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Remnants of War: A Deadly Legacy and Looming Timed Death for Syrians

On the occasion of the International Day of Mine Awareness, our teams reaffirm their dedication to educating communities about the hazards of mines and unexploded ordnance, and promoting safer living environments.

Millions of Syrian civilians are currently living in areas contaminated with mines and unexploded ordnance, a result of years of bombing by the Assad regime and Russia. The danger posed by these remnants of war extends far into the future, as any unexploded missile, missile fragment, or mine has the potential to explode at any moment, causing catastrophe if not dealt with properly.

The presence of mines and unexploded ordnance constitutes a significant threat to the lives of civilians, posing a long-term risk to their safety, stability, education, and agriculture. Future generations, especially children who are often unaware of the danger, are also directly affected. The White Helmets work tirelessly to remove remnants of war and educate civilians about the hazards they pose. Since the start of our work, our teams have successfully removed over 24,000 munitions, including approximately 22,000 cluster bombs.

Some remnants of war are visible on the surface, while others, such as buried aircraft bombs, are located several meters underground, making their removal even more challenging. These explosive devices are inherently unpredictable and may fail to function as intended or explode without warning, making it difficult to gauge the extent of their impact and danger. Over the years, our ammunition teams have documented more than 60 different types of munitions used by the Assad regime and Russia, resulting in the deaths of countless innocent civilians, including the use of 11 types of internationally banned cluster bombs.

Locations of War Remnants

The remnants of war are scattered throughout Syria, which has turned into a battleground for testing and experimenting with Russian weaponry. The massive military arsenal that was used against civilians has left behind a vast expanse of war remnants, stretching across cities, villages, residential areas, and farmlands. The threat of these remnants is not limited to the loss of life and injury it has caused, but also has other effects. It obstructs farmers from reaching their lands, putting their lives at risk, and prevents industrialists from resuming work in the bombed workshops. Additionally, the remnants impede the return of residents to their homes, particularly in areas that have suffered heavy bombing.

War remnants are widespread throughout northwestern Syria, particularly in the al-Ghab Plain region near the city of Jisr al-Shughur, the eastern regions of Idlib (including Sarmin, Binnish, and Taftanaz), southern Idlib in Jabal al-Zawiya, the western countryside of Aleppo, and the al-Bab and Afrin areas in the Aleppo countryside.

Cluster Bombs

Cluster bombs are among the most hazardous war remnants found in northwestern Syria. While all unexploded ordnances pose a significant threat, the widespread use of cluster bombs by the regime and Russia, combined with their low immediate explosion rate, makes them particularly dangerous. These bombs are dropped or carried by missiles and spread randomly over large areas, making it difficult to target specific targets. According to the United Nations, up to 40% of these bombs do not explode immediately after hitting the ground, causing devastating results for anyone who encounters them later.

White Helmets teams have identified over 11 types of cluster bombs, all of which are of Russian origin and used by the Assad regime and Russian forces. Due to their continuous use in attacks against civilians, cluster bombs pose an ongoing threat to the lives of people in northwestern Syria. Their explosion affects a wide range of areas, and their indiscriminate use means that the contaminated zone cannot be limited, making them a significant danger to the civilian population.

Impact of War Remnants on Individuals and Societies:

The impact of war remnants, such as mines and unexploded ordnances, on individuals and societies is catastrophic. These remnants deprive entire populations of access to vital resources such as water, agricultural land, healthcare, and education. They hinder relief work and may even prevent populations from receiving humanitarian assistance due to the risks involved.

The consequences of war remnants on lives can be devastating. The unexpected explosion of these remnants can cause bodily harm, amputation, or even death. Children are particularly vulnerable to these dangers as they are often unaware of the risks and may play or move around dangerous areas infested with remnants of war.

Injuries caused by remnants of war are often catastrophic, leading to permanent disabilities. The explosions can cause severe injuries that may result in ruptured internal organs, damage to vital parts of the body, amputation of limbs, or loss of hearing and vision.

The remnants of war also prevent displaced populations from returning to their homes, especially in areas that were points of contact or were heavily bombed. They can also limit access to land, making it difficult for communities to access resources such as water and food. This can have a negative impact on economic growth and development, particularly in fragile societies, like northwestern Syria, leading to increased poverty and unemployment rates.

Furthermore, war remnants can create a state of fear and anxiety in individuals and societies, leading to psychological trauma, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly in areas where victims have fallen as a result of these remnants. The psychological impact on individuals who are exposed to these remnants can lead to a feeling of helplessness and a change in lifestyle, as well as the society’s view of them in the event of a permanent disability.

