Syria records most 2021 landmine explosion casualties despite 'considerable undercount'

Civilians make up majority of victims, with children bearing the brunt of the carnage

A Syrian army soldier uses a detector to find and clear landmines in a field at a pistachio orchard in the village of Maan, north of Hama in west-central Syria on June 24, 2020. Pistachio farmers in central Syria are hoping that reduced violence will help revive cultivation of what was once one of the country's top exports. Maan, famed for its pistachio production, was controlled for years by jihadists and their rebel allies but it fell to the government at the start of the year following a months-long offensive. Although battles have died down, farmers in Hama are now grappling with landmines left behind by rebels and jihadists. / AFP / LOUAI BESHARA
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Syria has recorded the highest number of landmine casualties anywhere in the world for the second year in a row, a report has shown, as the country marked a decade of war.

A total of 1,227 people were maimed or killed by mines in the nation in 2021, according to the annual report by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.

The group, which serves as the research arm of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and of the Cluster Munition Coalition, said 5,544 people across the globe were killed or injured by mines throughout last year.

The majority of victims were civilians, half of whom were children.

In the report published on Thursday, Ukraine and Myanmar were cited as hotspots for new mine use 25 years after the Mine Ban Treaty was created. Such developments pose challenges to the group dedicated to achieving a mine-free world.

About 2,034 casualties from mines and explosive remnants of war were recorded in 11 states not signed up to the treaty. Six in 10 of the incidents occurred in Syria.

The monitor suggested the actual total of mine casualties in Syria might have been much higher last year than the recorded number.

Since the start of the civil war, the report said, annual casualties from mines had “fluctuated due to inconsistent availability of data and sources, and a lack of access to affected areas”.

“Annual totals for Syria are likely a considerable undercount,” it said.

“Ambiguity in media reports often leaves it unclear if mines involved in incidents were of an improvised nature. The monitor’s casualty data for Syria is adjusted as new surveys and historical data become available.”

A Syrian woman and child in Raqqa. The country registered the most landmine blasts in the world last year. AFP

The grim statistics were recorded in Syria as the country marked 10 years of the civil war, which by 2021 was estimated to have cost the lives of more than 306,000 civilians. There have since been further casualties as fighting between President Bashar Al Assad’s regime and foreign-backed rebels continues.

In 2014, Syria began a trend of recording the second-highest number of casualties after Afghanistan.

Six years later, it surpassed Afghanistan in the grim stakes after the landlocked nation and Colombia had alternated on the most casualties for the previous two decades. Afghanistan recorded the most casualties every year from 2008 to 2019, except in 2016, which witnessed a peak in Yemen. Last year, 1,074 people injured or killed by mines on Afghan territory.

A total of 164 countries are bound by and are working towards meeting the treaty's obligations. The majority of the 33 non-member states nonetheless abide by its key provisions.

But Syria is among 14 states to have consistently abstained from consecutive resolutions on the Mine Ban Treaty since 1997. Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Vietnam and the US are among the cohort.

Loren Persi Vicentic, one of the Monitor’s researchers on the impact of landmines, said the majority of mines found in Syria are home-made improvised explosive devices which are “not like standard landmines”.

He said that household items such as washing machines are often booby trapped with such devices and explode when refugees return to their homes.

Militants in Syria have also been known to place mines under vehicles or in barrels of oil in people’s gardens, he said.

“They are set off by some kind of simple trigger,” he told The National. “Sometimes it can be sticks and oil, other times it can be a clothes peg attached to a wire.

“They are placed on roads, they’re placed in fields and they’re made to look like everyday objects. This is really common.

“When ISIS forces were leaving areas they booby-trapped homes to rig them with explosives.

“Some of the trigger mechanisms include crash wires which look like Christmas lights. If any part of it is broken it is set off. It makes it very difficult to clear and requires new training.”

In Yemen, mines are routinely disguised as rocks or boulders on roadsides, he said, as militants store them in clumps of plaster.

Mr Persi Vicentic said child victims frequently suffer injuries to their hands and arms because of how prone they are to picking things up out of curiosity.

While it is common for people to have damaged limbs amputated, loss of hearing and sight also occurs for many victims “from the blast and all the debris that’s thrown up”.

He said urgent medical care of high quality is essential to prevent injured people running into complications further down the road of their recovery. Many of those who survive mine explosions, particularly Syrians, are deprived of access to high-standard care in the initial phase. This means they may require further operations months and years later to fix badly-performed amputations.

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As it continues its efforts to remove mines in countries around the world, the monitor said the new use of such weapons by those acting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine, as well as in Myanmar, “represents one of the greatest challenges to the norm against anti-personnel landmines”.

Mary Wareham, who co-edited the report, said the use of anti-personnel mines by either state or non-state actors “under any circumstances is appalling and must be strongly condemned”.

The Russian Army has used at least seven types of anti-personnel mines in Ukraine since it invaded in February, the report said.

Across the world, treatment for mine victims, many of whom have lost limbs, remained underfunded in 2021, the monitor said. In some states that have signed the treaty, healthcare systems “were stretched to the verge of collapse due to crises and conflict, while rehabilitation systems often required greater support than before the pandemic”.

The document noted how “significant gaps” remain in victims’ access to jobs and education.

It recorded that improvised mines, the majority of which are believed to act as anti-personnel mines, accounted for the highest number of casualties for the sixth consecutive year. They appeared more frequently than anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, cluster munition remnants and explosive remnants of war.

Most casualties attributed to unspecified mine types last year were reported in Syria (925) and Yemen (384). Together, the two countries accounted for 82 per cent of casualties due to unspecified mine types.

Marion Loddo, editor of the report, said a quarter of a century on from the treaty’s creation, “the ban on landmines put human security front and centre and has since empowered affected communities to regain full and productive lives”.

“But the outlook right now is challenging, as we continue to observe new mine victims, new use of the weapon, delays in mine clearance, and shrinking mine action budgets,” she added.

She called on world leaders to prioritise efforts to clear mines, saying: “What we need now is immediate and co-ordinated government action.”

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Updated: November 17, 2022, 4:36 PM
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