The most dangerous harvest in the world

Patrick Cockburn in Penjwin, northern Iraq on the farmers who defuse live mines so their families can eat
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It is probably the most dangerous way to make a living in the world. "I do it because I would prefer to die than see the rest of my family starve," said Sabir Saleh, a middle-aged man who used to be a farmer but is now too poor to hire a tractor to plough his land.

Every morning he goes out into the minefields laid around Penjwin, a village in northern Iraq shattered by fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. Mr Saleh looks for one mine in particular: the Italian made Valmara, one of the most lethal anti-personnel mines in existence. It is not easy to spot, because its five khaki-coloured prongs look like dried grass. Pressure on any one of them causes the Valmara to jump to waist height and explode, spraying 1,200 ball bearings over a range of 100 yards.

"I defuse the mine with a piece of wire," said Mr Saleh. "Then I unscrew the top of it and take out the aluminium around the explosives. When I have taken apart six mines I have enough aluminium to sell for 30 dinar (about 75 pence) to a shop in Penjwin." After a day in the minefields he hopes to have recovered enough aluminium to feed his family of eight.

"I make enough money to buy food for them, but not enough to buy clothes or anything else," said Mr Saleh. He was a farmer before being drafted into the Iraqi army for six years to fight the Iranians. To plough his land he would need to hire a tractor for pounds 2.50 an hour, money he does not have. So, in the last few years, he has defused 2,000 Valmaras.

We met Mr Saleh in the dishevelled main street of Penjwin, which is at the tip of a salient of Iraqi Kurdistan which sticks into Iran. Straggling along the valley bottom, surrounded by mountains, it has the bad luck to command a strategic road, and was fought over by the Iranian and Iraqi armies for eight years. Most of the one-storey houses and shops in the village have been rebuilt out of the rubble of buildings destroyed by shellfire.

Even though the war ended in 1988, the mountain slopes around Penjwin are infested by mines. More than anywhere in the world it is mines - not just Valmaras, but lethal little anti-personnel devices which look like cream-coloured mushrooms but will blow your foot off - that shape the lives of local people. Bahktiar Ali, an 18-year-old orphan, said his mother was killed in February last year, when she trod on a mine while looking for firewood. Now he earns money guiding people illegally into Iran through the minefields.

Everybody in Penjwin knew somebody who had been killed by mines, and many pointed to their own injuries, mostly sustained when looking for Valmaras. "You can divide people in Penjwin into those who make their money from dismantling mines and selling the aluminium and those who don't," said Abdullah Ahmed, a local man who works for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a British-based charity which clears minefields. Over 2,000 Kurds are known to have been killed by mines since 1991, but the real figure is probably 50 per cent higher.

The Valmaras are too dangerous to defuse, said Mr Ahmed, and he always tries to blow them up from a safe distance. Most of them are buried underground with only the prongs, one of which is usually connected to a trip wire, visible. Nearly everyone who works in the minefields has received some sort of injury, and a few have given up. "Defusing is very difficult," said Selwar Hama Mustafa, who now works in a garage in Penjwin. "You have to get a wire into a hole, and then sometimes you can't unscrew the top of the mine because it is rusty." The Valmaras are usually surrounded by smaller anti-personnel mines. Abdullah Ali, his left leg ending in a stump, said: "I was looking for aluminium. I didn't notice there was a little pressure mine under my foot."

There is no danger of mines being in short supply. Polly Brennan of MAG says the Iraqi army planted between 10 million and 20 million along the border with Iran, one for "every man, woman, child, chicken and donkey". The only way of detecting them is by prodding with a long piece of metal. MAG has too few metal detectors, because Turkey regards them as military equipment and will not allow them into Kurdistan. Even with a metal detector the mines are difficult to find, because the ground is littered with old shell fragments.

Hunting for mines may be a dangerous and not very profitable occupation but, apart from taking goods and people across the Iranian border - the main bridge was blown up in the 1980s - there is no other way of making a living. If anything, life is getting worse. Fighting between the two main Kurdish factions stopped what little trade there was, and the United States has blocked the UN food-for-oil plan, which would have given the villagers a ration, as a way of punishing Saddam Hussein. Sabir Saleh has started taking his children into the minefields to learn how to defuse a Valmara, "so they can earn a living, too".