Amid the rubble and explosive remnants of war (ERW), life is slowly returning to the war-torn streets of Kobani, Syria. Handicap International has begun a race against time to protect returning residents from still dangerous explosives by educating people about how to stay safe and training local authorities to remove explosives. Maelle, who coordinates our operations in the area, tells us what conditions are like in the field.
Before Maelle arrived in Kobani, her colleague warned her: “You’ll see, it’s as if the city has been hit by five earthquakes in a row.” But after nearly four months, Maelle has grown used to her surroundings: “It’s only when I returned to the city with someone who was visiting for the first time that the scale of the devastation really hit me again. When I saw the terror in his eyes, it reminded me of how I felt when I arrived.”
But life amid the ruins is changing fast, and things are better organized than before. “People are really enthusiastic about returning to this region. They’re coming back because they want to work their land, clear the roads, and reopen the markets, hospitals, and schools. Everything’s happening really fast, and while that’s great to see, it’s important to remember that this area has one of the highest density of ERW per square meter in the world.
We can help people returning to the region by providing them with risk education and clearing the weapons. We must identify ERW, neutralize them, and then organize clear-up operations in a way that avoids setting off devices buried under the rubble. This is the challenge we’re facing right now, and we’re working hard to overcome it.”
Handicap International is one of the few NGOs present on the ground, and there’s no time to lose. The organization is conducting risk education at border crossings for returning refugees, and it also organizes individual sessions in the city. Educators go door to door to inform residents about the risks in their area in order to prevent accidents.
“People are keen to get this information,” says Maelle. “I was really surprised to meet children who could barely speak but who could already recognize explosive devices from a list of objects. Everyone has an explosive remnant of war or a booby trap near their home or a relative’s home. They have to live with it until it’s destroyed or taken away. The problem is that people in Kobani are used to living with these devices and they end up underestimating the risks. Our role is to persuade them to take as many precautions as possible and to organize safe clearance operations.”
Local clearance teams are currently being trained and assisted by Handicap International’s instructors and will be operational very soon. “The clearance workers are from Kobani and the surrounding area, which is important for us because the work is going to take a long time,” says Maelle. “However hard we work, we know we’re going to continue finding ERW for years to come, so people will always need to be on hand to neutralize them. Kobani received a lot of media coverage, which raised a lot of hopes, but we need to prepare ourselves for the long haul, and that’s going to require a lot of energy and patience. The demining work, the clearing of thousands of tons of rubble, under which explosive devices are often hidden, and then the reconstruction, are going to take up a lot of time and resources.”