By Amer al-Hourani
AMMAN— On Sunday, residents of the western countryside of Daraa woke up to the news that a family of five was injured when a mine left behind by the Islamic State affiliate Jaish Khalid bin al-Waleed (JKW) exploded in the Yarmouk Basin. The incident was one in a series of similar explosions that have killed dozens of residents in southern Syria since the pro-government forces seized the area last summer.
According to a local news website, the landmine hit a tractor the family was riding on the road between the towns of Tsil and Aain Thakar, within a previously JKW-controlled area.
A week before the explosion, Daraa province recorded a similar incident; a child was killed and a young man was injured when a mine left by the pro-government forces exploded in Gharz, east of Daraa.
While mines are scattered in farmlands and around government military positions along former frontlines in the south, JKW booby trapped everything, “including electrical appliances in homes,” in the land they controlled, sources told Syria Direct.
According to statistics provided by the documentation office of Horan Free League, a local media and documentation organization, 44 civilians, including four women and 16 children, have been killed in Daraa province between August 1 and August 25, because of landmines and unexploded ordnance.
Director of the office, Oqba al-Muhammad, told Syria Direct that half of the casualties occurred in the western countryside of Daraa, specifically in the area of the Yarmouk Basin,” which was under the control of JKW. “Among the victims, 18 civilians died as a result of the explosion of mines or cluster bombs while working in agricultural land in the province of Daraa.”
Basin of mines
Despite the end of JKW rule in southwest Syria since late July 2018, people are unable to go back to normal life.
Khaled al-Said, a 26-year-old from the town of Saham al-Jolan told Syria Direct that people in Yarmouk Basin are moving cautiously, afraid to reach the villages of Sheikh Hussein, Kawkab, and the perimeter of the Saham al-Jolan Dam because of the danger posed by the spread of explosive mines there.
“Mines are not only spread in the basin but also in devices such as telephones and other things,” he said.
The JKW booby-trapped most of the agricultural land and houses in the villages under its control during the final battles in the region. This explains why mines continue to explode more than a year after the end of the group’s rule in the area.
Among the incidents al-Said counted was the killing of a young Jordanian woman married to a Syrian resident of Saham al-Jolan. JKW left behind a bomb disguised as a lamp in her house and when she returned home after the group was defeated, the bomb exploded while she was tidying up her things.
JKW left behind complex and multifaceted mines, including the so-called “al-Tasharik, intricately mined objects with deceptive tactics, planted in homes where members of JKW were based,” said al-Said
In addition to JKW mines, Syrian and Russian warplanes dropped cluster bombs over large swathes of the area; the unexploded ordnance poses yet another challenge to civilians.
Explosive ‘food basket’
Daraa province constitutes one of the food baskets of Syria. The province has fertile soil, a favorable climate and abundant water source. However, large areas of these lands are still off-limits to their owners, despite the Syrian government’s announcement of a return to normalcy.
As farmers harvest their crops, Abu Muhammed al-Arabi, a farmer from the town of Kherbet Ghazaleh in the eastern countryside of Daraa, refrains from harvesting his land on the outskirts of the town because of mines planted in the area.
The land remained under the control of government forces and did not fall under the control of JKW, which is known to lay mines as one of its military strategies. But as eastern and southern axes were frontlines with the opposition militant groups, pro-government forces were prompted to plant mines.
Since the government allowed families from Kherbet Ghazaleh to return a year ago, al-Arabi has been waiting for government engineering teams to clear the mines they planted from his land.
When the teams didn’t show, he decided to ask for help from a military barracks close by. The soldiers apologized because of “the lack of necessary equipment,” as they said.
Large areas of agricultural land in the eastern countryside of Daraa have been neglected “as a result of the farmers’ reluctance to approach them for fear of mines, or because they became dirt mounds where government forces were holed up,” Tariq al-Haj, a farmer from Kherbet Ghazaleh told Syria Direct.
Mines laid by government forces in Kherbet Ghazaleh and other areas could be removed with ease in comparison to JKW planted mines.
“The army does not plant any explosive devices without locating them on special maps, to facilitate their future dismantling,” defected Colonel Akram al-Zu’bi told Syria Direct. He accused the Damascus government of disregarding the number of mine victims; government forces “have not yet dismantled these mines to extend their influence on southern Syria,” he added.
On more than one occasion, the pro-government forces announced that their engineering teams would detonate explosive devices and “terrorists’ ammunition,” in several areas of Daraa.
But as al-Haj reveals, clearing unexploded ordnance and mines wasn’t free. Landowners paid the government troops for the clearance.
Although the demining operations are the responsibility of the Syrian government and are supposed to be a free service to rehabilitate the areas they control, al-Haj stressed that the teams charge SP10,000-15,000, depending on the area of land to be cleared of mines and artillery.
While former members of the Free Syrian Army, who are now among the Fourth Division of the government forces ranks, worked to dismantle and remove unexploded ordnance from the farms and houses of the people in Daraa for SP5,000 per acre, “the army engineering teams were more focused on the former frontlines,” media activist Diaa al-Ahmad told Syria Direct.
In July, the UN’s deputy spokesman warned that the lives of more than 10 million Syrians were threatened because of “mine-contaminated” areas.
This report is part of Syria Direct’s Connecting Communities through Professional Engagement Project in partnership with the Australian Embassy to Jordan’s Direct Aid Program.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh