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Unprecedented levels of contamination in Raqqa

Explosive weapons

Humanity & Inclusion has conducted weapons clearance operations in northern Syria since 2018. A team of 25 demining experts face a giant task as the scale of explosive remnants of war contamination in Raqqa is beyond anything witnessed anywhere since WWII.

Two men wearing protective vests and face face shields carry a bomb amid rubble.

Two HI operators wearing protective vests and face face shields carrying a bomb amid rubble. | © HI

People living in Raqqa are under a daily threat of explosive remnants. The two managers of Humanity & Inclusion’s demining operations in Syria, provide insight into their efforts:

Raqqa was a stronghold of the Islamic State Movement until 2017 when the city was freed by Western forces under Operation Inherent Resolve. People fled the intense 5-month fighting and quickly started to return to the city after. The scale of the devastation still hit us. It’s as if the city was hit by five earthquakes in a row.

Five years later, the contamination left by ground fighting, massive U.S.-led coalition air strikes and booby traps is still there. Many unexploded devices, both manufactured and homemade, remain in the rubble of collapsed and damaged buildings. In the meantime, people have returned because they want to work their land, clear the roads, and reopen the markets, hospitals and schools. The contamination continues to endanger Syrians and compromise the humanitarian response.

The most contaminated city in the world

Raqqa is one of the most polluted city we have ever seen. The contamination is very diverse and complex, affecting all human activities on a daily basis: Buildings like clinics, banks, and civil services offices have been booby-trapped in order to terrorize people and to prevent any return to normal. Unexploded rockets or bombs are in buildings’ rubble after intense aerial bombings. Around the city, agricultural fields were turned into defensive minefields by the Islamic State Movement to impeach the progress of any armed groups. The level of contamination is incredible. It is everywhere—in every building, on any square meter of land, you need to be careful.

The contamination is so complicated that it will take decades to clean Raqqa. Raqqa is, for us, like a laboratory where you can find all the range of contamination in urban and rural areas coming from a modern conflict, marked by intense use of explosive weapons.

Islamic State Movement fighters deployed improvised explosive devices throughout the city to ensure maximum terror and destruction: you can find stories of mines wired to light switches, stashed in mattresses, and hidden in hollowed-out Qurans, which hamper the resumption of ordinary and everyday activity.

A bomb is removed from rubble by a heavy equipment operator in Syria

We find all range of explosive munitions primarily dropped from above by International Coalition Forces as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. We also have to deal with traditional manufactured landmines.

With over 2,500 recorded explosive weapons use incidents between 2013 and 2019 and an anticipated airstrike and artillery failure rate of between 10-30 percent, it is assumed that some 250-750 unexploded weapons must therefore be found in the city.

Key infrastructures like dams or waterways are also contaminated with explosive remnants and release chemical and toxic contamination. Tap water is no longer fit for consumption in some areas and we have seen reported cases of cholera recently.

The people are really counting on us to release them from this threat. Progress is slow, and many civilians unwilling to wait for assistance took it upon themselves to remove explosive remnants from their homes at great personal risk.

Demining since 2018

Our teams are highly skilled and able to face all these different situations. Local authorities task us to intervene in many areas. But we are also called directly by people through a hotline to pick up explosive remnants they found on their property. We receive so many calls every day that we have to prioritize which ordnance we will secure first.

In 2022, Humanity & Inclusion teams have secured 1,000 live items and more than 2,600 inert items—which look like explosive ordnances but do not contain explosive content. So far, teams have cleared a total of 220,000 square meters.

We have just opened clearance operations in Der-er-Zor, another major city that is a 2-hour drive from Raqqa. Next year, we also want to launch a depollution team staffed by women.

It is a race against time to clear lands with a view to restoring the city and its surrounding fields to its inhabitants. The removal of the rubble, which is the prerequisite for carrying out any reconstruction work, cannot be done without clearance operations first. The contamination impeaches the rebuilding of the city.

We want to contribute to rebuild the city and we regret that clearance operations are a bit forgotten by donors today. That is really a concern for us.

Date published: 12/01/22


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