In the run-up to International Mine Awareness Day, journalist and foreign correspondent Colin Freeman reflects on his experience of MAG's life-saving work in Iraq.

I have seen the death and devastation caused by the mines and bombs that litter Iraq and the harm done to so many families who live amongst these dangers. 

I have also witnessed the impact MAG teams have on people's lives there is a sense of safety that comes when the deadly legacy of conflict is cleared. For some children, it is the first time they have ever felt safe. 

I worked in Iraq as a foreign correspondent for two years. Whilst reporting, I saw first-hand the devastating impact conflict has on civilians, particularly children. 

Since 2014, the ISIS occupation has forced millions of people across Iraq to abandon their homes, often at a moment’s notice. For most, ‘home’ became the various camps set up to provide shelter for those who had managed to escape the violence.

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Colin Freeman visits MAG's 'House of Horrors' training centre in Iraq

Last year, it was announced that dozens of camps sheltering tens of thousands of people displaced by the ISIS occupation would close.

The closure leaves thousands of parents with no choice but to return home with their families to the villages they fled. And to homes that may be the site of a hidden, deadly danger. 

When ISIS retreated from villages and towns, they made sure the roads, the fields, the schools, and the homes they left behind were riddled with explosives most rigged to need only the lightest touch or step of a child to trigger their blast.

Ali's story

Young Ali and his family had fled to one of these vast camps, having escaped just before ISIS arrived at their village. There they waited out the occupation, unsure if or when they could return home. And what they might find when they did.

Ali told me of the day he spotted a wire in the ground outside his home, not long after the family had returned to their village. He was 11-years-old. His natural curiosity piqued; he tugged on the wire. He lost his fingers from one hand in the explosion.

“All I can remember is a huge bang”, Ali said.

For his mum, Ekhlas, the memories of that day are more vivid. Ekhlas recalls her first, terrible thought on hearing the explosion that Ali was dead. 

Running to her son, she realised he was alive but badly injured. Ekhlas clamped her hands over Ali’s wounds, desperately trying to stop the bleeding.

Three years on, and Ali’s injury still affects his life. “I still can’t use my hand to write with even now,” he explains.

School is a challenge, and most of the time he stays in the family home. The impact of explosives on children in Iraq reaches far beyond the physical injuries they bear.

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Watch Ali tell his story

Ali’s story is not rare. Almost 1,000 children are known to have been injured or killed by explosives in Iraq over the last nine years. 

But the impact does not stop there. Many girls and boys are missing out on formal education, because it’s not provided in the camps they now call home or because their school has been littered with explosives. 

Children are hungry and malnourished because their families cannot farm a mined field. Children can suffer life-long psychological trauma from being injured  or the fear of being injured  by mines and bombs. 

I have met too many children injured by improvised landmines and other explosives. I have met too many parents whose sons' and daughters' lives were cut tragically short. No parent should have to endure that.

That is why MAG's continued work to clear the deadly legacy of conflict in Iraq is so vital.

When I last visited Iraq, just months ago, I saw whole towns and villages brought back to life on land MAG’s deminers had painstakingly cleared. 

And I met people who now feel safe  people like Ali’s mum Ekhlas, who takes great solace in knowing no other girl or boy in her village will face the same harm as Ali.