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Tragedy in Ahwaz: The Deadly Toll of War Mines and the Iranian State’s Neglect

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A few days ago, in the early hours of 20 May 2024, two Ahwazi villagers, one of whom was a child, were killed by landmines leftover from the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq war in Shalamcheh, Al-Maslawiyah village in the Ahwaz region of south-west Iran.  The local Ahwazi activists of the area reported the deaths on social media platforms, identifying the victims as a 15-year-old boy, Mohsen Farhan Al-Atqi, and a 30-year-old man, Hamoud Imkhalif Al-Sulaimani Al-Tamimi. Local sources revealed that the two were collecting recyclable cans and bottles from a garbage dump on the outskirts of the border city to exchange for money when a mine exploded, killing them instantly.

 

 

Although nearly 37 years have passed since the Iran-Iraq war ended, its remnants continue to claim lives in Ahwaz. The Iranian regime’s failure to clear war-torn areas of mines, bullets, and unexploded devices remains a persistent danger. This ongoing tragedy has blighted the lives of countless Ahwazis, with many of those maimed or killed by the mines being children and young people. Such tragic incidents are so regular as to be routine, especially in areas around the border, where innocent children often fall, victim, while playing near agricultural fields or in open areas around their homes.

 

 

The cataclysm unleashed by the prolonged war served as a potent weapon for the Iranian regime, enabling it to displace many thousands of Ahwazi Arabs from their lands; as the conflict reached its ferocious peak, war-stricken cities such as Abadan, Muhammarah, Albseytin and rural areas near the border which were exposed to extensive devastation were almost deserted.  The Ahwazi population, displaced from their rural homes, migrated to the central regions of Iran. As a result, a significant part of Ahwazi society and a crucial factor in Ahwaz’s anti-colonial resistance against Iranian occupation was effectively silenced, particularly in Muhammarah city. This displacement of the Ahwazi population due to the war meant that the Ahwazi political movement’s leaders and activists in this area could not play a significant role for at least two decades in shaping the larger Ahwazi struggle and mobilisation of local people against Iranian colonialism. 

 

 

After the war, successive Iranian governments adopted similarly exclusionary policies against the Ahwazi people, preventing the allocation of any budget to reconstruct the devastated infrastructure of the war-ravaged regions, especially in the cities of Abadan and Muhammarah, and in this way, they succeeded in thwarting any possibility of the Ahwazi people in exile returning to their homeland. Thus, the Iranian state was a pioneer in contemporary Middle Eastern geopolitics in conducting massive demographic change, seizing Ahwazi Arabs’ land with no external condemnation or even any notice being taken.

 

 

As always, through this ‘relocation programme,’ the regime sought to make the war-torn areas whose Ahwazi Arab population had been almost entirely evacuated during the conflict uninhabitable as a pretext to prevent or discourage the return of thousands of the indigenous inhabitants.

 

 

The regime did not reconstruct any of the devastated homes, villages or towns or repair the infrastructure in these areas, particularly those in the border area, instead declaring them as prohibited military zones and cordoning the areas off with barbed wire and military patrols, leaving them empty to this day. The thousands of Ahwazis from these rural areas who had been forced to flee were relocated to shanty towns and marginalised areas around Ahwaz City and to other towns and cities outside Ahwaz. While these dispossessed peoples waited for long years to return to their villages and lands, clinging to the belief that they could return home following the end of the war in 1988, these hopes steadily faded and became a mirage.

 

 

The Ahwazi peoples from these rural border areas have lost both their villages and their farmland, which the regime in Tehran has never ordered cleared of the thousands of unexploded mines and rockets. Successive Iranian governments did not attempt to clean up the agricultural lands from these lethal war remnants, effectively using them as a preventive measure to deprive the Ahwazi farmers and villagers of returning to their homes and farming their lands. The presence of these mines meant, unsurprisingly, that the villagers preferred to remain in the ghettoes of Ahwaz city, where their children would at least be safe from lethal mine explosions, rather than returning to their ruined homes.

 

 

According to United Nations reports, 16 million landmines are still spread across 4.2 million hectares of land along the Iranian border. A third of these mines are located in Ahwaz, affecting border areas such as Hamidiyeh, Albstein (Bostan), Howeyzeh, Susa, Dekka Abbas(Dasht-e Abbas),  Muhammarah, and Abbadan. This means that approximately 1.5 million hectares in the Ahwaz region are mined. According to an Iranian regime official, only 226,000 hectares have been cleared.

