Salaam Muhammed is a Technical Field Manager for Mines Advisory Group (MAG) in Iraq. As one of the organization’s first deminers, Salaam shares his memories of over 27 years of service with MAG.
My story with MAG begins in 1991. I was a student at the College of Administration and Economics at the University of Baghdad when the uprisings against Saddam Hussein’s regime began and suspended my study until 1992. The conflict lasted just over a month, but it tore the country apart and saw millions of people displaced from their homes.
In my hometown of Penjwen, in Kurdistan, people were forced to areas bordering Iran and Turkey - regions littered with landmines laid during the Iran-Iraq war that had ended only a few years prior. Every day I witnessed the tragedy of people who had been forced from their homes falling victim to landmines leftover from a previous conflict. There was little we could do for the victims - taking them to the hospital or directly to the graveyard were the only two options.
Each day, people living in tents and makeshift shelters near my house would walk past my house to collect water from a nearby stream. One morning, I was inside my home writing when I heard an explosion. I ran outside and saw people running toward the stream. As I approached, I saw a man carrying his daughter out of the minefield. The young woman’s right leg from the knee had been blown off and her father was crying. Seeing these horrors daily inspired me to dedicate the rest of my life to saving lives and supporting communities affected by indiscriminate landmines.
After returning to university in 1992 to complete the last year of my degree, I settled in Penjwen—ready to fulfill my dream of helping free my community from the fear of landmines.
“Salaam, I have good news for you—this might make your dream true,” said one of my friends as he rushed over to my house. He told me that MAG, a British charity specializing in clearing landmines and unexploded bombs, was coming to Iraq. I left that very day to find MAG. Who are they? Where are they from? How can they help my people? I had so many questions. After asking a lot of people, I found them in the city of Sulaymaniyah.
I MET WITH THE MAG TEAM AND ALMOST BEFORE THEY HAD FINISHED EXPLAINING WHO THEY WERE AND WHAT THEY WERE HERE IN IRAQ TO DO, I HAD ALREADY VOLUNTEERED TO HELP. AT THAT TIME, I WAS THE FIRST UNIVERSITY-EDUCATED VOLUNTEER AND DEMINER. I JOINED MAG ON AUGUST 6, 1992.
During my first week, we began our first demining course. It was intense. In the morning we would study hard and, in the afternoon, we would be deployed to respond to the needs of the local community. Often our job was to carefully recover the bodies of those who had died or been injured in minefields. After two months of training with MAG, I disarmed my first mine. It was October 1992 and I still remember the mine clearly. It was a bounding fragmentation mine, a deadly Italian-made device with a lethal fragmentation radius of 25 yards, and I found it in my hometown Penjwen.
Although I was young and motivated, equipped with the classroom-acquired knowledge of how to safely disarm the landmine, I was nervous. My heart was racing as I moved towards the mine very carefully, treating it with the deadly respect it deserved. As soon as I disarmed it, the Technical Field Manager encouraged me, “Well done mate, if you continue like that and do what you just did, you are going to be safe."
It was an amazing feeling. Suddenly, my mindset changed. I was no longer afraid of landmines. I still treated them with the same respect but now I had the skills to render them powerless and, more importantly, stop them from harming my community.
In the beginning, many of my friends and family questioned why I, being university-educated with a wealth of opportunities in front of me, would choose such a dangerous job.
NOW, AFTER MORE THAN 27 YEARS, PEOPLE RECOGNIZE WHAT I HAVE DONE FOR MY COMMUNITY AND COUNTRY AND UNDERSTAND WHY I HAVE CHOSEN THIS CAREER PATH. THE RESPECT AND SUPPORT I AM SHOWN NOW IS BOTH HUMBLING AND MOTIVATING.
My favorite memories of working with MAG are too numerous to list, but the sense of pride that comes with being able to release land safely and give it back to communities who can then use it for agriculture or to build homes, schools, roads, and hospitals is unrivaled - it never dims.
Thanks to MAG’s contribution to mine action work across the world, in the last 30 years we have seen the number of landmine casualties fall. Millions of acres of land have been returned to communities for agriculture and infrastructure projects which has resulted in tremendously positive changes in the socioeconomic prospects of affected communities.
After doing this job for almost thirty years, am I thinking of retiring? No, there is still so much to do. The occupation of ISIS in parts of Iraq starting in 2014 brought a new wave of dangerous explosive contamination, causing the displacement of millions of Iraqis. The improvised landmines and booby traps they laid have explosive content larger than ever recorded.
There is still a lot more to clear, but it has been an honor to help lead the clearance of explosives left by ISIS so that families can more safely return home.