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A Syrian Father's Mission To Clear ISIS Mines Is Cut Short

Abu al Fadl devoted the final months of his life to clearing al-Bab of improvised explosives left behind by ISIS in everything from washing machines to cooking pots. The 60-year-old disabled several thousand mines before one took his life.

Abu al Fadl and one of the circa 3,500 mines he cleared
Abu al Fadl and one of the circa 3,500 mines he cleared
Wisam Franjiyeh

Ahmad Muhammad al-Na'sani was haunted by thoughts of his death long before he died.

As a volunteer land mine removal expert in Aleppo's countryside, he felt his life would end every time he discovered an explosive device. After destroying nearly 3,500 explosives, al-Na'sani, known as Abu al-Fadl, was killed on May 8 while taking apart a land mine left by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

In April, just days before he was killed, Abu al-Fadl spoke to Syria Deeply about his work dismantling explosives in al-Bab, a former militant stronghold in the eastern Aleppo countryside, where an estimated 15,000 land mines are believed to have been left by ISIS fighters.

The 60-year-old father of five, who lost two of his children during the war, used to teach at the military academy in Aleppo and specialized in explosives.

When he set out on his own to defuse land mines, he noted that much of his work focused on understanding the creative methods used by ISIS to make and hide their bombs, which are often disguised as rocks or propane tanks.

The majority of victims of these devices are children.

"I have found explosive devices hidden inside washing machines, in vacuum cleaners, under couches and in bathrooms," he told Syria Deeply. By placing explosives in residential areas, he said, ISIS is intentionally targeting civilians.

"The majority of victims of these devices are children," he said.

Earlier this year, Abu al-Fadl was injured by an ISIS land mine in Akhtarin in northeastern, rural Aleppo. Nearly 20 pieces of shrapnel penetrated his body and he suffered severe burns to parts of his face. The explosive also hit Ahmad, a 12-year-old boy who suffered serious injuries to his abdomen, arm and leg. Abu al-Fadl said it was a was a miracle that he survived the explosion.

Hundreds of people are killed by land mines in Syria each year, in a crisis that is only getting worse. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reported that 864 people were killed in Syria by land mines and other explosives in 2015 alone. Since then, the number has increased significantly, because ISIS made a point of littering the territories it lost with land mines and other explosive devices before withdrawing. Explosives were a "major protection concern" in 88% of subdistricts surveyed in Syria, according to the 2017 Protection Needs Overview published by the UN.

Demining former ISIS strongholds, however, is not an easy task, Abu al-Fadl said. ISIS has used mines as a way to continue terrorizing a population even after it has been pushed out of the area.

Engineering teams embedded within Turkey's Euphrates Shield Operation have defused more than 5,000 land mines in territories formerly held by ISIS, according to a statement released in April by the chief of general staff in Turkey, which added that the majority of explosive devices found in al-Bab were anti-tank and anti-personnel mines "placed in the streets or hidden inside residential buildings."

The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab combatants fighting ISIS, also contribute by deploying specialized demining teams to areas they liberate from militants.

Every minute of delay results in a higher number of victims.

In al-Bab, where Turkey-backed rebels pushed ISIS out in February, the militant group used tactics such as putting two mines on top of each other, to double the impact and ensure that even if one was found and deactivated, the other would still explode. Other devices, including ones with plastic explosives, are very hard for machines to discover.

Syrians are dependent on volunteers like Abu al-Fadl because organizations working on the ground in northern Syria do not have the resources or the capacity to solve this problem. "Individual efforts and initiatives are much needed. Every minute of delay results in a higher number of victims," Abu al-Fadl said.

The volunteer-based Syrian Mine Action Center (SMAC), for example, has received at least 11,000 reports of areas contaminated with explosive devices in rural Aleppo, northern Hama and in Idlib as well as its countryside, but the organization does not have the resources to deal with such a large number of notices, according to the center's managing director, Ahmad Nasif.

The SMAC is not alone. Most organizations in Syria do not have enough funding to tackle the problem. Studies indicate that Syria needs $52 million for mine action this year. After an appeal made in 2016 to raise $347 million, the UN launched a $511 million international appeal in February for humanitarian mine action in conflict and post-conflict settings. The UN anti-mine agency's Syria response received $3.8 million on an appeal for $10.5 million for "coordination, risk education, impact survey, and victim assistance activities."

The SMAC has received some assistance in the past from international partners who have provided protective clothing, advanced mine detection equipment as well as training for the center's staff, says Nasif, adding that these contributions have helped the SMAC improve the quality of its operations.

The SMAC is also trying to compensate for its limited resources by raising awareness, distributing brochures, holding symposiums for local councils and schools and placing warning signs in areas expected to have explosive devices. It addition, the organization has a rapid response team that works around the clock responding in areas that have been hit with cluster bombs or unexploded shells.

"Our programs work on five levels: support, raising awareness, helping victims, defusing explosive devices and destroying inventory," Nasif said.

Meanwhile, volunteers like Abu al-Fadl continue to risk their lives to help clear contaminated territories.

"As long as I can still breathe, I will continue to work on saving other people's lives," he said. That was just a few weeks before his death.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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