 

 

The Iranian regime keeps the number of deaths from mines secret, providing no transparent or realistic figures to reveal the true horrendous scale of the wholly preventable losses and fatalities from these lethal remnants. According to one report, between 2009 and 2019, there were 73 deaths and 399 injuries resulting in permanent paralysis. Another source reports over 75 deaths in Ahwaz due to mine explosions in the last decade alone. Unfortunately, the reported numbers and figures lack transparency and consistency, with discrepancies between different government agencies since the regime refuses to allow any investigation. The Ministry of Health and the Iranian Statistical Organisation often report vastly different numbers, distorting the reality and hindering accurate analysis.

 

 

The following lines include examples of Ahwazi victims of war remnants from mine explosions, reflecting the ongoing war legacy in Ahwazi bordering areas:

 

 

One Dead and One Wounded: Before the aforementioned incident, a similar tragedy occurred in the city of Albstein, in the village of Nabaa, in February 2024. On this occasion, the victims were a 57-year-old woman and two children, aged 12 and 10. The woman and her two children were left paralysed and requiring multiple amputations, living the rest of their lives in a tragic state of physical disability. The young man who died was just 19 years old, with the blast from the landmine leaving only the upper parts of his body intact.

 

 

The Tragedy of Hussein Latifi: The case of the child Hussein Latifi on 10 March 2021 is one of the most harrowing such cases, highlighting the dangers in the Ahwazi border regions. Hussein was playing beside agricultural fields while his family worked tending their crops. They reported hearing a massive explosion that shook the entire village of Al-Saleh Daoud near the city of Susa (Shush). When his parents reached the site, they found their young son’s body had been dismembered by the blast, with the lower part completely missing and the torso and upper half burnt beyond recognition. This incident, captured in a widely circulated video, underscored the horror and tragedy of landmine explosions in the area.

 

 

One Dead and Two Wounded in the Albstein Incident: The city of Albstein, located in a border area that saw heavy fighting during the Iran-Iraq war, was the site of another tragic incident. In the Al-Imqar forest near the city, a mine exploded on 12 October 2019, killing one young man and injuring two others during a picnic. Strong winds had moved the mine into their path, causing the explosion. The injuries sustained were severe, often leading to amputation, loss of sight, or other critical surgical operations, highlighting the ongoing danger of unexploded ordnance in the region.

 

 

Three Dead in Susa Incident: On 15 October 2015, the tragic incident in the adjacent villages of Al-Zaan and Al-Sarkha near the city of Susa highlights the plight of impoverished individuals forced into dangerous, low-income work. Three young men lost their lives while searching for discarded iron and steel in an area peppered with landmines. They felt forced to take such desperate action to earn money as a result of severe drought conditions that left their agricultural fields unusable. This incident underscores both the ongoing danger of war remnants and the dire economic conditions that drive people to risk their lives.

 

 

Tragic Incident in Susa: In January 2020, in Farahan Kabar village of Chenaneh Rural District of Susa, near the Karkheh River, a heartbreaking incident was reported by local media. A father lost his life, and his three children were severely wounded after he inadvertently stepped on a mine while walking with them. The force of the explosion killed the father instantly, while the shrapnel inflicted devastating injuries on his young children, aged 2, 6, and 11, who lost limbs and suffered injuries to their eyes. This tragic event underscores the ongoing threat posed by landmines in border regions and highlights the plight of innocent individuals caught in these hazardous environments.

 

 

The tragic examples mentioned above serve to emphasise a distressing reality: despite three decades passing since the war, incidents involving landmines continue unabated in the Ahwaz region. Despite the region’s considerable wealth, which could fund comprehensive cleanup efforts to rid the area of war remnants, including mines, the Iranian regime has neglected Ahwaz entirely. As a result, Ahwaz continues to grapple with the threat of unexploded mines, leading to successive tragedies like those recounted above. The intention behind highlighting these examples is not merely to document individual incidents but to draw attention to the ongoing suffering endured by the people of Ahwaz due to state neglect and indifference to their safety and well-being.

 

 

Several factors have perpetuated the tragic loss of innocent lives due to landmines. These reasons can be classified into two main groups: objective factors stemming from natural circumstances and manmade conditions exacerbated by the Iranian regime.

 

 

 

Landmines moving

 

 

Landmines, typically buried just beneath the soil, can be easily displaced by natural forces, particularly rain-induced soil erosion. This movement, while gradual, poses a significant danger as mines may be relocated by flooding or other extreme weather events to areas previously considered safe. Despite not detonating immediately due to movement, the risk they pose remains high. Rainfall and subsequent soil erosion can displace mines from their original planting sites, shifting them to new locations. While some mines may detonate due to movement or age, others remain dormant, posing an ongoing threat to unsuspecting individuals. The movement of mines can render previously safe areas hazardous, endangering both civilians and mine-clearance specialists. Displaced mines may relocate to areas previously cleared, necessitating ongoing clearance efforts to maintain safety. This phenomenon underscores the continuing danger posed by landmines in affected regions, highlighting the need for continued vigilance and comprehensive mine-clearance initiatives to mitigate risks to civilian populations and personnel involved in clearance operations.