Lastly, explosive remnants of war can harm the environment, pollute the soil and water sources with hazardous materials, and cause droughts due to the difficulty of accessing and cultivating agricultural lands. This can have a long-term impact on the ecosystem and exacerbate the challenges facing societies.

Efforts to Remove UXO

White Helmets have six specialized teams distributed across northwestern Syria to deal with the dangerous and difficult task of removing unexploded ordnance (UXO), which threatens the lives of thousands of civilians. These teams carry out various activities, including non-technical surveys to identify contaminated areas, awareness operations, and final disposal of munitions.

It's important to note that the UXO teams in the White Helmets do not clear mines and their work is limited to removing unexploded ordnance from the remnants of bombing.

The UXO teams carry out three main activities, namely:

  1. Non-technical survey: The six teams working in this activity survey villages and communities in two phases. Firstly, they collect questionnaires from the local community in all its spectrums to reach the polluted areas through a non-technical survey. Secondly, they determine the contaminated areas and draw the necessary maps, which are then sent to the removal teams. These teams carry out the technical research process for the possible presence of munitions in the target area, and the final disposal of the munitions, each munition separately, without being transported or moved. The non-technical survey is crucial in identifying dangerous areas and people most at risk and setting priorities for survey, clearance, and reduction operations.
  2. Removal (final disposal): The UXO teams have six teams working in this activity. After reaching the contaminated area specified by the survey team, a visual search process is carried out with the help of devices in the contaminated place accurately, and the process of destroying the ammunition (each ammunition separately) is carried out with high professionalism and professionalism. By the teams that are keen to destroy it completely. So far, the removal teams have disposed of more than 24,000 various munitions, including about 22,000 cluster bombs, under very difficult working conditions, which often cost the lives of four members of The White Helmets.
  3. Awareness: The UXO teams hold awareness sessions about the dangers of mines and unexploded ordnance for civilians to raise community awareness of the danger of these ordinances. The sessions focus on the danger of unexploded ordnance and the need to stay away from foreign objects, as well as the importance of informing White Helmets teams about them immediately.

In 2022, the UXO clearance teams in The White Helmets conducted more than 1,300 non-technical surveys in over 431 munitions-contaminated areas and removed 994 various munitions, including 442 cluster bombs, in 915 removal operations. The teams also provided awareness sessions about the dangers of mines and remnants of war that benefited 52,000 civilians, most of whom were children and farmers.

In 2021, the teams conducted more than 2,132 field operations, including 608 removal operations in which 683 various munitions were disposed of. The survey teams conducted a survey of 613 villages, in which 408 polluted areas were identified, while the teams provided 1,107 awareness sessions attended by over 13,000 people, more than 90 percent of whom were children.

Raising Awareness

Awareness is a critical task that can save lives. Raising awareness of the dangers posed by mines and remnants of war is crucial, and awareness campaigns are essential in providing the population with the knowledge and skills needed to avoid them. This includes educating people on how to identify mines and other unexploded ordnance, as well as training them on how to stay safe in areas that may be contaminated. By increasing awareness of the risks associated with mines and unexploded ordnance, we can help reduce the risk of injury and death, promote safer societies, and protect vulnerable populations, especially children.

The goal of awareness campaigns is to raise awareness in emergency situations, as well as to change behavior in the longer term. Additionally, these campaigns give local communities an essential role in learning how to protect themselves and report the presence of war remnants. White Helmets volunteers are individuals who belong to their local communities and, as such, have a high-impact communication strategy.

Victims of War Remnants

In 2022, the remnants of war were one of the main causes of civilian casualties in northwestern Syria. The White Helmets documented 32 explosions caused by these remnants that resulted in the death of 29 people, including 13 children, and injured 31 others, including 22 children and a woman. Our teams responded to most of these incidents.

In 2021, we responded to 32 explosions that killed 18 people, including 5 children, and injured 32 others, including 11 children.

In 2020, The White Helmets teams responded to over 60 explosions caused by war remnants in northwestern Syria. These incidents resulted in the death of 32 people, including 6 children and 4 women, and injured 65 others, including 7 children and 13 women.

Continued Attacks

The workload of The White Helmets has increased due to ongoing attacks. Regime forces and Russia have continued their attacks in northwestern Syria, using a range of weapons, including internationally prohibited cluster weapons. Over the past year, our teams have responded to five such attacks, resulting in extensive wide-spread contamination in the western countryside of Idlib, an agricultural area with several camps. The use of cluster bombs increases the risk of unexploded ordnance, which poses a threat to lives. As a result, our teams have intensified their efforts to secure the area and protect people.

In addition, after the devastating earthquake, our teams participated in surveying and securing the areas where shelter camps were set up. Many of these camps were located in remote agricultural and mountainous areas, and our teams discovered several unexploded ordnance from shelling remnants in those areas. This has added to our workload, but we remain committed to ensuring the safety of civilians in these areas.

