Last updated: 28 December, 2012

Rebel deminer strives to protect Syria refugees

Armed with a basic metal detector, rebel engineer Abu Baeda endlessly scans the border with Turkey on a crusade to save refugees escaping Syria’s bloody conflict from limb-tearing landmines.

Samer Mohammed al-Ater became one such victim three months ago, after taking refuge in Turkey like tens of thousands of other Syrians.

One day he was on his way back with food supplies for his village of Khirbet al-Joz in northwest Syria’s Idlib province when he stepped on one of the countless landmines which rebels say were planted by the army.

“We’d just crossed the barbed wire and walked almost 200 metres (yards) down a track,” he recalled.

“The weather was bad and it was muddy. Suddenly, I felt something and was hurled backwards,” said the young man whose stump above the knee was still heavily bandaged.

“When the mine exploded, shrapnel hit the person behind me and he lost an eye,” said Ater who returned to Khirbet al-Joz after receiving hospital treatment in Turkey.

Abu Baeda, an army engineer who defected to join rebels in Syria’s 21-month revolt, has been tasked to try to minimise the risks faced by desperate refugees fleeing the fighting.

His equipment may be unsophisticated, but he has so far located almost 450 live mines.

“Here’s a mine that’s primed to explode. It’s been placed in the heart of an olive grove. As refugees try to cross the border, it will explode and blow off their legs,” said Abu Baeda, now a member of the rebel Kaws al-Nasser brigade.

According to Abdelwahed Wahud, chief of another brigade in Khirbet al-Joz of the rebel Free Syrian Army, the regime mined the border to curb the exodus of refugees to Turkey, where rebel forces last year set up rear bases.

“It was (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad’s army that planted these mines in these areas,” he charged. “They planted them more than a year ago along the border, some on farmland, others along the border.”

Last month, campaigners said the Syrian regime was the only government in the world to lay new landmines this year.

The global International Campaign to Ban Landmines network said the Assad regime appeared to be using old stockpiles of the weapons produced by the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Each time Abu Baeda uncovers a mine, he goes through the same ritual: he ties a bag filled with rocks to a rope and then pulls it over the device to make it explode.

The rebels have stored hundreds of other mines which were safely recovered in an abandoned factory.

Turkey hosts almost 15,000 Syrian refugees in several camps close to the border and provides treatment and shelter for rebels who use its side of the frontier as a launchpad for operations inside Syria.

Ankara fell out with one-time close ally Assad after the Damascus regime unleashed a brutal crackdown on protests in March 2011, unleashing a conflict which a rights watchdog estimates has killed more than 45,000 people.