On the outskirts of Iraq's main southern city, Basra, children play beside pools of contaminated water, their toys often being the detritus of the war they have just witnessed. Alongside an abandoned artillery gun they clamber over are more than 30 unexploded mortar bombs. Not far away, several rocket-propelled grenades lie barely 20 metres from a house, the children in it seemingly unaware of the danger just outside its rough mud walls.
Unexploded mines, shells and other ordnance litter southern Iraq in the wake of the war, causing great concern to agencies trying to protect the population.
Johan Sohlberg, the regional mine action adviser for the Middle East with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), noted that the scale of the problem in Basra was enormous. "I have clearly been surprised by what I have seen in the south. I have never seen the magnitude of this many sites and this close together."
Around Basra alone, the veteran of more than 20 of the world's hot spots had seen mortar bombs, artillery shells, heavy machine-gun ammunition, grenades and mines in abundance in locations where they were a threat to civilians. Most had simply been abandoned as Iraqi forces fled their positions. At the entrance to Basra University, numerous antitank mines lie against a wall, just a few metres from the roadway.
Sohlberg said an assessment of the scale of the problem was only just beginning, noting that "if the situation elsewhere is the way it looks in the south, then it's really bad". He said everywhere he went in the city, people pointed out where mines and ammunition had been left.
Children tag along as he walks past the unexploded ordnance (UXO), and he immediately starts stressing the danger of what they are playing with. He said children often picked up artillery shells, emptied out the gunpowder, then set it alight. "You have to understand you will not survive. If there's an explosion, everything is gone. You cannot play with these things - it's not a game," he tells them.
Sohlberg said even a simple jolt, bang or drop could detonate an item of UXO. He hands out leaflets explaining what can happen if shells are touched, part of an awareness programme ICRC has been running in Basra. Already volunteers have visited more than 8,000 houses to warn of the dangers scattered nearby. Posters had also been put up in mosques, shops, schools and hospitals to alert people to the problem. But for some it is too late, with children already having been killed or badly burnt by playing with UXO.
At Baghdad's Yarmuk Teaching Hospital, an orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Muhammad Musawi, said he had seen over 20 cases of injury from UXO in the last two weeks. Many of these had suffered severe limb injuries, necessitating amputation. "It is a horrible situation," he said.
While coalition forces in Basra were alerted every time UXO was found, it took time for them to deal with the widespread problem, Sohlberg said. Moreover, the situation was unlikely to improve for a long time. "There is no reason to believe that it will take less than years to clear."
Sohlberg said it was the responsibility of the combatants in any war to clear areas containing unexploded ordnance, but often it was the United Nations that ended up with the job. He added that the ICRC was working closely with groups such as the UN Children's Fund UNICEF and NGOs to raise awareness among the population, and would share all its information with mine-clearance groups as they arrived to deal with the problem.
In the meantime, it is up to local residents to protect their children. Karim Yunus lives just across the dusty track from the artillery piece and stash of mortar bombs. "I don't allow the children to get near the ammunition. I have a young daughter, and every time she goes out of the door I keep watching her," he said.
But other children from outside the area often came to play and tried to set off the explosives. "Sometimes the children sit on the gun, but it might be loaded with a shell, so I tell them not to play with it. Don't touch the bombs because I don't want to have any explosions in the area, I say."
Meanwhile, despite the children's curiosity, some of the messages seem to be getting through. Ten-year-old Ibrahim Sami said he knew how dangerous the mortar bombs he was standing beside were. "We don't play with them, because it's dangerous. They can explode and then they will burn us and then you die."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions