After a decade of war, Syria has been completely contaminated by explosive remnants on a scale experts have never seen before. When the conflict ends, the complex work of clearing weapons and rebuilding the country will begin. Emmanuel Sauvage, Director of Armed Violence Reduction at Humanity & Inclusion, tells us more.
What makes contamination in Syria different?
There are two reasons why Syria is a special case when it comes to weapons clearance. The first is the very wide range of weapons used. After a decade of conflict, Syrian soil is contaminated by a complete spectrum of explosive weapons including unexploded bombs, explosive remnants and booby traps, and improvised mines. The second is the fact that urban areas and their outskirts are the worst affected. You find the widest range of explosive weapons in cities. We know from experience that it is particularly difficult to clear urban areas. In Raqqa, for example, where 80% of the city has been destroyed, the ground is littered with rubble mixed with explosive remnants and booby traps left behind by the belligerent parties. In Laos, they are still clearing weapons 45 years after the Vietnam War, so I think it will take at least two generations to clear Syria.
What are the obstacles to weapons clearance in Syria today?
The variety of explosive weapons used in the Syrian conflict makes clearance complex. Each type of explosive weapon works in a different way. You don’t neutralize an improvised mine in the same way as an unexploded bomb. We need to deploy different experts for different types of explosive weapons in the ground. But since there are all kinds of explosive weapons in Syria, we need many more professionals trained in these types of weapons.
Mine clearance in urban areas is particularly long and complicated. When buildings and infrastructure are destroyed in cities, the rubble is contaminated by explosive remnants. In some Syrian cities we can almost measure contamination in cubic meters because the ground is contaminated by layers of rubble and explosive remnants. This requires specific resources, professionals trained in this type of contamination, and great care to be taken when clearing and reconstructing cities.
When we talk about reconstruction, what exactly do we mean?
Reconstruction obviously begins with weapons clearance. The international community must take action to protect Syrian lives from explosive remnants. Some 11.5 million Syrians out of a total population of 17 million are currently at risk from these weapons. Weapons clearance is therefore a priority in reconstructing the country.
Then comes the actual reconstruction, which is divided into interdependent stages: the reconstruction of infrastructure and housing, economic recovery, but also restoring the link between the different communities damaged by a decade of conflict. It’s a huge challenge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the early 2000s, apart from weapons clearance, it was important to get the communities talking to each other again in order to plan for long-term peace. Weapons clearance brought people together around a problem and shared risks, and provided a starting point for dialogue and collective initiatives. It marked the first step towards defusing the tension caused by the conflict.
We also have to think about how to support individuals. Syrians have experienced the horrors of war, and they need physical and psychological support. Physical trauma such as amputations, brain and spinal cord injuries, but also psychological trauma need specific care. I think it will take at least two generations to rebuild Syria.
Humanity & Inclusion and the Syria crisis
Since the organization began its response to the Syria crisis in 2012, Humanity & Inclusion has helped 1.8 million Syrians in six countries through emergency rehabilitation, psychological support, and supplying prosthetics and other assistive devices. As of December 2020, Humanity & Inclusion provided 14,000 prosthetics or orthotics to Syrians and conducted rehabilitation sessions with 180,000 people. Learn more about our work and the Syria crisis.
Header image: Destroyed buildings and other debris.
Inline image: Humanity & Inclusion's Emmanuel Sauvage speaks into a microphone held by a reporter at an event in France. Copyright: Basile Barbey/HI, 2020
Humanity & Inclusion, in conjunction with new technology companies, will start testing minefield survey drones in northern Chad in February 2019. Drones, which can map suspected hazardous areas remotely have the potential to revolutionize landmine clearance operations. If successful, drones would help target mine clearance areas more precisely and reduce the length of time it takes for teams to return contaminated land to civilians.
"Drones can hopefully provide considerable assistance in demining by reducing tenfold the time it takes to implement non-technical surveys, a phase that consists in identifying and demarcating potentially hazardous areas requiring the intervention of demining teams,” explains Emmanuel Sauvage, Head of Armed Violence Reduction at HI. “This phase is sometimes longer than the mine clearance operations themselves. By providing accurate data for mapping areas to be cleared, the drones will also help us to deploy our mine-clearance teams in a more targeted way.”
