Binnish, Syria – Bassam al-Mustafa thought he had finally found a building for his family to call home, after years of trying to escape The Syrian War.
Binnish’s house in rural Aleppo province was unfinished, but would still be better than living in a tent in a displaced persons camp.
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 said the explosion was the result of unexploded ordnance that had been left in the house, an ongoing problem for Syrians even as relative calm continues on the front lines between government forces and of the opposition in the northwest of the country.
“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 was left in the house.
“How to put explosive materials in a residential building? Or in an urban area at all?
Civilians in Syria, particularly in the opposition-held northwest, continue to die due to the legacy of intense fighting the region has seen since the Syrian war began in 2011.
Landmines, as well as other unexploded ordnance from the thousands of shells, missiles and bombs that government forces and their Russian allies fell, litter the territory held by the opposition.
These ticking time bombs are a major threat to people’s lives.
Besides the explosion that claimed 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 are operating throughout opposition-held territory in an attempt to eliminate the dangers left by the fighting, but are unable to eliminate the large number of dangers that continue to kill civilians.
In 2016, the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the white helmetsformed a dedicated team to safely remove unexploded ordnance.
In addition to removing ammunition, the team’s activities have included surveying dangerous areas and delivering awareness programs.
Civil Defense’s Muhammad Sami al-Muhammad told Al Jazeera the organization now has six teams in northwestern Syria specializing in the disposal of unexploded ordnance. They were able to remove 21,000 cluster munitions remnants.
The task is not easy – four volunteers working with the organization have died trying to disarm bombs.
“Over the past year, the Syrian Civil Defense has documented the use of 60 different types of various explosives used to kill civilians, including 11 types of cluster bombs, which are internationally banned,” al- Mohammad. “Since the beginning of this year until August, the Syrian Civil Defense carried out more than 780 investigations in more than 260 areas contaminated by explosives and removed 524 pieces of explosive material.
The worst in the world
The large 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 lobbies the international community to ban cluster munitions and landmines, says (PDF) explosives have been used in almost all governorates of the country since 2012, despite a decrease in their use since 2017.
But this decrease in the use of cluster munitions does not mean that the danger has gone away, as unexploded ordnance can cause damage long after being fired and forgotten, just like landmines.
In 2021, according to data from the ICBL, the number of landmine victims fell from 147 the previous year to 37. However, this is still the highest total in the world.
Despite the best efforts of groups such as the Syrian Civil Defense, more casualties will come.
Unexploded ordnance, whether landmines, cluster munitions or whatever else, continues to litter homes, farmlands and playgrounds in Syria – remaining a threat for years and decades to come, even if the war ends.