DAMASCUS: Family members from three generations were packed into the back of a van for what began as a joyful ride through the Syrian countryside for Abdulaziz Al-Oqab and his loved ones.
They were planning on enjoying the long-forgotten pleasure of a simple peacetime family picnic when a landmine put a bloody end to their outing and the lives of 21 family members.
Oqab left with relatively light injuries that day in February 2019, but the blast killed his wife, two of his sons, four of his siblings, an uncle and other family members, and in maimed others.
“It was a day of joy that turned into tragedy,” Oqab, 41, told AFP. “I’ve come to hate going out ever since. People live in fear of this faceless killer who could be anywhere.
Airstrikes and shelling responsible for much of Syria’s half-million war dead have declined in recent years.
But explosive remnants planted by all sides in the 11-year-old conflict now claim more lives in Syria than anywhere else in the world, according to the United Nations.
Since 2015, landmines and other explosive remnants have killed or injured an average of five people every day, according to UN data.
“An entire family was destroyed,” Oqab said of that fateful day more than three years ago, sitting outside his traditional beehive-style mud hut in his village in Hama province.
“Death awaited us from within the earth,” he said, surrounded by his orphaned nephews.
“It was our destiny.”
The UN Mine Action Service said 15,000 people have been killed or injured by explosive devices in Syria since 2015.
It’s a “huge number”, said Habibulhaq Javed, who heads Syria’s UNMAS team. “Currently, Syria reports the highest number of casualties caused by explosive ordnance in the world.”
The war in Syria is estimated to have killed nearly 500,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011.
About 10.2 million people, or about half of all Syrians, live in areas contaminated by explosive devices, according to the UN.
“Mines have a long lifespan,” said a Syrian army officer, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
They remain deadly even longer if kept in casings, he told AFP during an army-sponsored mine clearance training exercise near Damascus.
Syrian authorities are detonating munitions and explosive remnants of war almost daily, especially in areas formerly held by rebel forces near the capital.
In rebel-held northern Syria, it is rescue workers who take on the daunting task of searching for landmines and detonating them, in the absence of state support.
The White Helmets rescue group has even set up landmine awareness trainings and workshops.
Raed Hassoun of the White Helmets runs a demining center in northwestern Syria that has neutralized around 24,000 explosive devices since 2016.
“We deal with unexploded ordnance on a principle,” he told AFP.
“Your first mistake is your last.”
Lack of resources deprives most Syrian towns and villages of vital demining activities.
Last year, UNMAS carried out its first demining operation in government-controlled parts of Daraya, an area on the outskirts of Damascus that was once a rebel stronghold and has seen heavy fighting.
UNMAS also carried out searches in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus, which was held by rebels and then jihadists before it was taken over by government forces in 2018.
Explosive remnants were found in about 200 of the 6,000 buildings inspected, according to the UN.
The global body is struggling with limited funding for its demining programs, Javed said.
As a result, civilians paid the price.
Among them, the family of Zakia Al-Boushi who, one fateful day in 2017, left with eight relatives in the province of Aleppo in search of the precious white truffles that grow in the desert sands in winter.
Only three of them made it back alive.
The landmine that killed his relatives was the second they encountered that day.
His brother was avoiding a device he had spotted when a second exploded and blew up their vehicle.
Boushi’s brother and mother were killed, while his daughter was so shocked she hasn’t said a word for five years.
“The mine tore us apart,” Boushi said.