In April 2012 I made my first visit to MAG’s programs in northern Iraq, southern Lebanon and Libya.
The first country visited was northern Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan. The first thing that strikes you on arriving in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is just how different it is from the news stories you hear of Iraq. Western news focuses on the war and upheaval which is only one piece of the story of this country. Even though I knew the difference existed before traveling, it was something else to actually see and experience it. I certainly never imagined that we would be walking around Ainkawa (the area of Erbil where MAG’s office is) including the ancient citadel, bazaars and minaret park, without a single security concern.
Another striking example is the people. They are friendly, welcoming, polite and generous; always eager to speak to you about their country, history and surroundings. Each meeting or visit was accompanied by the traditional sweet tea (think sugar with tea, rather than the usual way around) and each meal was a feast of hot flat bread, meat skewers or kebab, salad, Kurdish rice, numerous sauces (apricot, beans, tomatoes), and sliced raw onions; so much so in fact that we managed on a small breakfast and lunch as there simply wasn’t room for dinner…
But the most striking thing was the amount of impact that MAG and landmine and UXO clearance has had for the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. Visiting now we would have overlooked some of the impact ourselves had our colleagues from the Iraq program not been there to brief us. Things that now look like they have always been that way are only there because of past clearance efforts. A main road busy with traffic exists due to MAG’s clearance as part of the emergency response in 2003. Towns with access to water after natural springs and an area for the construction of a water reservoir were cleared and fields filled with crops would not exist and look as “normal” as they did today without our work years ago. Even the bridge we are driving over was built by the Kurdish Regional Government 3 years after MAG had cleared the area of landmines, which now links communities on the south side of the river with easy access to medical services, reducing travel times by several hours in summer and enabling access during winter that wasn't possible before the bridge was built. Other signs of development are more easily spotted, such as the construction of a University on cleared land close to Chamchamal; and construction of new housing on cleared land in Chamchamal, enabling families forced off the land and displaced by Saddam’s forces to return and reclaim their ancestral lands.
However despite the achievements and progress to-date a significant amount of landmine and cluster-munitions contamination remains. The job is far from over and landmine and UXO clearance is needed now as much as ever in order to support the continuing return of displaced people to their land and the reclamation and revitalization of once productive land. Iraqi Kurdistan still has a long road to travel to reach a state where landmines and UXO have no impact on its people and needs the continuing commitment and support of the MAG supporters – both governments and individuals - in order to complete this journey.
This blog was written by Jamie Franklin works in MAG America as the representatiave from HQ. Jamie has worked as Country Director in Sudan and Cambodia and in the program in Laos.