Salaam Muhammed is a Technical Field Manager for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) in Iraq. This year, MAG has been celebrating its 30th anniversary.

As one of the organisation’s first-ever deminers, Salaam shares his memories of over 27 years’ service with MAG. 

Salaam at work in Iraq in 2018

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 repressive 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 Iraqi Kurdistan, people were forced to areas bordering of 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 grim options. 

Each day people, living in tents and makeshift shelters near my house after fleeing violence during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, would walk past my house to collect water from a water stream. I remember one young woman, around 18 years old, in particular collect water each day. 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, the young woman, out of the minefield. The young woman’s right leg from the knee had been blown off and her father was crying. As they got closer, I saw that she was in a state of shock. She was unable to cry but tears had welled up in her eyes.

Seeing these horrors daily inspired me to dedicate the rest of my life to saving lives and supporting communities affected by the indiscriminate landmines. 

After returning to university in 1992 to complete the last year of my degree, I settled in Penjwen—ready to fulfil 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 later as he rushed over to my house. He told me that MAG a British organisation which specialised 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 in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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 6 August 1992.

On my first day, we started building our camp from scratch. Less than a week later, 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 injured in minefields.

After less than two months with MAG, I disarmed my first mine. It was October 1992 and I still remember the mine clearly. It was a Valmara V69 bounding fragmentation mine, a deadly Italian-made device with a lethal fragmentation radius of 25 metres, I found 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 recognise what I have done for my community and country and understand why what I witnessed as a young student has guided me down this career path. The respect and support I am shown now is both humbling and motivating.

My favourite 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 unrivalled - 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 square metres of land have been returned to communities for agriculture and infrastructure projects which has resulted in tremendously positive changes in the socio-economic prospects of affected communities.

Salaam tells Al Jazeera how mines prevent people refugees returning to Iraq after conflict, 2017

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 are found in anti-personnel mines anywhere. 

There is still a lot more to clear, but it has been an honour to help lead the clearance of explosives left by ISIS so that families can more safely return home.

Landmines might have been banned internationally in 1999 but, in countries across the world, they are still trapping people in fear—in some countries, decades after the conflicts ended. At the same time, across the Middle East and in northeast Nigeria, newer emergencies are arising, involving the use of new landmines of an improvised nature.

Thirty years since MAG was founded, landmines are still a huge issue.

Donors and supporters help MAG save lives and build safer futures for landmine affected communities.