‘I think about everyone I save’: the mine clearance hero of Kurdistan

A dust cloud trails behind a metallic grey Kia Sportage as it meanders along a rocky dirt road toward the last town on this thoroughfare before reaching the Iraq-Iran border.

People walk along the road, waving at independent deminer Hoshyar Ali as he drives by, recognising him by the red flag on his antenna, indicating the vehicle is transporting explosives, and by the stickers of various landmines on his vehicle.

A villager waves down deminer Hoshyar Ali and tells him about a landmine on his property at Serdera village near Penjwen in Iraqi Kurdistan

The vehicle comes to a stop beside a mosque, an area where Ali cleared more 750,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance, in the town formerly known as Kuri Gapla. The town now bears a new name, Hoshyari village, to honour Ali for all he did to clear the valley of explosives, including losing his left leg in the area in 1994. The village isn’t all that carries his name, the mosque bears his name too, so does a police station, a hospital, a school and a valley.

Ali is a local legend.

Everywhere I go people give me free stuff,” Ali says. “I rarely pay for gas and people give me free things.”

Left: A roadside sign along the route between Nalparez and Penjwen warns passersby about landmines and shows them what unexploded ordnance in the area looks like. Right: a villager gives Hoshyar Ali free fruit after Ali stopped and chatted with the man

Even those critical of Ali’s work style admire him. “He’s a very good person,” Imam Kamarin Ali Namiq, a landmine survivor who lost both arms while working as a deminer for Mines Advisory Group, a non-governmental organisation. “He loves what he does but he’s reckless at the same time. If he was better organised it could help more.”

By Ali’s own account, he’s rescued 182 people from minefields, cleared 104 villages, demined 540 sq km of land, taught landmine awareness to at least 700 schools and rendered safe more than 2.5m landmines and unexploded ordnance, many of those he cleared as a double amputee having lost his right leg to an Italian landmine in January 1989.

He’s also sacrificed and lost much during his pursuit to make Kurdistan safer. Not only was his eldest son killed when he went demining with Ali, multiple family members have also been killed. His brother Mukhtar Ali and cousin Bamo were killed, and his cousin Faisal and brother.

Rebwar Ali was injured when an Italian Valmara 69 landmine exploded on 14 July 1992. Rebwar kept his limbs but lost his left eye.

Landmine survivor Rebwar Ali holds an Italian Valmara 69 landmine for a portrait beside the hill where he survived a landmine explosion

Farmer Mahmoud Ahmed, a handsome man with short black hair and a short black beard, dressed in a buttoned-up white shirt, sleeves rolled up above his elbows, arrives on his motorcycle from Tazaday, a neighbouring village across the valley. With a welcoming smile, he reaches through Hoshyar’s open window, greeting him with a handshake. Ali cleared Ahmed’s 7,000 sq metres of land when he cleared the valley.

“Before he cleared it, no one could use this road, it was a minefield,” Ahmed said, pointing down the road and across the valley. “Now you see there’s a farm, electricity, it’s a village [again] and the people came back.”

“I feel like we own the land, because of him we are going back to work and doing agriculture,” he said, smiling warmly again while pointing to Ali with both his hands. “He does [demining] for free and helps people. You cannot pay back to this person, everything we pay is not enough.”

Farmer Mahmoud Ahmed, right, greets Hoshyar Ali at Hoshyari village, Iraqi Kurdistan

A few minutes later Ali is on the road again, heading to a village near Penjwen district, where a nearby farmer called Ali, who lost 13 of his livestock to landmines, lives.

Sweat trickles down Ali’s face in random streams from his ink-black hair and across his smooth cheeks as he drives, windows down, along another uneven dirt road. The vehicle tilts from side to side as he drives by green watermelon fields, guarded by scarecrows with buckets for heads. Other fields, like the field the roadway vanishes into, are brown and golden.

Hoshyar Ali drives to help a man after receiving a request to remove landmines from the farmer’s property near Penjwen. The red flag indicates his vehicle contains explosives

Ali, a stocky man wearing an olive drab shirt with matching trousers, exits his vehicle with the help of his cane, masking his athletic history. “I was really good at football, they called me ‘the rocket’, I was the fastest,” he said earlier, speaking of his youth. “I wish I could get a smart prosthetic so I can play football again.”

The vegetation crunches beneath his prosthetics with every step, the plants having lost all their moisture long before the day’s dry, 39°C air hits like a furnace’s breath.

Hoshyar Ali stops his vehicle, right, to chat with someone who recognises him near Penjwen

Up the mountainside, the farmer appears in a white pickup truckand forges his own path as he makes his way down toward Ali. Ali pops open the rear door as his younger brother, Rizgar Ali, exits Hoshyar’s vehicle holding an AK-47, serving no functional purpose for demining, with his left hand. Hoshyar opens the rear door, revealing a metal detector and a landmine cache he removed the detonators from. He keeps the landmines in his vehicle as photo props for when people want a picture with him.

A metal detector used to search for landmines is placed on Italian Valmara 69 landmines with their detonators removed in the back of Hoshyar’s vehicle

Hoshyar climbs into the farmer’s passenger seat while his brother grasps the tailgate and clambers over the edge, taking his place on the truck’s bed with the rifle and metal detector at his feet. The vehicle lurches forward, carrying the men up the unmarked path the farmer came down toward a shady grove near a brook. Hoshyar’s vehicle – no longer in sight – parks on a dirt road, which dog-legs left from the route they ascended on and continues uphill.

