Fahima and Halema fled from their homes in northern Iraq to escape ISIS. Now they are back, and they are cleaning up the bombs and booby traps ISIS left behind.

When ISIS took over parts of northern Iraq in 2014, it drove 300,000 people from their homes in a campaign of terror and attempted a genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi minority. When ISIS left, its members tried to make sure that no one could come back safely. It placed mines in the fields and booby traps in buildings. Today, thousands of mines and bombs litter the area, making towns uninhabitable and everyday tasks, such as grazing animals, lethally dangerous.

Diptych: Rows of cylindrical objects on the left, woman on the right (© Sean Sutton/MAG)
Left: Improvised land mines and unexploded mortar bombs. Right: Fahima, holding a metal detector (© Sean Sutton/MAG)

“I hope the situation here will improve, and I hope normality will return and people will come back,” Fahima said in an interview. “Before that happens, though, we have to clear the mines.”

Fahima is the team leader of a Mine Action Team. Her colleagues Halema and Vian are dog handlers. All three work with the Mines Advisory Group, which trains members of local communities affected by land mines to find and remove them.

Two women with demining equipment in a field near a building (© Sean Sutton/MAG)
Fahima and her family managed to escape from ISIS in 2014. (© Sean Sutton/MAG)

The group uses a variety of techniques to detect and remove the explosives, including hand-held metal detectors, armored vehicles and mine-detection dogs trained to “sniff out” explosives and alert their handlers.

The women and their colleagues, many of them also Yazidi women, work long hours in dangerous conditions to clear land mines, unexploded improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other explosive hazards so that families can return and life can go back to normal.

Diptych: Top, women walking with demining equipment; bottom, woman looking through a doorway (© Sean Sutton/MAG)
Mine Action Team members clear a mostly destroyed school used by ISIS as a hospital. (© Sean Sutton/MAG)

Clearing explosive hazards must come before “stabilization and humanitarian assistance,” then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Marik String says in the U.S. Department of State’s annual To Walk the Earth in Safety report. Destroying the explosives lays the “foundation for long-term benefits.”

Pressure plate and wiring (© Sean Sutton/MAG)
A pressure plate and wiring uncovered by Mine Advisory Group technicians in Iraq (© Sean Sutton/MAG)

As the world’s largest financial supporter of efforts to clear land mines and explosive remnants of war, the U.S. has invested $3.4 billion in such work in more than 100 countries over 26 years.

Fahima, Vian, Halema and the Mines Advisory Group teams are at the forefront of this project.

Diptych: Left, woman and dog walking among destroyed vehicles; right, woman posing with dog (© Sean Sutton/MAG)
Left: Halema walks with her dog, Aron, in Iraq. She and her family left Kanasur in 2014 when ISIS came. Right: Vian, another dog handler, poses with X-Lang. (© Sean Sutton/MAG)

Since 2017, teams in Iraq have cleared 54,795 explosive hazards from thousands of kilometers of land, making the areas safe for aid workers to come into the community.

“I am very happy to do this work; it is a humanitarian job. We will clear the land so that people can come home,” said Vian. “To me this is a holy job.”

People sitting around low table with plates of food and bottled drinks (© Sean Sutton/MAG)
Team members have a meal in the field. (© Sean Sutton/MAG)