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Explosives left from wars in Iraq injure people for decades that follow

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Wars can start quickly, but cleaning up from one can take decades. That's the case in Iraq, where unexploded munitions from conflicts dating back to the 1980s continue to cause devastating, even fatal injuries, often to children who find them now. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In an instant, everything changed for Muqtada Nameer Ismaeel. He says he didn't hear the explosion. Everything became a blur.

MUQTADA NAMEER ISMAEEL: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: All of a sudden, he was on the ground. His ears were ringing. Something was wrong with his foot. In the distance, people were frantically waving their arms and yelling at him to crawl to the main road. They seemed far, far away, he remembers.

ISMAEEL: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: Ismaeel woke up in a hospital, where doctors had to amputate his left foot. He was 16 years old at the time. He's 18 now, and his days of playing soccer were over.

ISMAEEL: (Through interpreter) Before, I was, like, playing soccer every day and going out walking with my friends. Now I can't do that.

BEAUBIEN: Ismaeel is one of dozens of people injured or killed across Iraq each year by unexploded munitions, according to a mine monitoring group. The explosives come from various conflicts - the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, conflicts with al-Qaida, ISIS and other militants. The situation is so bad in Basra that there are classes for kids on how to identify leftover explosives.

(CROSSTALK)

BEAUBIEN: In a mosque, a group of about 30 middle-school-aged boys sit on the floor as Zuhel Khaled talks with them about what to do if they find a landmine.

ZUHEL KHALED: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Khalid is a field officer with Bustan, an organization backed by UNICEF.

KHALED: In this part, there is a lot of mines and unexploded things.

BEAUBIEN: She says much of the border with Iran is heavily mined. Complicating things, heavy rains can cause the mines to shift, even coming up in people's yards. She says leftover cluster bombs can look like playthings to children.

KHALED: A lot of children we have heard about the stories that many explosions happened to them while they were playing. And especially there is mines look like balls. So they thought it may be ball and play with it.

BEAUBIEN: Another problem, she says, is that people have been collecting shrapnel from former battlefields to sell as scrap metal.

KHALED: And some of the people lost a leg or a hand. And there is a woman have died because of a rocket. She was hitting the rocket because she wants to take the metals, but the rocket explodes, and she have died.

BEAUBIEN: Leftover munitions are a problem across the country. Jack Morgan is the country director for the Mines Advisory Group in Erbil, Iraq, which specializes in clearing explosives. He says Iraq has some of the largest expanses of contaminated land in the world.

JACK MORGAN: The latest figures look like over 1,700 kilometers squared of land is contaminated in Iraq. That arguably makes Iraq the most contaminated country on the planet. And it's the result of decades and layers of conflicts, one after the other.

BEAUBIEN: He points out that the deadly legacy of these mines can last for decades.

MORGAN: Last year, you know, the Falkland Islands were declared mine-free. And that was a relatively small conflict that took place over a number of weeks.

BEAUBIEN: A number of weeks 40 years ago. So imagine the challenge of trying to clear all the mines in Iraq, he says, where there's been years and years of fighting over that same time period. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Basra, Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.