The temptation to kick around an empty tin can--why is it so irresistible? That is the question 13-year-old Hawkar Mostafa continues to ask himself as he sits in a wheelchair, his right leg amputated at the knee.
Hawkar lost his leg in late April after setting off what he discovered--too late--was a land mine.
“I was gathering herbs with my friends in the mountains when I saw this rusty old can and kicked it,” recalled the freckled youth, mustering a wry grin. “Nothing happened, and I kicked it again, and the next thing I knew I was flying in the air.”
Hawkar, who lives in this remote mountain town bordering Iran, is among scores of Iraqi Kurds injured every year in land mine accidents in the Kurdish-controlled north, a region that is counted among the world’s grimmest war zones.
“Iraqi Kurdistan is easily one of the riskiest areas in terms of unexploded land mines and military ordnance,” said Michael Parker of the Mines Advisory Group, a British nongovernmental organization that specializes in mine-clearing operations in various countries.
The group has demarcated about 230 square miles of mined territory and destroyed 85,000 land mines--mainly along the Iranian border--in the decade since it began clearance work in northern Iraq.
Between 5 million and 10 million land mines are thought to be still buried under the flower-carpeted mountains near the border with Iran, Parker said. The majority are believed to have been planted during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that ended in 1988.
Kurdish rebels who until three years ago fought an insurgency against Turkey’s army are also known to have laid thousands of mines along the Turkish-Iraqi border.
As speculation grows about a U.S.-led military operation to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, many officials here voice concern that years of painstaking de-mining work will be seriously disrupted, if not undone.
“Land mines have long been a curse for the Kurdish people, and with each war the problem gets worse,” said Sami Abdurrahman, a senior official in the self-styled Kurdish regional administration that has been running northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
“Thousands of my people have been maimed, killed. We want this suffering to end.”
Parker says his group concentrates chiefly on minefields that are close to villages, where the risk of accidents is greatest.
Up in the Balek Valley about 19 miles northeast of Diyanah, workers with the Mines Advisory Group, weighed down by heavy flak jackets and helmets, do much of their mine detection on impossibly steep, gravelly slopes.
“One slip of the foot, and boom, we could get killed,” said Wirya Mustafa Ali, an Iraqi Kurd who supervises work in what locals call the Valley of Death.
The other danger is Hussein. The Iraqi leader has put a $50,000 bounty on the head of all Western aid workers in northern Iraq, saying they are spies for the United States.
The Kurdish enclave, protected by U.S. and British warplanes patrolling a “no-fly” zone, has remained outside Baghdad’s control since the end of the Gulf War.
In 1998, a car bomb, thought to have been planted by Iraqi agents, went off outside the Mines Advisory Group’s headquarters in the city of Sulaymaniyah.
Donor contributions have dwindled, Parker said, since the 1997 death of Britain’s Princess Diana, who was a leading advocate for a worldwide ban on land mines.
“With Diana gone, land mines have slipped off the public’s agenda,” he said.
According to Iraqi Kurdish officials, the greatest challenge of all is creating awareness of the land mine problem among locals. One way is to train Islamic clerics, who can warn their congregations against collecting firewood and herbs in demarcated areas.
Booklets with pictures of different types of mines and shells published by Parker’s group are handed out to schoolchildren and to those smuggling alcohol and tobacco between Iraq and Iran, who, with farmers, are considered the highest-risk groups.
Eighty families live in the village of Derbend in the Balek Valley, and at least one member of every family has suffered a mine injury.
Ismail Mustafa Nabi, a 49-year-old farmer, lost his legs when he set off a mine as he was planting wheat 18 years ago. His 14-year-old daughter, Safiya, lost an eye after picking up an unexploded mortar shell near their house last year.
Nabi, who has nine children, sounds undaunted.
“I am ready to give my daughter’s hand [in marriage] for free, to anyone who offers me a second wife,” he said. “Legs or no legs, life goes on, and I intend to enjoy every minute I have left.”