Among all the cities ravaged by Syria’s civil war, Deraa, in the south of the country, has the grim mark of being where it all began. It was there that protesters first took to the streets in 2011 demanding change.
Eleven years later, children who had not been born during the protests are still losing their lives to the war that ensued, even after the worst of the fighting has stopped. On Saturday, 11 people were killed in the countryside north of Deraa when a landmine exploded. Five children were among those killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The UN estimates that in 2019, under-18s made up a quarter of all deaths from anti-personnel mines.
New fields in Syria are especially responsible for prolonging danger to civilians, and the country is in no state to address the problem. ISIS, a group responsible for many of them, continues to operate sleeper cells, and ongoing military activity of some kind from numerous sides in many areas makes the very sensitive and long process of de-mining impossible. A disconnected and weakened central government is unable to provide necessary co-ordination. Chaos in recent years means there is uncertainty even as to where new ordinance lies.
History does not provide good precedent for the issue being solved soon. Neighbouring Iraq is one of the most mined countries in the world, mostly due to the Iran-Iraq War that ended more than three decades ago, and yet the problem remains. Egypt is the most mined country globally, home to 20 per cent of all landmines, many from as far back as the Second World War. Other hotspots in the region include Afghanistan and Yemen. In Africa, Angola leads, in Asia, Cambodia.
The proliferation of mines across the planet is also a sign of failure to enforce basic rules of war. The Ottawa Convention, in place since 1997, bans anti-personnel landmines and is signed by 133 nations. And yet new fields continue to appear.
A worrying emerging situation is in Europe. Ukrainian authorities have said they have already located and removed almost 80,000 mines since the beginning of the war. This is impressive, and has been facilitated by strong collaboration between national authorities, the UN and local organisations. Technology has also been crucial. Since 2012, Ukraine's Information Management System for Mine Action has provided an unprecedentedly efficient means of gathering and analysing data to keep, as much as possible, authorities abreast of new threats. Nonetheless, Relief Web, a humanitarian information source, says the emerging situation will take decades to address. It is not helped by unexploded munitions, particularly from cluster weapons, too.
It is hard to rebuild a country and restore a sense of normality if so much of it is out of bounds. The death of 11 civilians is tragic and horribly familiar for Syria. But the circumstances in which they took place must not be normalised. Wars might appear ended neatly in peace treaties. But, particularly in the modern era, they are rarely as definitive for the people who live in the aftermath.
On the topic of landmines, recent years should have seen progress. Instead, more than two decades on from a multilateral attempt to ban them, old fields remain, and, from Syria to Ukraine, new ones are emerging.