Nearly three million Iraqis are at risk each day from landmines and other unexploded bombs and munitions from conflicts past and present. By some estimates, as many as 20 million landmines are buried across the country. An international demining group is helping Iraqis remove these dangers and improve life in their communities.
Nine years ago, when Sary Abdullah Karim was 16-years-old, he and his friends would
dig up landmines to explode in open fields, or to throw in nearby rivers to blow fish out of the water. One day, the boys accidentally set off a landmine.
Sary says, "Several of my friends were killed. It was the third mine we dug out that day. I lost two fingers and my left leg, and, I was also injured in the other leg."
Unfortunately, Sary's story is not unique. The British-based demining organization, Mine Advisory Group, says, during the past two years, landmines and other unexploded ordnance in Iraq have killed nearly 350 people and injured at least 565 others.
Like Sary and his friends, the majority of these victims are between five and 29 years of age, and almost 90 percent are male. Many of them are shepherds, farmers or curious children.
Most of these mines were laid by Saddam Hussein's army during the 1980s. Many are concentrated along the border with Iran, and date back to the war between the two neighbors. Others are along the border with Turkey, while many more were laid during Saddam's campaign against the Kurds.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the situation has been compounded by the recent conflict, with large amounts of munitions either being dropped by U.S. forces or abandoned by Saddam's troops, retreating before coalition forces, after the 2003 invasion.
Mine Advisory Group program manager in Iraq David Horrocks says landmines pose the greatest threat in the northern part of the country, while in the central and southern parts, unexploded munitions from cluster-bombs are the biggest danger. As so many of the victims are male, families tend to suffer economically when someone is killed or injured.
"So, the loss through death of a bread winner is catastrophic," said Horrocks. "But the injury is also probably even worse, because you have more expense, you have to look after the injured person, you have to pay more medical bills, etc."
The Mine Advisory Group has nearly 600 locally hired employees, which it trains to international demining and clearance standards.
Saleh Najem Ahmed has been with the organization since it first began operations in Iraq in 1992, and is now a field supervisor. On an intensely hot and sunny day, his team is working to remove hazardous materials from a site in northern Iraq.
He says, "It is necessary for us to remove the dangerous items from this area, because we need the land for agriculture."
Horrocks says the Mine Advisory Group has cleared 130 minefields and made safe a total of 37 million square meters of land in northern Iraq since 2003. But he says its mission does not end there.
The organization has also trained 1,500 primary school teachers in northern Iraq to integrate mine awareness into their curriculum.
"I believe that MAG's [Mine Advisory Group] mine education has made a major contribution to ensuring safety of a lot of people in the north," he added.
Neither the Iraqi government nor the Kurdish Regional Government contribute funding to the Mine Advisory Group's work. The United States is a primary supporter of the group's work in Iraq. Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden are also donors.
But as hard as the group's teams work to clear Iraq of mines and other dangerous items, there are always more to be removed, and dangers persist. Sary, the boy who lost his leg and fingers in a land mine accident nine years ago, lost his 19-year old brother in a similar accident last year.