In Iraq's Baiji, mines turn farms into killing fields
One man lost his uncle. Another is mourning for two sons. Farmers and herders in Iraq's Baiji say mines left by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) turned their beloved orchards into killing fields.
The improvised explosive devices (IEDs), planted by ISIS elements trying to fend off Iraqi troops in 2015, have also discouraged scores of families from returning to their battered farming towns around Baiji, in the north of the country.
"ISIS's ghosts are still here. Their crimes are still there, under the earth," said local official Abu Bashir.
His thin face contorted into a grimace as he recalled his personal loss to those "ghosts" -- both his sons.
"We came back in March 2018 and found the area booby-trapped. There was nowhere we could feel safe," he said.
"As the kids were playing, a bomb exploded under my six-year-old son who was outside the house. He was killed immediately."
Exactly a year later, in March of this year, unexploded ordnance also killed his 18-year-old son.
He said the experience had left him too scarred to try rebuilding his home, reduced to rubble by ferocious fighting between ISIS and security forces.
"A man bitten by a snake will be afraid of a rope, as the saying goes. After my two boys were killed, I am afraid of everything."
'This soil means so much'
Lahib, 21, has also been touched by ISIS's deadly legacy.
"We got our houses back but the remnants of war are still there. ISIS left us with booby-trapped homes," he said.
"One of these homes blew up on my uncle. I saw it with my own eyes."
The loss pushed him to join Halo Trust, a non-profit group clearing unexploded ordnance in Baiji since June as part of the UN's Mine Action Service (UNMAS).
In temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius, Halo Trust mine searchers scanned a field near Baiji for an ISIS speciality: plastic jerrycans packed with explosives and rigged to pressure plates.
The bombs appeared to have been planted in long rows parallel to a main thoroughfare to defend against incoming Iraqi troops.
Mine searchers used excavators to map out the bombs, then mechanically defused them so Iraqi troops could take the components away.
"When we talk as friends, it is clear no one has not seen injustice and explosions with his own eyes. This is why we are doing this job," said Lahib.
In Baiji alone, 340 explosive hazards were removed since UNMAS operations began, with up to 25 IEDs uncovered daily.
UNMAS says the scope and complexity of IED contamination in ISIS-controlled areas is "unprecedented", with tripwires painted to blend in with surroundings and even Iraqi currency turned into bombs.
The fear of undiscovered threats has kept around 100 families away from the area, said Abu Mohammad, another local official.
"People want to come back, live in their homes and get on with normal lives, but when they see that this guy got blown up or that guy was killed, they stay away," he said.
"This soil means so much to us and we hope this kind of thing -- losing our loved ones, our children, our homes -- does not happen on it."
A pulverised moonscape
More than 2,500 people remain displaced from Baiji, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Returns seem to be speeding up, with some 15,000 people back in their home district since December.
For the most part, however, they are returning to an utterly destroyed moonscape.
The town of Baiji is a labyrinth of mostly-abandoned buildings, still riddled with bullet holes and craters.
Twisted rebar stick out from the ruins like crushed spider legs.
UNMAS hopes clearing ISIS-laden explosives will allow for Baiji's reconstruction.