Clearing land and keeping people safe from weapons is at the core of our DNA. Innovation such as this is vital in order to meet the vast needs of mine clearance operations. In Chad alone, 39 square miles of land are contaminated by mines and explosive remnants of war. HI and its partners plan to clear 1.1 square miles over four years, relying on several mine clearance teams and a mine clearance machine.
In places like Chad, Laos, and Colombia, mines and explosive remnants of war pose a daily threat to civilians. In fact, in 61 countries around the world, explosive ordnance post a real obstacle to development. The Landmine Monitor 2017 report reveals that the number of new casualties of anti-personnel mines, factory-made or improvised, and explosive remnants of war increased by almost 25% in one year, rising from 6,967 casualties in 2015 to 8,605 casualties in 2016. The number of casualties nearly doubled between 2014 and 2015 (6,967 new casualties in 2015 compared with 3,993 in 2014).
From February to October 2019, HI will conduct trials near Faya-Largeau in northern Chad. By flying over large areas in a very short amount of time, the drone will significantly reduce the length of what mine clearance professionals call the "non-technical survey,” a field investigation phase that determines whether mines and explosive remnants are potentially present, thus requiring the intervention of mine clearance experts.
By providing aerial evidence of the presence or absence of mines and geolocation data, drones will also make it possible to create more precise boundaries of areas where deminers need to intervene, reducing intervention times. During the test phase, HI will also explore the possibility of developing a drone equipped with a radar to detect subsurface mines.
With financial support from the Belgian Government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, HI partnered with Mobility Robotics, a specialist in drone piloting, Third Element Aviation, a manufacturer of customized drones and sensor designer, Inzentive, which has developed a data management service, and Dynergie, a company tasked with making innovative proposals on demining methods.
Our mine action teams regularly conduct tests with companies and research teams based on new technologies. In addition to testing mine clearance drones, HI has embarked on a "mapping challenge" with research groups to convert satellite images into maps of previously unmapped areas, essential for emergency operations.
Humanity & Inclusion (which operates under the name Handicap International in the DRC) has completed its demining operations in the Tshopo, Ituri, Bas-Uele and Haut-Uele provinces of Democratic Republic of the Congo. From January 2016 to December 2017, HI and its local partner, Africa for Anti-Mine Action (AFRILAM) cleared 34,520 meters of land of mines, freeing 5,600 people of the threat of mines and explosive remnants of war, the legacy of conflicts between armed groups in the region which started in the 1990s.
The mines were cleared manually by a team of 19 deminers trained by Humanity & Inclusion. On average, one deminer manually cleared 13 meters each day. Since operations began in 2016, 21 mines have been made safe and destroyed, along with 25 explosive remnants of war (ERW) including F1 grenades, PG7 rockets, and 120 mm mortar shells.
"Despite the very difficult conditions in the zones concerned, due to the rainy season from October to May and the very dense vegetation, the demining operations went very well,” explains Jadot Bamungu, the head of HI's demining operations in the DRC. “HI organized 85 risk education sessions for 6,000 people to raise awareness of the risks of explosive remnants of war. We feel this will help the local populations to feel safer and to go about their day-to-day activities serenely.”
Antipersonnel landmines were first used in 1960 in the DRC when it achieved its independence. Since 1996, there has been widespread use of mines by the various armed groups fighting in the north and east of the country in a succession of conflicts. They still pose a constant threat to the local population today.
HI in DRC
Present in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1994, HI provides rehabilitation care, promotes the inclusion of children with disabilities in schools, and more. Having been heavily involved in demining operations, our previous projects in this area date back to 2014. Alongside AFRILAM, our partner since 2008, we've been deploying new operations in this area over the last three years. A State Party to the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has set itself the goal of becoming mine free by 2021. Learn more about our work in the DRC.