Explosive remnants of war have killed hundreds of civilians returning to Raqqa after the Syrian city was captured from Islamic State in October 2017, and the number of casualties will rise if international support to demine the city does not step up, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned Monday.
"The defeat of ISIS in Raqqa was heralded as a global international victory, but international support for dealing with the aftermath of the battle, and notably the deadly legacy of mines, has not risen to the challenge," said Nadim Houry, the director of terrorism and counterterrorism program at HRW, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Reports show casualties have reached 491 people, including 157 children, but HRW says the numbers are higher because many deaths remain undocumented.
IS had planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) indiscriminately in different parts of the city, including residential neighborhoods. The danger of the antipersonnel mines planted by IS grew in recent weeks as more civilians returned home. Demining efforts have been focusing on "critical infrastructure," so residential areas are still heavily contaminated by mines.
Last week, Panos Moumtzis, U.N. assistant secretary general and regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria Crisis, said that the spread of antipersonnel mines is "extreme" and every week 50 to 70 casualties are caused by landmines in Raqqa, according to Reuters.
Moumtzis added that IEDs are in "every house, every room, every inch of the city."
The effort to demine the city was a priority for Raqqa Civil Council since U.S.-backed forces captured the city from IS. A number of member states in the anti-ISIS Global Coalition pledged to participate in financing demining efforts and training local groups.
Heather Nauert, the spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said in a press briefing last October after the capture of Raqqa that the United States was funding efforts "to coordinate, de-conflict, and map demining activities in liberated areas, and provide real-time information on improvised explosive device contamination locations in addition to hotlines for returnees and local official use."
Brett McGurk, the State Department's special envoy for the anti-IS fight, tweeted in January "IEDs left behind by ISIS are most significant challenge."
The danger prompted the Raqqa Civil Council to put signs in the city showing ways to identify a landmine and to report suspected objects to the council. Officials say the gap between demining work and local demand is massive.
Displaced civilians from Raqqa are willing to take the risk of going back to their homes despite warnings from local officials.
HRW advised international donors to focus on demining efforts in order to regain stability and prevent further loss of lives, and this requires a collaboration from regional and international partners to eradicate the remnants of IS.
"If the situation does not change, the ISIS legacy of landmines will continue to kill for years," Houry said.