messages to the people they meet every day.
By extension, these mine risk education teams help us with our non-technical surveys. They talk to people who know areas where we can find unexploded devices, then report those areas to us so we can locate and mark them. Similarly, when I’m in the field with my two, non-technical survey teams and see children playing in contaminated areas, I ask the mine risk education team to visit these areas and conduct awareness-raising sessions. Our activities are complementary and interconnected: while we identify and report the contaminated zones to the authorities so we can clear them, the mine risk education teams ensure that people are aware of the risks of explosive remnants of war.
What would you tell people back home about this mission?
If we don’t clear the mines, the Iraqi crisis is going to get worse, and the number of internally displaced people will be even higher than it is today. Our action is essential and needs support: by clearing weapons, we prevent accidents and new casualties from happening, and make it easier for people to return home. Cleared areas also provide safe working environments for NGOs.