The truck comes to a halt, sheltered from the sun by the shade from trees. All aboard dismount. Hoshyar, holding his cane with his right hand, leaning on his brother with his left, laboriously makes his way up the dirt road following the farmer, who stops at a clearing about 150 metres up the hill. The farmer points to a bundled barbed-wire heap about 15 metres away, one of several signs indicating landmines may be present, and Hoshyar surveys the hillside.

Landmine clearer Hoshyar Ali climbs a hill with his brother Rizgar Ali supporting him near Penjwen. They climbed the hill to view a suspected minefield after a farmer called and said he’s lost more than 10 animals to landmines in the area

A few minutes later the group descends the hill, passing the pickup truck and continuing another 10 metres to a spot where a small stream is now visible in the shade. Hoshyar and his brother edge closer to the water, stopping on rocks large enough to stand on.

Rocks are safe places, but the dirt around the rocks are places where landmines may be hidden by vegetation or buried beneath the ground. They check for tripwires, then Hoshyar, now wearing earplugs connected to the metal detector, begins sweeping the ground from left to right and back again, his trained ears knowing which frequencies indicate danger. He cautiously makes his way across the brook, metal detector in one hand, cane in the other, and disappears from sight. His brother follows.

About 15 minutes later, between a break in the leaves and branches, Hoshyar emerges propped up against a branch he cannot step over. He lifts a prosthetic leg from beneath him, meticulously placing it on the other side of the tree limb, his other prosthetic leg still attached, hidden by the trees. He pulls himself on to the branch and repeats the process, then hops down, rejoining his prosthetics, and disappears again, occasionally appearing between the bushes and trees.

Deminer Hoshyar Ali uses his stick to help him search for landmines near Penjwen

Rizgar Ali examines a mortar shell and RPG cache hidden behind a defensive wall in Serdera village near Penjwen, Iraqi Kurdistan. The defensive wall and the explosives are Iraq-Iran war remnants

Suddenly, Hoshyar signals he has found a landmine to the farmer across the brook. The farmer looks but Hoshyar’s actions are hidden, obstructed by vegetation and dark shadows. An occasional glimpse of the polished metal detonators in Hoshyar’s hand are all that can be seen.

Landmine survivor Rebwar Ali holds an Italian Valmara 69 landmine beside the hill where he survived a landmine explosion at Biyawele village near Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan

Minutes later Rizgar reappears from the trees near the brook, retracing the path he safely navigated into the minefield, carrying the Italian Valmara 69 landmine Hoshyar successfully rendered safe. “I think about everyone I save,” Hoshyar said earlier about how he feels with each explosive eliminated. “Not only the people, but also the animals.”

Hoshyar appears again downstream and the team make their way to the truck. Their work is only temporarily done at this location. Hoshyar needs to return and start at the top of the hill, he said.

They return to the truck, ride to Hoshyar’s vehicle where he places the landmine in the back with the others, then make their goodbyes. The farmer thanks Hoshyar for removing the landmines, then Hoshyar and Rizgar load into the Kia and drive to Penjwen for tea.

Hoshyar’s SUV comes to a stop, parking beneath a tree. The three exit the vehicle, Hoshyar takes a spot in the cooling shade and sits, Hares and Rizgar follow the dirt road until they reach an embankment that separates them from another field, then turn right keeping a field green with vegetation at their right, a dirt and rock embankment at their left. They walk parallel to the berm for about 150 metres and take a sharp left, heading uphill again until they reach a cliff about three metres high. Hares points to the safest way and they scramble down the rocky face. At the bottom is a small, defensive rock wall, left over from the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, that runs parallel to the cliff about a metre away. They take calculated steps, carefully placing each foot on the wall, avoiding the minefield beyond the defensive position.

Left: Farmer Peshawa Hares, right, and Rizgar Ali after they removed mortar shells hidden under a shrub on Hares’ property at Serdera village near Penjwen. Right: A mortar shell and RPG cache hidden behind a defensive wall in Serdera village

They make a detour on their return to Hoshyar, choosing to walk above the embankment until they reach a shrub. Hares points to the base, where four mortar shells are hidden. Rizgar hands one to Hares and carries the remaining three.

Back at the vehicle, Hoshyar examines the unexploded ordnance his brother recovered, then places them with his other landmines. “I’ll come back after Eid,” Hoshyar says, speaking about when he’ll remove the other explosives while referring to Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday occuring about two months after Ramadan.

The men climb back into the Kia and begin driving toward Penjwen. Before they leave Serdera, a middle-aged man with a moustache waves Hoshyar down. The two men greet and shake hands before the man tells him about a landmine that washed down from a mountain top during the last heavy rainstorm from an area Hoshyar says he cannot demine without a helicopter.

Hoshyar remains in the vehicle, chatting with the man while Rizgar disappears on the man’s property, returning a few minutes later, holding an Italian VS-50 anti-personnel landmine in his left hand. He has the landmine’s detonator in his pocket.

Rizgar Ali holds a landmine he removed from a villager’s property

The man thanks Hoshyar, and the Kia drives away, creating a dust cloud that obscures Hoshyar’s bumper-sticker warning to landmines, “I am ready to eradicate you where [sic] ever you are.”

I just do this for God,” Hoshyar said at his home. “I will keep doing demining until I get too old to keep doing it, but hopefully I will do it until [I die].”