At least 3.2 million Iraqis were displaced during the period of Isis occupation and the resulting years of war. The governorate of Ninewa in northern Iraq, home to major towns such as Mosul and Sinjar, saw some of the worst of the fighting and by the end of 2017 almost 1.9 million people had fled the region.
The Yazidi religious minority remains among the worst affected. An estimated 300,000 people from the Yazidi population in the area fled their homes in an attempt to escape the atrocities carried out by Isis, including mass killings, abductions and the complete destruction of cities and villages. Since Isis was driven out of the area the number of returnees has steadily increased, but as of February 2019 more than a million people from the Ninewa region remain internally displaced.
One of the main reasons people are unable to return home is due to the threat of unexploded landmines and other explosive hazard contamination, which still makes much of the northern region uninhabitable. Since 2017 UK-based NGO the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been working in Iraq to clear the land. So far it has removed 1,511 explosive items, of which 1,318 were improvised landmines.
Sean Sutton, a photojournalist for MAG, has just returned from Sinjar, where he documented the work being done to make the land habitable and the stories of the people who have returned.
Improvised landmines lie on the ground on the hills of Sinjar
On these fields in Sinjar, where former military positions still run along the hilltops, Sean and the MAG team met a local man, Ismail Vasho Khudoda, who was concerned that his children and local shepherds had found explosive items on the hillside. MAG has done a lot of work in the area, clearing the ground around Ismail’s home as well as a large stretch of land between the house and a nearby school.
MAG team leader Atu checks an unexploded ISIS rocket close to Sinjar city
MAG recruit and train men and women from local communities which gives people affected by landmines the opportunity to clear them, as well as to financially support their families and communities.
Women sit on the remains of a house in Solagh village
So far, 20 families have returned to this part of Solagh village, which lies east of Sinjar city. But the scale of the destruction means others can’t do the same. The owner of this house is still living in the city because his family doesn’t have the means to rebuild. There are fears that there might be landmines in the rubble.
Early morning on Mount Sinjar
On August 3, 2014, some 50,000 Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar to escape Isis massacres. Thousands of people still live in temporary shelters on the mountain.
Alias Hussein Drwesh, one of the village Mukhtars and tribal leaders from Til Azer village, lives with thousands of others on Mount Sinjar
‘There were more than 5,000 families living in Til Azer before Isis came,’ Drwesh told Sutton. ‘Most people were farmers growing a variety of crops. In winter, we would grow vegetables in green houses. In summer we grow grain such as barley and wheat. Honey was also an important product. We reared cattle, sheep and goats and sold our produce to Mosul, Tel Afar and Kurdistan – there was a lot of trade. If there were no landmines we would be able to go home and rebuild. That is what we want more than anything. 270 families from Til Azer are living on the mountain in bad conditions. Many more are in villages north of the mountain but most are in camps in Kurdistan.’
Men stand next to a collapsed house in Sahia village
The people of Sahia village found themselves on the front-line when Isis came and set up positions in and around their community. They fled to distant hills, living in makeshift shelters behind Isis lines. Most, if not all buildings in the village are now destroyed. Since Isis was forced out of the area there have been lots of landmine accidents in and around the village as people have tried to return home to farm and rebuild. So far nine people have died and 15 have been injured – many of them losing limbs in landmine blasts. Here, the son of the village Mukhtar, Salah Yassin, stands next to a collapsed house adorned with washing lines. The house had IEDs in it. MAG removed one that was accessible but needs to bring in plant machinery to access the others.
MAG Sinuni dog teams
MAG uses a range of methods to detect and destroy landmines, cluster bombs and other unexploded weapons, including manual deminers, machinery and mine detection dogs. The dogs are trained to sniff out explosives and alert their handler.
Children play on land cleared of landmines
Howar (5), Amala (6), Ramz (6), Vian (4), Hala (4) and Rihan (9) play on their farm near Mount Sinjar. MAG was able to clear all of their land, allowing the family to return.
Improvised landmines and unexploded mortar bombs
Improvised landmines such as these can contain several kilos of explosives. Injuries are often deadly and can result in multiple amputations for those who survive.
Six members of a mine action team get ready for work in Al Ayadiya
The teams working to clear landmines are made up of staff from many different backgrounds including Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds. These six women are part of a team of 14, working to clear mines in Al Ayadiya.
MAG community liaison officers provide mine risk education lessons to Yazidi families
Hayam and Hishyar, who come from the villages now being cleared of mines, provide education for other families in the Domiz IDP refugee camp.