In Mosul and the surrounding area approximately 54,000 houses are still in ruins. Photo: Noe Falk Nielsen

Hidden bombs and eight million tonnes of rubble keep the people of Mosul from returning home

Hundreds of thousands of families are now waiting to return to Mosul. But the city remains scattered with bombs and unexploded ordnance, making moving around freely extremely dangerous. Currently, the Danish Demining Group (DDG) is one of very few organisations working to clear mines and unexploded ordnance in Mosul – by no means an easy task.


Although almost two years have passed since Islamic State lost control over Mosul, millions are still displaced from their homes without any prospect of returning any time soon. The biggest obstacle is the huge amount of unexploded ordnance, improvised explosive devices or booby traps (a trap whereby explosives are hidden in another object, such as a doll, refrigerator or a toilet). They can be found in houses and gardens, by the roadsides, in fields and parks, as well as in schools and hospitals.

Mosul is the area of Iraq that has been most severely affected by the devastation of war. The city used to be the third largest in Iraq, with 1,4 million inhabitants, but nine months of fierce fighting between Islamic State and the Iraqi army has left especially the Western part of Mosul in ruins.

“It is impossible not to be overwhelmed by what you see when standing on the roof of the DDG office in Mosul. Half of this sprawling city is literally levelled to the ground and it is practically impossible to move through it due to the large number of explosives hidden in the ruins”, says Lene Rasmussen from DDG.

Approximately 130,000 Iraqi homes have been destroyed and in Mosul alone the UN estimates that because of the war, around eight million tonnes of rubble and rubbish will have to be removed. Due to the dangers involved in removing this, it is estimated that the process can take up to 10 years with the equipment and resources that are currently available.

“For the time being, DDG is one of the few organisations that has permission to work in Mosul. Our teams are experiencing a very complicated situation, to say the least. They are finding both conventional ammunition and bombs dropped from airplanes, as well as entire stockpiles of Islamic State’s improvised explosive devices. The hardest thing is when the improvised devices are buried underneath the ruins of houses and other buildings. Clearing these requires special equipment and armoured machines, such as for example armoured excavators. This is equipment that we currently do not have – primarily because it is very expensive”, says Lene Rasmussen.

The conflict in Iraq over the last two decades has forced millions of men, women and children to flee. Many refugees both within and outside the country wish to return home but feel unsure of whether it is safe to do so, or whether there is in fact anything to return to. The many explosive remnants of war do not only make it a dangerous area to live in; their presence also slows down the development of the city and consequently makes it harder finding a job, sending children to school or getting access to health care.

“We have worked in many conflict zones where there has been the need to clear a large number of explosive remnants of war. However, in Mosul where the majority of the explosive remnants of war are improvised explosive devices – which are left behind with the intention of harming those who return –the people carrying out the clearance work are doing this work risking their own lives in the process. That is also why so few of Mosul’s inhabitants have returned – they simply do not know if there are hidden bombs in their backyard, in their refrigerator or in their children’s beds”, says Lene Rasmussen.

DDG has worked in Mosul since April 2017, where deminers have searched big parts of the city and attempted to map where the bombs and ammunition is located. DDG has also removed or destroyed several thousand explosive devices, and even though that might sound like a lot, there is still a long way to go.