Playing With Death
UK Daily Mirror
Monday 21 April 2003
Horror mine toll as Iraq's war children invent new games
The figures are frightening the reality is appalling. Most guns may have fallen silent but the death toll in Iraq continues to rise.
In the city of Kirkuk in the past seven days, 52 people have been killed and 63 injured by mines and dangerously unstable unexploded munitions.
Most of the victims were children. A mine can do more damage to a little person. Now the soldiers have gone they are playing again.
But they share their playgrounds with some of the most sophisticated weaponry known to man and decades of rusting old shells and mortars which can detonate at any moment.
In just a week a mine-clearing charity has removed 30 truckloads of explosives - 11,000 mines plus 200,000 bombs and missiles. In some areas there are so many shells they are stacked by the side of the road, marked with red spray paint and position fixed by satellite until a team can get to them.
The Mines Advisory Group - the charity loved and supported by Princess Diana - has 700 people working in northern Iraq.
They say that of all the war zones they have entered, Iraq is by far the worst they have ever seen.
IN the past 10 years they have cleared 91,000 mines and almost 346,000 items of unexploded bombs.
It means 6 million square metres of land - the equivalent of more than 10,000 football pitches - are now safe.
But there could be more than 10 million mines laid in Iraq alone over the past war-torn decade.
Those are the figures. But the human cost is almost too much to bear.
In a hospital bed in Kirkuk a little boy's face is barely recognisable. Nine-year-old Arkin survived the war only to nearly lose his young life to a landmine.
Wandering close to his home he found the weapon had just been discarded.
Like all little boys he was curious and picked it up. He lost an arm and a hand.
His face is a mask of dried blood - shrapnel splinters ripped into him tearing off his nose.
Arkin's family had thought they had just embarked on a new peaceful life - a life free of Saddam.
They had returned to their home after 16 years in exile hoping the future was brighter. A day after they returned that future was blown to smithereens by the side of a dusty road in the blinding flash and explosive roar which crippled their son.
All around Arkin in the children's ward there are other young victims.
From many there is little noise, not even a murmur. Their eyes are dulled with shock, raw flesh is peeling from their injuries. They cannot understand what happened - they were just playing.
In the streets of northern Iraq a munitions store can be a playground for a deadly game of "chase the genie".
Using coins and other pieces of metal, children prise out the explosive charge from a mortar bomb, empty out the gunpowder and with a match or a spark ignite it to watch the flash.
Ten-year-old Khadab can tell you about that. He stumbled across a pile of mortar bombs abandoned in a school and was horrifically disfigured trying to burn the gunpowder inside them.
Photographer Sean Sutton who took these pictures on behalf of the Mines Advisory Group, said: "The game is to try and conjure up a genie with a great 'whoosh' like Aladdin and his lamp.
"The potential for tragedy is immense. I've been in many combat and post-combat situations but I've never seen so much of this stuff lying around as there is here."
MAG believe they are spending around 2million a year in Iraq just running to keep still - and as yet they operate only in the north of the country.
The pressure group say they have seen little of UN mines clearance teams. MAG say they would need around 4.7million to expand their operation to the whole of Iraq, where it is believed there are 1,174 minefields which have claimed 3,699 lives and injured 7,427.
Caches of arms are everywhere left abandoned by a fleeing and defeated Iraqi army.
There are also American cluster bombs dropped in an attack on two military sites north and west of Kirkuk. Three weeks ago BBC world affairs producer Stuart Hughes,31, lost a foot and half his leg after stepping on a landmine near Kifri in northern Iraq.
His colleague, Iranian-born cameraman Kaveh Golestan, was killed. The death toll from mine accidents in the town in just a week is 87.
Now recovering back in Britain, Stuart said he never saw the mine planted in a grass verge by the side of the road.
HE said: "Obviously I was quite badly hurt, but I dread to think what would have happened if a child had stepped on it.
I'm 6ft tall, but a five-year-old would have been that much closer to the ground and I don't think would have stood a chance."
Today Sir Paul McCartney, whose wife Heather is a longtime anti-landmine campaigner, lends his support for a ban on "cowardly" cluster bombs. He tells BBC Radio 5 Live: "After the war finishes it's the civilians - mainly women and children - who get blown up."
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