“We are helping people — clearing land for the farmers, making the country safe for people to come back. Most people are badly affected by the war. Our family lost our home. We had to run and lost everything,” says 24-year-old Sabreen. She is one of the 700-plus Iraqis employed by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), whose mission is to locate and destroy land mines, cluster munitions, and unexploded bombs in war zones. With operations on four continents, MAG recruits and trains local people, particularly women, to work with special equipment and mine-detecting dogs to clear their land. This teaches women a marketable skill and enables them to enter the workforce and earn a living.
Says MAG’s chief executive, Jane Cocking, “Land mines and unexploded bombs often affect the most marginalized groups in a country recovering from conflict. When you recruit people from those groups, they are able to play an integral part in freeing their communities from the fear of land mines as well as financially providing a better life for their families.”
Decades of conflict have made Iraq one of the worst land-mine-affected countries in the world, and the problem only worsened when ISIL seized territory there in 2014. MAG has 55 deminers in northern Iraq’s Tal Afar region, which was an important strategic route for ISIL, as it lies between Syria to the west and Mosul to the east. Sabreen is among the Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds who are working together to clear the land in al-‘Ayadiya, the last town to be liberated by the Iraqi security forces and coalition groups about two years ago. Many of the locals are subsistence farmers and cannot start growing food again until their land is secure.
Surrounded by mine belts, al-‘Ayadiya itself was heavily contaminated with unexploded ordnance and improvised explosive devices including suicide belts. In the past year there have been five accidents in an 800,000-plus-square-meter minefield east of town, so MAG teams have been educating locals about the hazards involved. Says Sabreen, “People, especially children, don’t understand the dangers … If they see an interesting object, even a bomb, they will play with it.” Villagers now alert MAG when they discover anything that looks suspicious. At press time some 2,217 items had been removed in Tal Afar.
The team’s work is grueling but also fulfilling. Summers are hot, and the equipment is heavy. “I am up at 4 a.m. and at the MAG base by 5 a.m. We sort out the kit and check the medical equipment; then we travel for nearly an hour to our work site in al-‘Ayadiya,” says Rasha, 23, who takes turns with her colleagues organizing the group’s food for the day (a typical lunch is salad and bread). “I am proud to be part of a team that helps people .… [They] need to feel safe and be able to rebuild their lives.”
What’s more, the deminers’ wages are indispensable to their families, especially for those whose parents are too old or ill to work and whose siblings are still of school age. Says 20-year-old Suham, “It is a great job to be able to help others and also support my family. Most of my family is happy for me and fine with the job I do, except for my mother. She is afraid for me and keeps telling me to leave. I tell her she needn’t worry … I will be OK.” Dalal, 24, admits her mother is also uneasy about her line of work but explains, “I help support my nine sisters and two brothers. [Plus] we are helping people come back home and live a normal life — that makes me proud.”
Portia Stratton, MAG’s country director for Iraq, says, “MAG was the first organization [in Iraq] to employ female operators, and we have the most female operators of any clearance organization in the country. These brave women [are playing] a vital part in ensuring their communities are safe and able to thrive again after war.” When MAG started its program in al-‘Ayadiya last summer, only five families had moved home from shelters. Now more than 750 families are back, and stores are beginning to open. There is a grocer, a butcher, and a petrol station, but the community still has a long way to go. Dalal adds, “I hope other women will be inspired by us and come join MAG.”
In addition to its operations in the Tal Afar region, MAG also employs deminers in the neighboring Sinjar district, which was once home to approximately 400,000 people from the Yazidi religious minority group. When ISIL invaded, the entire Yazidi population was displaced, captured, or killed. According to Kurdish authorities and human-rights groups more than 6,000 Yazidi women and children were abducted. The majority of women and girls were tortured, raped, and sold as slaves, while boys were separated and placed with families of IS fighters in an attempt to erase their Yazidi identity. In May the U.N. Refugee Agency reported that some 3,000 Yazidis, mainly women and children, were still missing. Few have been able to return to their homes in the Sinjar district because their villages were demolished and contaminated with land mines. Among the buildings that still stand, many are booby-trapped. Until these explosives are removed, the infrastructure cannot be rebuilt, and the villages remain uninhabitable. “We want to live in peace just like people do in the USA,” says Haym, a 24-year-old deminer. “I want every land mine to be cleared so that every family can return home safely.”
The following images were taken in the Sinjar district earlier this year, in late April and early May. All the deminers working for MAG in Sinjar are Yazidi.
Fahima (pictured above), 24, oversees a team of deminers in the village of Rambusi, south of the city of Sinjar. “The most difficult part of the job for me is dealing with new types of IEDs and booby-traps,” she says. “They can have hidden switches and you have to be very careful. It is hard work, but you have to try — and you have to believe in yourself.”
Twenty-one-year-old Vian (pictured above with X-Lang, a mine-detecting dog) is one of MAG’s dog handlers. “I am very happy to do this work,” she says. “We will clear the land so that people can come home. To me, this is a holy job.” Adds Halema, 29, also a dog handler, “I am working to support my family and also to contribute to my community.” Halema says Aron, the dog she works with, “is kind and soft, he is clever and loves to play. When I tell him what to do, he obeys very well — he is a great dog and never misses a target.”
Holiva (pictured above), 21, says she is proud to be a deminer. “I know the work can be dangerous, but we have good training and we have to do this. In our community men and women are equal, so it is fine for me to be a deminer.” Holiva’s family now lives in Germany, but she chose to stay in Iraq with her brother. “I want to help rebuild my community,” she says. “They need me here.”
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 16.