Bombs hidden under rubble are killing Syrians who return home

UN report documents surge in accidents caused by buried ordnance

Turkish Ambassador to the United Nations Feridun Sinirlioglu, left, and United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller, center, listen as Agnes Marcaillou, Director of the United Nations Mine Action Service, Department of Peace Operations speaks during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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Syria is joining the ranks of countries where civilians face an increased danger of death or maiming from unexploded war ordnance.

With the number of fatal incidents rising in the past year, according to United Nations officials, fatalities and serious injuries are likely to surge as exiled families return home in the coming years, experts say.

But with the war ongoing the problem of hidden bombs and mines is proving difficult to tackle. International experts are usually denied access to Syria but some are working with local groups, de-mining agencies told The National.

The scale of the task facing those involved was revealed on Thursday by Agnes Marcaillou, director of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), in her first briefing to the Security Council.

Syria's war-shrunken population is estimated at 17 million. About two-thirds, or 11.5 million, spread across 2,563 communities are at risk, Ms Marcaillou said in New York.

“So far, 2019 recorded an average of 184 explosive incidents a day,” she said. Such incidents are defined as any event involving explosive ordnance that leads to or has the potential to cause an accident.

Based on available data, Ms Marcaillou said each explosive accident had averaged 1.5 deaths and two injuries, with at least one in three survivors suffering wounds that required the amputation of a limb.

With more than half a million people killed in the civil war since 2011, exact numbers are considered impossible to collate because of the sprawling nature of the conflict and the consequent loss of reliable official data.

The mass bombing of cities by the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad means that with large cities such as Aleppo reduced to rubble, unexploded bombs lurk under the surface. They can be accidentally detonated by civilians trying to clear urban areas before rebuilding work can be undertaken, but half of the explosions are occurring in rural areas, according to the UN.

Ms Marcaillou said the level of contamination was not known but the continued use of improvised explosive devices by parties to the conflict only made it worse.

Syria is not party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, although the government did allow UNMAS to open an office in Damascus last October.

The National contacted several organisations involved in mine clearance and the removal of unexploded ordnance. One such group said its staff were active in Syria but did not wish to publicly acknowledge their involvement given that it could endanger the lives of locals it was working with.

However, a spokesman said the rise in fatal incidents recounted by Ms Marcaillou was likely explained by a growing number of Syrians returning home from exile.

“We have seen in other war zones that when the population begins to increase so does the number of deaths,” he said.

Ms Marcaillou, who visited Aleppo earlier this month, told the council she saw contaminated areas where people were returning to live, as well as damaged schools where children were killed and wounded while playing.

The UN in January started to train people to conduct educational outreach activities in Syria but the registration of international mine and ordnance removal experts – there is no such national agency in Syria – is to be conducted by the government.