 

Noncompliance on the part of Iran’s military

 

 

The tragedy of landmines and the loss of innocent lives are entirely manmade issues, squarely attributed to the Iranian regime’s failures. While it’s the responsibility of the Iranian military to identify and clear mined sites, systemic failures within military services have led to a stark lack of commitment to this crucial task. Over the years, tensions between the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian army have further complicated the situation. Initially tasked with protecting and monitoring borders, the Iranian army saw its responsibilities shifted to the Revolutionary Guards a decade ago, effectively absolving the army of its duties. This transfer of responsibility has created a cycle of blame, with neither entity taking decisive action to address the ongoing threat posed by landmines. This neglect underscores the regime’s disregard for the safety and well-being of its citizens, leaving innocent lives at risk due to its failure to address this pressing issue.

 

 

Budgetary Neglect: Consequences of Resource Deprivation

 

 

Despite its vast resource wealth, Ahwaz is woefully and shockingly neglected by the Iranian regime, particularly in allocating funds to remedy the lingering effects of war, notably the presence of landmines. This negligence is mainly manifested in two critical areas: firstly, the insufficient provision of funding for mine detection and clearance specialists, reflected by the low salaries and lack of insurance coverage for those undertaking this essential but dangerous work. This means that, understandably, very few are willing to perform it. Secondly, there’s a failure to procure essential equipment for mine clearance, partly due to sanctions but primarily due to the regime’s indifference towards the issue. Cities and border regions affected by mines, notably those inhabited by non-Persian peoples like the Ahwazis, bear the brunt of this neglect.  Moreover, the lack of adequately equipped hospitals exacerbates the situation. Cases of amputation, severe burns, and other injuries resulting from mine explosions often receive inadequate medical care due to the unpreparedness of medical facilities and lack of specialist services. Swift and appropriate medical intervention could prevent many cases of paralysis and amputation, with the absence of any will to provide such services underscoring the dire consequences of medical negligence compounded by the regime’s disregard for the well-being of affected communities.

 

 

Iran’s refusal to ratify the Ottawa Treaty

 

 

Iran’s failure to accede to the Ottawa Treaty, which prohibits the production, use, and trade of mines, remains a significant impediment to addressing the mine contamination issue. Despite being the world’s second-most mine-contaminated country, Iran continues to evade joining the treaty, offering feeble justifications. By joining, Iran could leverage global expertise and access necessary tools for landmine clearance. Given the natural movement of mines into the ground, conventional detection devices have become ineffective, exacerbating Iran’s technical shortcomings in landmine clearance. Thus, accession to such treaties could mitigate Iranian technical deficiencies in addressing the mine crisis.

 

 

Ahwazis Use Social Media to Sound the Alarm on Deadly Mine Contamination

 

 

Ahwazi local social media activists have been trying to highlight the perilous impact of mine contamination, particularly on marginalised Ahwazi Arab rural communities residing along the remote borders. These vulnerable groups lack the means to hold the Iranian regime accountable or demand the fulfillment of its obligations. Moreover, many Ahwazi Arab victims and their families do not speak Persian, further complicating their ability to advocate for necessary measures with Iranian authorities who refuse to hear cases in any other language. In this context, Ahwazi local media and influential social media voices play a vital role in amplifying awareness and advocacy efforts to safeguard lives. Their proactive engagement is essential in pressuring authorities to take decisive action to clear mines and ensure the safety of affected Ahwazi communities.

 

 

 Conclusion

 

 

In Ahwaz, the devastating impact of conflict still lingers long after the fighting has ceased. The remnants of war, including explosive ordnance, have left behind a “terrifying legacy” that not only poses a deadly threat to civilians but also hinders the rebuilding of Ahwazi society. The presence of landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) in areas such as paths, wetlands, forests, and communities makes it difficult for people to restore their lives and livelihoods.

 

 

According to reports, in 2022, numerous casualties were caused by anti-personnel landmines and ERW, with the majority being Ahwazi civilians, including many children. As Jody Williams, founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, highlighted in her Nobel Prize speech, the indiscriminate nature of landmines is a major concern. They do not discriminate between soldiers, civilians, or children, and they can continue to kill long after the conflict has ended.

 

 

The effects of landmines extend beyond immediate harm to individuals. They can also have a broader impact on Ahwazi communities, including restricting their freedom of movement and access to essential services. Furthermore, landmines and ERW are linked to the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment in Ahwaz. The presence of explosive remnants in soil can cause land degradation, water contamination, and biodiversity loss. Climate change-related events can exacerbate these risks, with floods and landslides potentially unearthing and moving landmines, and heatwaves causing munition stockpiles to explode.

 

 

By Rahim Hamid

Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi freelance journalist at Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

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