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“Syria has been devastated. I think it will take at least two generations to rebuild"

Explosive weapons

After a decade of war, Syria has been completely contaminated by explosive remnants on a scale experts have never seen before. When the conflict ends, the complex work of clearing weapons and rebuilding the country will begin. Emmanuel Sauvage, Director of Armed Violence Reduction at Humanity & Inclusion (HI), tells us more.

Photos of destruction of the city of Raqqa taken in 2019

Photos of destruction of the city of Raqqa taken in 2019 | © B.Blondel / HI

What makes contamination in Syria different?

There are two reasons why Syria is a special case when it comes to weapons clearance. The first is the very wide range of weapons used. After a decade of conflict, Syrian soil is contaminated by a complete spectrum of explosive weapons including unexploded bombs, explosive remnants and booby traps, and improvised mines. The second is the fact that urban and peri-urban areas are the worst affected. You find the widest range of explosive weapons in cities. We know from experience that it is particularly difficult to clear urban areas. In Raqqa, for example, where eighty percent of the city has been destroyed, the ground is littered with rubble mixed with explosive remnants and booby traps left behind by the belligerent parties. In Laos, they are still clearing weapons 45 years after the Vietnam War, so I think it will take at least two generations to clear Syria.

What are the obstacles to weapons clearance in Syria today?

The variety of explosive weapons used in the Syrian conflict makes clearance complex. Each type of explosive weapon works in a different way. You don’t neutralise an improvised mine in the same way as an unexploded bomb.  We need to deploy different experts for different types of explosive weapons in the ground. But since there are all kinds of explosive weapons in Syria, we need many more professionals trained in these types of weapons.

Mine clearance in urban areas is particularly long and complicated. When buildings and infrastructure are destroyed in cities, the rubble is contaminated by explosive remnants. In some Syrian cities we can almost measure contamination in cubic metres because the ground is contaminated by layers of rubble and explosive remnants. This requires specific resources, professionals trained in this type of contamination, and great care to be taken when clearing and reconstructing cities.

When we talk about “reconstruction", what exactly do we mean?

Reconstruction obviously begins with weapons clearance. The international community must take action to protect Syrian lives from explosive remnants. Some 11.5 million Syrians out of a total population of 17 million are currently at risk from these weapons. Weapons clearance is therefore a priority in reconstructing the country.

Then comes the actual reconstruction, which is divided into interdependent stages: the reconstruction of infrastructure and housing, economic recovery, but also restoring the link between the different communities damaged by a decade of conflict. It’s a huge challenge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the early 2000s, apart from weapons clearance, it was important to get the communities talking to each other again in order to plan for long-term peace. Weapons clearance brought people together around a problem and shared risks and provided a starting point for dialogue and collective initiatives. It marked the first step towards defusing the tension caused by the conflict.

We also have to think about how to support individuals. Syrians have experienced the horrors of war, and they need physical and psychological support. Physical trauma such as amputations, brain and spinal cord injuries, but also psychological trauma need specific care. I think it will take at least two generations to rebuild Syria.

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