A member of the Iraqi special forces' Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) stands on the top of a Humvee as demining experts search for booby-trapped buildings in eastern Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 16, 2017.
A member of the Iraqi special forces' Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) stands on the top of a Humvee as demining experts search for booby-trapped buildings in eastern Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 16, 2017.

GENEVA - The U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS) estimates it could take 10 years to clear Mosul, Iraq, of landmines and decades longer to free this former Islamic State stronghold of thousands of tons of other explosive hazards.

The nearly year-long battle by Iraqi forces to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants has left the city with a legacy of death and destruction. An estimated 800,000 people fled Mosul during the conflict.  

Most would like to return to their homes.  But officials with the U.N. Mine Action Service say the old city of Mosul has been flattened and they cannot return.  They say no buildings are left standing and the city is heavily contaminated with landmines and explosive hazards.

Chief of the UNMAS program in Iraq, Pehr Lodhammer, told VOA these weapons must be cleared before people can return home safely.  He said unexploded ordnance, booby traps and other explosive devices are particularly hazardous.

“People are getting injured, yes.  But there is also more of a tendency that people actually are getting killed by those devices rather than injured because of the explosive weight.  And, the fact that many of them are also within a container that is made from metal, creating fragmentation,” Lodhammer said.

UNMAS began clearing operations in the fall of 2017, shortly after the conflict in Mosul ended.  Since then, Lodhammer says 7.6 million tons of debris from the fighting containing many explosive devices have been removed.  Last year, he says 17,000 explosive hazards, including 2,000 improvised explosive weapons were hauled away.

“This also included 782 suicide belts.  Many of them actually fitted on fallen ISIS fighters in debris, in rubble - gruesome work for operators who were doing this very, [in] very difficult physical and psychological conditions for them,” Lodhammer said.

UNMAS reports the clearance of landmines and explosive ordnance is advancing rapidly in many regions, but the amount of new contamination is keeping up with these advances and putting more lives at risk.

The agency is running 146 projects in 19 countries, at a cost of $495 million. More than half that amount is going toward clearance operations in the post-conflict zones of Iraq.