White Helmets Women Volunteers Join Non-Technical Survey Teams in UXO

For the first time, female volunteers of the White Helmets in northwestern Syria joined non-technical survey teams in the middle of last year. After receiving training and skills, they started a new mission to preserve communities and save lives, proving that Syrian women are on the front lines in peace and in war.

The White Helmets Join International Campaign to Ban Landmines - Cluster Munition Coalition

In 2022, The White Helmets officially joined the International Campaign to Ban Landmines - Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC) as part of its efforts to clear remnants of war in Syria and shed light on their deadly impact on civilians. The move highlights the urgent need to combat these remnants and protect Syrians from their heavy, long-term legacy.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines - Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC) is a global network of national and international NGOs, including those with diverse expertise in human rights, development, refugee aid, medical care, and humanitarian relief, as well as individuals working in over 100 countries to promote adherence to treaties prohibiting and implementing landmines and cluster munitions.

The ICBL-CMC is dedicated to working towards a world free of landmines, cluster munitions, and other explosive remnants of war, where there are no new victims and the needs of affected communities and survivors are met while their human rights are protected.

The campaign's efforts are supported by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, which provides the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on cluster munitions and mines worldwide, as well as on the extent to which countries comply with the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use of Cluster Munitions. The Monitor also evaluates the international community's response to the problems caused by landmines, cluster munitions, and explosive war remnants through impartial and independent annual reports, in which it reviews the steps taken by countries that have ratified the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, as well as those countries still using mines and cluster munitions. The reports also include statistics on the number of victims and their distribution throughout the world.

In past years, The White Helmets contributed to the Monitor's annual reports by providing data on Syria related to non-technical surveys and identifying areas contaminated with cluster munitions and their final disposal operations.

The White Helmets also participated in the tenth meeting of the states parties to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, held at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva from August 30 to September 2, 2022. During the conference, the 2022 Cluster Munition Monitor report was discussed.

According to the report (to which The White Helmets contributed by providing data on northwestern Syria), Syria recorded the highest number of victims from cluster munition remnants in any country in the world in 2021. The number of cluster munition victims decreased to 37 from the previous year, when there were a total of 147 victims from cluster munition remnants, the lowest number of such victims recorded since 2012. Children constituted two-thirds of cluster munition victims in 2021.

Difficulties and Challenges

There are numerous difficulties and challenges associated with removing war remnants, which is considered the most dangerous task in the world. Even a single mistake could result in fatalities. The White Helmets has lost the lives of four volunteers and injured others since it began removing war remnants. Security obstacles remain one of the most prominent risks, particularly due to the large numbers of unexploded ordnance in areas near the frontlines with regime forces and Russia. Moreover, the teams are sometimes targeted, hindering their work. This is a major challenge, especially given that the regime forces and Russia have a systematic policy of targeting humanitarian workers.

Logistical obstacles also exist, such as the lack of advanced equipment, and the need for advanced training for the removal teams to deal with all types of ammunition and remnants of war. Although they underwent training, it was not sufficient to deal with all types of munitions and remnants of war. Consequently, their ability to deal with certain types of remnants remains limited, and the teams seek to gain more experience to be able to deal with all types.

In addition, the large number of unexploded ordnance resulting from bombing, particularly cluster bombs, of which we have documented the use of 11 types by Russia and the regime, greatly complicates the task. Furthermore, the continued shelling by regime forces and Russia results in the contamination of secured areas, making the removal process even more challenging.

Mines, Cluster Bombs and Explosive Remnants of War in International Humanitarian Law

Mines, cluster bombs, and explosive remnants of war are regulated by international humanitarian law. The overarching legal framework for preventing and addressing human suffering caused by these weapons includes customary rules of international humanitarian law, Additional Protocol I to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, Amended Protocol II, Protocol V to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

These legal instruments prohibit states parties from using landmines and cluster munitions and require them to fulfill obligations ranging from clearing contaminated land to providing comprehensive assistance to victims.

However, despite the efforts made to combat these weapons, large numbers of unexploded ordnance and mines continue to pose a significant threat to civilians. These explosive remnants of war remain present in residential areas, agricultural lands, and children's play areas in Syria, a result of ongoing systematic bombing by the regime and Russia that has persisted for years and shows no signs of abating. The presence of these munitions will continue to endanger civilians for years, if not decades, even if the war ends.

The White Helmets is focused on removing these munitions and educating the public about their danger to preserve the lives of civilians. Although unexploded ordnance can be a significant challenge, it can also serve as an investment in humanity by helping to nurture and revive communities, maintain food security, enable internally displaced persons to return to their homes, and provide children with safe access to education and play areas.