HALABJA, Iraq — Before beginning his work, Hoshyar Ali takes off his prosthetic legs and lowers himself flat onto the ground. The vast field in front of him stretches on toward green hills and the jagged mountains of Kurdistan near the Iranian border in northern Iraq.
The green countryside would look innocuous to someone who doesn’t know the signs, but the people of this region know better than to set foot on the inviting terrain of the rolling valley. Smooth, gray stones line its perimeter, stacked to form small pyramids that jut upwards every 20-or-so meters. The small pyramids are manmade warnings—land mines ahead.
Around 500,000 acres of land in Iraq is believed to be contaminated by mines laid by Saddam Hussein’s old regime, mostly during the Iraq-Iran war some 30 years ago. Iraq’s latest war with the so-called Islamic State is only adding to the number of deadly fields.
Ali lost both his legs to land mines in two separate incidents while clearing fields for the Kurdish Peshmerga in the 1980s and 1990s. Ali would work ahead, clearing a six-foot-wide corridor through a minefield, while other militiamen followed tentatively behind. In 1989, however, he stepped on a land mine and lost his first leg.
Five years later the second was also blown off.
“I went to a village to clean the land, there was a stone on the mine and I didn’t see it. It exploded, ripping off my second leg. There was only a little bit of skin left,” Ali tells The Daily Beast. “It was a Yugoslavian mine called an M14,” he says matter-of-factly.
Ali lost his brother in a separate incident—they had been out combing a minefield together when his brother took a wrong step. The death, along with his own severe injuries, have not deterred Ali. Instead, the tragedies seem to have given his life a mission. “As long as I have one drop of blood left, I will pick up mines,” he says.
While Ali, now 52, retired from his service with the Peshmerga a few years back, he says he never stopped serving his people. Ali is determined to de-mine all of northern Iraq. He does this work for free, whereas other organizations and NGOs charge the government, he says.
Ali claims to have cleared thousands of fields over the past three decades, dismantling hundreds of thousands of land mines. Ali’s hometown, Halabja, is most famous for Saddam Hussein’s deadly chemical bombing campaign in 1988, resulting in the death of 5,000 people. But the poison gas was only one of the plagues that afflicted this town near the Iranian border. Almost a third of its surrounding land is sown with mines.
Like Halabja’s countryside, Ali’s home is full of mines—even his bedroom—all dug up and deactivated by Ali himself. Piles of dead mines are clustered in the corners of his living room, where the walls are covered with large posters of himself. The posters range from his younger days as a PKK guerilla in the Kurdish mountains, later to when he cleared land mines as a Peshmerga soldier, and to his more recent self, lying on the ground, prosthetic legs tossed aside as he carefully drags his body across the earth searching ever so delicately for telltale signs of the treacherous explosives.
Ali is easy to spot driving around his hometown in a 4x4, proudly adorned with large stickers of land mines, inspirational phrases, and a personalized (and technically illegal) license plate, which just says “Kurdistan 1.”
It’s obvious he relishes the waves he gets from people on the streets. He is a local celebrity, and for good reason—many villages and much of the countryside was de-mined singlehandedly by the eccentric, but incredibly meticulous, double amputee. Streets, mosques, schools, and even one local village have been named in his honor.
Ali says that in 2011 the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Ministry of Mines, with the backing of NGOs in the area, took him to court in an attempt to stop his de-mining activities. His antics were being carried out independently, not with a licensed NGO or as part of the government’s own mine deactivation program. He was seen as a thrill-seeker more than a professional.
Ali, who prefers to work independently so he doesn’t need to stick to any form of protocol— for example, wearing safety gear—won the case, which was annulled when hundreds of people massed outside of the court protesting the attempt to halt Ali’s mission. He’s kept copies of news reports on the rallies, which he happily plays for The Daily Beast.
“The NGOs and the government wanted me to give up,” Ali says, animated. “They want the process to take longer and make money out of it. They are also looking for archeological things.”
Ali took The Daily Beast on a tour of the local area, passing fields now cleared of mines where farming can again take place. On a hill overlooking Halabja, he points out the field where his brother was killed. He’s proud his brother died doing something for the local community. A few minutes later we arrive at his brother’s grave, a place Ali says he visits every day. He tells us part of his blown-up leg is buried alongside his sibling.
Half a kilometer away, the shell of a building comes into view—the beginnings of a land mine museum Ali is creating to educate the local population on the dangers. Incredibly and in what seems to be a rather hazardous move, Ali has surrounded the museum with live land mines that he has planted himself. Mines that he has retrieved from elsewhere, and enclosed between two pieces of wire fencing that surround the small compound. Pieces of metal can be seen protruding through the dirt every 20 centimeters or so.
This eccentric figure appears to miss the contradiction when he states five minutes later that land mines should never be planted, regardless of the purpose.
The work on the museum will have to go on hold however. As the Islamic State continues to plant mines and booby traps around northern Iraq, Ali is off to help the Peshmerga once again.
“In three days I will go Tel Ward to pick up mines,” he says. “I’ve been there before and three times to Jalawla and Qaratapa. I have got phone calls from Kobani to pick up mines. I am planning to go there too.”
When asked whether he has any doubts about clearing Islamic State booby traps and minefields— the militants concoct various inventive and deadly hand-made mines—Ali is nonchalant.
“I know the Islamic State mines,” he says calmly. “Because I know how to make them, too.”