by Mehrnaz Samimi
Akbar, 47, needs to wrap his leg stump in layer after layer of cloth. His leg was amputated after he stepped on a hidden landmine on his way from work, in western Iran, an area still contaminated by landmines from the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war. His health insurance company did not cover the expense of a prosthetic leg, so he had to pay out of pocket what he could afford, which is what he describes as a “rotten” prosthesis.
He explains to me over the phone how the explosion has disrupted his life and how his wife has to work almost double the time she used to in the field for the family’s survival. He tearfully describes the agony of the ill-fitting leg, the rashes and infections it had caused over the 14 months he has been wearing it, and the constant fear he feels for his wife and kids: “what if one of them steps on a mine, too?”
Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor provides precise and updated numbers on landmine elimination operations, casualties, and treaties joined by countries, among other information, on its website, revising the information each year. According to the Monitor, Iran’s mine action authorities prior to 2014 reported 4,200 square kilometers as the amount of contaminated land by the Iran-Iraq war. Meanwhile in February 2014, the Iran Mine Action Center (IRMAC) reported 250 square kilometers of contaminated land in five Iranian provinces. According to IRMAC information, however, two incidents reported in early 2014 confirmed contamination in the Lut desert of central-eastern Iran where Iran’s anti-drug police forces had reportedly placed mines to deter drug trafficking, which is entirely unrelated to the Iran-Iraq war.
As with many things in Iran, the situation of landmines is rendered murkier by layers of complexity and contradiction. In the past, Tehran has stressed the need to secure its borders and combat drug trafficking through the use of landmines, reportedly one of the justifications of Tehran’s reluctance to join the Ottawa Treaty (Mine Ban Treaty). Iran has also complained that international organizations have not met its demands for demining help, expressed as recently as in 2015. Other than the help provided by the Red Cross, little else has been done for Iran in this regard.
An Iranian government official who asked to remain unnamed in this interview told me, “The UN representative in Tehran has been briefed on the condition of contaminated areas in Iran, but so far, due to certain political reservations, no action has been taken to help Iran with demining activities.”
When I asked whether Iran has clearly voiced its concerns in requesting aid, the official said, “Yes. Despite such requests in 2015, Iran has not benefitted from technical or financial demining aid. Iran’s efforts to purchase IMSMA software for demining activities was unsuccessful due to international sanctions. Unfortunately, international agencies have not demonstrated the humanitarian aspect of this matter when it comes to Iran.”
Lee Woodyear, communications officer at the United Nations Mine Action Service UNMAS in New York, told me that his organization has not received any formal request for demining help from Iran in 2015. He added that, despite an invitation, Iran did not attend the international Meeting of Mine Action National Programme Directors and United Nations Advisors—an annual meeting that takes place in Geneva—and has not confirmed whether it would attend the meeting in February 2016.
Woodyear also provided background on the international demining organizations’ cooperation with Iran, “The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with IRMAC in January 2005. Cooperation was reinforced following a visit in September 2011. An Iranian delegation was received for a study visit in February 2012 and they participated in the first workshop of the Persian-language Outreach Programme held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in February 2013.”
Although Tehran says that 99% of contaminated land has been “generally” cleared, according to Land Mine and Cluster Munition Monitor’s most recent report released in November 2015, no data was available on the clearance and land release of mined areas in 2014 or the previous year. Moreover, Iran’s Defense Ministry has not elaborated on the extent of safety that “general clearing” suggests and has not clarified whether it has entirely erased the threat of explosions.
Many sources state that Iran is the second most contaminated country in the world. Iran’s minister of defense states that his country’s contamination by mines, as well as the variety of its landmines, is unique in the world. Both civilians and deminers fall victim to mines in Iran. Despite all this, exact statistics on the number of victims is scarce and unreliable.
After speaking to Akbar for this story, I spoke to several other civilians living in the same area where landmine explosions have been reported. Many civilians share Akbar’s concern and point out that people are not sufficiently educated about the danger of mines in the vicinity of their home, work, or school.
“Flyers and booklets are distributed every once in a while,” Akbar says, “but it’s nowhere near a proper education, especially for our kids who play in the fields.”
Akbar is among the luckier victims who have survived such explosions. Many have died in similar explosions, while others have been blinded or maimed in worse ways.
There is the hope that, with the removal of sanctions, Iran will have more access to technical demining materials. Even so, the country still faces a long process of clearing contaminated land, and further education and medical aid are what the inhabitants of these areas describe among their pressing needs.
Mehrnaz Samimi is an Iranian-American journalist, analyst, and simultaneous interpreter based in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @MehrnazSamimi