Binnish, Syria – Bassam al-Mustafa thought that he had finally found his family a building they could call home, after years of attempting to escape Syria’s war.
The house in Binnish, in rural Idlib province, was not finished, but would still be better than living in a tent in a camp for displaced people.
Instead, in a cruel tragedy, an explosion in the house al-Mustafa’s family was just beginning to call home killed his four children on September 5.
Al-Mustafa says the explosion was the result of unexploded ordnance that had been left behind in the house, a continuous problem for Syrians even as a relative quiet continues on the front lines between government and opposition forces in the country’s northwest.
“I think my son Ahmed was curious and wanted to see what was inside a locked room on the second floor of the building,” al-Mustafa told Al Jazeera. “He unlocked the door and played with the unexploded ordnance with his siblings, and they were killed.”
Al-Mustafa says he cannot understand why explosive material had been left in the house.
“How can explosive materials be put in a residential building? Or in an urban area at all?”
Civilians in Syria, particularly in the opposition-held northwest, continue to die as a result of the legacy of the intense fighting the area has seen since the war in Syria began in 2011.
Landmines, along with other unexploded ordnance from the thousands of shells, missiles and bombs that government forces and their Russian allies have dropped, litter opposition-held territory.
These ticking time bombs are a major threat to people’s lives.
Aside from the explosion that took the lives of al-Mustafa’s children, incidents earlier this month left at least seven children dead in Idlib and Homs, according to the United Nations.
Teams operate throughout opposition-held territory to try and remove the dangers left behind by the fighting but are unable to eliminate the huge number of hazards that continue to take civilian lives.
In 2016, the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, formed a dedicated team to remove unexploded ordnance safely.
In addition to removing the ordnance, the team’s activities have included surveying hazardous areas and spreading awareness programmes.
The Civil Defence’s Muhammad Sami al-Muhammad told Al Jazeera that the organisation now has six teams across northwestern Syria specialised in the removal of unexploded ordnance. They have been able to remove 21,000 remnants of cluster munitions.
The job is not easy – four volunteers working with the organisation have died while attempting to disarm bombs.
“During the past year, the Syrian Civil Defence documented the use of 60 different types of miscellaneous explosives used to kill civilians, including 11 types of cluster bombs, which are internationally prohibited,” al-Muhammad said. “From the beginning of this year until August, the Syrian Civil Defense conducted more than 780 surveys in more than 260 areas contaminated by explosives and removed 524 pieces of explosive material.”
Worst in the world
The sheer number of unexploded ordnance in Syria, including landmines, means that the country has the highest number of annual casualties from cluster munitions in the world.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a group that campaigns to pressure the international community to ban cluster munitions as well as landmines, says (PDF) the explosives have been used across nearly all of the country’s governorates since 2012, despite a decrease in use since 2017.
But that decrease in the use of cluster munitions does not mean the danger has gone away, as unexploded munitions can cause damage long after they have been fired and forgotten about, much like landmines.
In 2021, according to the ICBL’s data, landmine casualties decreased from 147 the year before to 37. It still, however, represented the highest total in the world.
Despite the best efforts of groups such as the Syrian Civil Defence, more casualties will come.
Unexploded ordnance, whether it be landmines, cluster munitions or whatever else, continue to litter people’s homes, farmlands and playgrounds in Syria – remaining a threat for years and decades to come, even if the war ends.