A joint Syria Direct-Syrian Voice feature report

HAMA: When Mohammad finds an unexploded bomb on farmland near his hometown in northwest Syria, he breaks it open.

Using just a hammer and a chisel to dismantle the shell, he must work carefully, making sure not to detonate the valuable TNT inside. “You can’t use any electrical tools,” the 28-year-old father of one tells the Syrian Voice. “They will make the bomb explode.”

Mohammad earns a living harvesting and selling unexploded ordnance from Sahel al-Ghab, a strategic valley of farmland dividing Assad’s coastal bastion Lattakia from rebel strongholds in Hama and Idlib. Cluster bombs, mines and mortars pepper the area’s fields, often key battlegrounds targeted by both regime and Russian airstrikes.

Surrounded by bomb-laden farmland, many Sahel al-Ghab residents have adopted a new trade, using basic hammers and chisels to extract TNT and bits of iron shrapnel from unexploded ordnance. They then sell the materials to small-town manufacturers who upcycle used munitions for the area’s rebel militias.

Selling at around SP550 per kilogram (approx. $2.57), bomb extractions provide a meager income.  Sahel al-Ghab resident Abu Ibrahim earns up to $128.50 per month clearing explosives from local farmland, though some months the business only brings him $25 – hardly enough to cover basic needs for his family of six. He and his nephew gather up to 50 kilograms of TNT and other explosive materials per month, though oftentimes they find far less. Business also depends on the size of the bombs extracted, with larger munitions yielding the highest profits. Barrel bombs are the most valuable, containing up to 200kg or more of explosives.

Though it’s difficult to determine how much of the area’s rebel arsenals come from dismantled bombs, local sources put the number at less than 20%. Still, Sahel al-Ghab’s so-called “business of death” is a vital source of supplemental income for residents and helps to clear the area’s farmland, Abu Khaled, a fighter with Failaq a-Sham, tells the Syrian Voice.

Residents of Sahe al-Ghab have welcomed the bomb harvesting teams. Abd a-Razzaq al-Hassan, a local farm owner, tells the Syrian Voice he felt relieved that people were clearing his home of unexploded bombs, left scattered across his field after clashes tore through the area.

Still, the bomb clearing business does little to dent the threat of internationally banned cluster munitions, dropped over Sahel al-Ghab by regime and Russian forces. Cluster bombs are especially dangerous in farmland, an April 2016 report by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) says, because the soft terrain prevents up to 70 percent of the munitions from exploding on impact.

Abu Ibrahim refuses to dismantle cluster bombs in the area, he tells the Syrian Voice. The process is far too risky and requires specialized tools.

It is unknown how many people have been killed gathering unexploded cluster bombs, but international NGOs are wary of providing the proper tools and training for dismantling them out of fear that civilians may learn to build their own munitions, reports CIVIC.

Left with little outside or local assistance in clearing the explosives, many cluster bomb victims are farmers simply returning “to work their lands,” the report says.

With unexploded ordnance still scattered across the region, Abu Ibrahim, the munitions recycler, predicts a bleak future for Sahel al-Ghab.

“It will be a long time before farmers can plough their fields again.”

Translation and Reporting by Madeline Edwards

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