In 2018 there were 1,106 children verified killed in Syria, the highest number recorded to date. This number may surprise people who’ve kept a close eye on the conflict over the past eight years and witnessed the huge battles for control of Aleppo, Homs and Daraa. Yet it is a reminder of the deadly legacy of active conflict and what that has in store for Syria’s youngest and most vulnerable.
Indeed a UN report of the humanitarian needs in the beleaguered country revealed the remarkable figure that 1 in 2 Syrians remaining in their homelands is at risk of ‘explosive remnants of war’. Unexploded bombs, IEDs, bits of bullets and ammunition litter the landscape of Syria’s frontlines past and present that crisscross the country. As the intensity of fighting reduces, children often venture out to explore, they are the primary victim to picking up and being injured by these deadly reminders of the previous eight years.
These have been a feature of most conflicts and I was struck by visiting Vietnam, Cambodia and the Balkans how long it takes to make spaces truly safe decades after the end of the fighting. What makes Syria so exceptionally dangerous is not just the huge surface area of fighting that has covered the country, but also the multiplicity of armed actors and the types of munitions they used.
Frequent reports of the Regime and their Russian and Iranian allies have pointed to the use of cluster munitions in particular. Between July 2012 and June 2018, over 600 cluster munition attacks were recorded in Syria by the Cluster Munition Monitor. A single cluster bomb attack can cover the area of several football pitches with bomblets that directly kill and maim at the time and have a legacy that can even extend that of the conflict itself.
Conventional landmines are more traditional, if not equally deadly weapons, and have been used predominantly around border areas to impede movement. However homemade landmines have killed and injured hundreds of civilians, including more than 150 children, in Raqqa, Syria since Isis was pushed out of the city in October 2017.
The Isis development of ingeniously macabre forms of explosive have made the aftermath of their occupation of Raqqa a deadly phase. Indeed many of the casualties arriving at nearby hospitals in the period after the SDF won the city were the result of people checking on their houses, tampering with unidentified objects and rubble removal.
Booby-trapping doors, pressure plate triggered explosives, trip wires and even bombs hidden in dolls or other children’s toys are just some of the things reported from areas formerly under Isis control. Sometimes the level of contamination is such that previously critical pieces of infrastructure had to be abandoned in their entirety. Much like radiation has left parts of Chernobyl uninhabitable so has explosive contamination sown a legacy in Syria.
Yet there is hope. Mine clearance is a global specialism that can be scaled up once conditions allow. In north western Syria, the organisation ‘HALO’ teams teach people how to identify dangerous ERW items and act safely around them through a risk education programme. This is predominantly aimed at children who are particularly vulnerable to accidents but the programme also assists other high-risk groups like Internally Displaced People and people returning to their home locations who may not be familiar with explosive hazards in the areas they are travelling to or settling in. To date, the teams have reached over 175,000 people with lifesaving safety messages.
Yet demand to date has outstripped the capacity offered by the International Coalition and their local allies. For the future I would argue that the work of organisations like HALO need to be complemented by training in clearance, along with the requisite equipment and medical protections, be given to local Syrians in order to create an indigenous expertise that their country will need for decades to come.Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.