Melvin Smith, head of the clearance team, tells us more about this delicate and unusual operation:
A suspected chemical substance
We received a call informing us that quantities of a suspected chemical substance, yellow in color, had been found near the main road in a village near Raqqa.
When our team visited the area to gather information and locate the contaminated site, our contact explained that the site had been used by armed groups between 2014 and 2017. These armed groups used to bring in trucks from Iraq loaded with unknown materials. We assume that they were for the manufacture of explosives, notably improvised explosive devices.
At the end of the armed operations in the area, the site was mostly demolished. That’s when locals noticed piles of a yellow-colored substance within what remained of the walls of one of the buildings, and quantities of the same substance scattered around the site.
A danger for farmlands
After the war, as the site bordered on a military zone, some farmers asked the army if they could have some of the suspicious substance, thinking it was suitable for use as a soil fertilizer. The army refused and wanted the site cleaned up.
The contaminated site was located on agricultural land on which there were wells and irrigation canals passing in close proximity to a military zone. One of the buildings on the site was built over an underground bunker equipped with ventilation holes and a tunnel wide enough for vehicles to come and go. The tunnel extended quite a long way underground.
It was eventually determined that the yellow substance was sulfur. Its presence in an open space through which people pass, including children from the village school, presented a number of dangers. Sulfur is extremely flammable and also poses a risk of leakage into the water sources, endangering crops and livestock. Sulfur is also harmful to the lungs.
Neutralizing the dangers
During the clean-up operation, team members wore masks to protect themselves from the chemical fumes and gas emissions. They worked for several days to remove the sulfur, spread over an area of 7,000 square meters.
To neutralize the danger, the team put the substance into bags, loaded them onto trucks and transported them to a place for safe storage, later to be disposed of according to the procedures for the disposal of chemicals. The dangers posed by this substance have been completely removed. The rural community that had been living in such close proximity to a dangerous chemical substance can now recover their land and use it for agriculture again.
This task differed from clearing mines and other remnants of war, but it was as dangerous for our clearance teams as any other clearance operation. The temperatures were very high and the sulfur made it difficult for them to breathe. They had to work very slowly to avoid raising dust and fumes. Also, because of the hot weather, the sulfur dust mixed with their sweat, causing allergic reactions and itchy eyes.
After eight days of working non-stop, the team completed the task of cleaning up the site.
They felt happy and proud to have transformed this site from a place of pollution threatening the safety of the people and the environment into a safe place suitable for agriculture where green trees and flowers will grow again.
HI Clearance operations in Raqqa Governorate are funded by GFFO until December 2023 and operate in synergy with the other Humanitarian Mine Action Component.