As Russian mercenaries fled the Libyan capital last summer, they left behind booby-trapped houses and yards. They attached explosives to toilet seats, doors, and teddy bears, designed to detonate upon touch, Libyan deminers say.
Most devious, perhaps, were the empty soft-drink cans.
Many young Libyans like to playfully crush them, and so the Russians designed the cans to explode upon pressure. “They studied us, even how our kids played,” says Rabie Aljawashi, the head of the Free Fields Foundation, a Libyan demining agency. “They know how we think.”
Now, Libya demining teams are scouring the war-scarred landscape to rid it of this lethal legacy, and they’re finding troves of unexploded munitions left behind – both intentionally and unintentionally – not just by the Russian mercenaries, who had backed renegade Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, but by earlier waves of conflict.
Some of the ordnance dates back to Libya’s Arab Spring revolution a decade ago, which led to the removal and killing of dictator Muammar Gaddafi and left his massive stores of weapons in the hands of numerous militias. In Tripoli’s war-battered southern neighbourhoods, such as Ein Zara, deminers are also discovering unexploded shells and mortar rounds, including American ones, from Gaddafi’s arsenals.
But the deadliest finds are Russian-made mines, according to the deminers. They say they had never seen anything like them before Haftar’s failed campaign in 2019 to seize the capital. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of families are still unable to return to their homes because of mines and other explosives. Reports of casualties emerge on social media nearly every week.
“Of all the conflicts in Libya since 2011, this one by far was the worst for us,” says Moad Elarabi, operations manager for the Free Fields Foundation. “From this conflict, we found a lot of new weapons, all brought from outside.”
On a recent morning, a team of deminers in tan uniforms and blue surgical masks gathers at the Free Fields Foundation office. They have received two calls for help.
“The families are waiting for us,” team leader Mohammed Zlateni tells them. “I wish you the best, and I hope we come back safely.”
Their convoy of four vehicles, including an ambulance, pull out with emergency lights flashing. Half an hour later, they arrive at a farm off Tripoli’s Airport Road, a former front line of the war. Zlateni and his deputy put on blue protective gear and visors.
In a field lies an American-made 81-millimetre mortar shell, the fin still attached. Zlateni, wiry with short-cropped black hair, scrapes the dirt around the weapon and finds its safety pin still intact. He picks up the shell and carries it back to a pickup truck. His co-worker places it on a bed of sand inside a thick box.
The next stop is another farm. A large shell has been sitting in a field for nine months. Two others were found more recently.
“This is very normal,” says Khalid al-Zaroq, 43, a government employee, who had called the deminers. “Even our kids play on the grounds, everywhere. We just warn them not to get close if they see these weapons.”
Less than an hour later, Zlateni has safely disposed of all three shells. All were Russian-made.
“It’s a sad thing to see the world’s trash dumped in Libya,” he says. “Those who are responsible are those who backed the sides [in Libya’s civil war]. If there was no outside support, this would not have happened. We Libyans are now paying the price.”
Last summer, Free Fields Foundation teams were among the first deminers to enter areas that had been controlled by the Russian mercenaries of the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group. They discovered 107 improvised explosive devices on a single street in Tripoli’s southern enclave of Salahideen, says Aljawashi.
Inside houses, the deminers discovered bodybuilding equipment, imported bottles of water, and cans of fortified milk formula. Graffiti was scrawled on walls in Russian and Serbian. There were also instructions on how to open doors or go to the bathroom without triggering the explosive traps designed by the mercenaries. One toilet was designed with a sensor to ignite 9lb of TNT when a person sat on the seat, the deminers recall.
They say they also found a teddy bear that had six trip wires attached so it would explode when someone walked towards it from any direction. An empty drink-can bomb was designed with a pressure-plate system to be triggered by the weight of half an AK-47 bullet.
“The problems we faced were not the items, but the way they placed them,” says Elarabi. “All the items were booby-trapped in a new way we didn’t face before.”
The deminers also report finding a range of innovative mines, including a Russian “scattering mine” that deploys itself and self-destructs in 100 hours, an anti-personnel mine with laser beams as trip wires, and sinister combinations of mines, such as an arrangement in which one mine is a decoy and another explodes.
After identifying the munitions, the deminers sent photographs to consultants in the United States and Europe. One Ukrainian adviser said the devices resembled those used in the conflict in Crimea, where Wagner troops have also fought.
Over several weeks last summer, two members of the demining team reportedly cleared more than 400 mines and other explosive devices from more than 200 homes. But this success came at a high cost. In early July, the pair were killed when an improvised explosive device hidden inside a home blew up.
After Haftar’s forces fled last summer, Abdul Rahman al-Ghobaily, a 48-year-old telecommunications worker, returned to his family compound. As he opened the front door of his house, he was unaware of the peril that awaited. “When I turned the door’s handle and pushed, a grenade fell and exploded,” recalls al-Ghobaily, a compact man with a grey-stubbled face. “My leg was badly injured.”
His brother, Muhanned, was behind him at the time, and escaped harm.
Fifteen days later, the two brothers were at their compound’s entrance, along with another brother, Juwaili. Deminers spotted a thin wire connected to a stick on one side and a detonator on the other.
They told the three brothers and another deminer to back up slowly toward the family’s white Toyota Corolla. But one of them tripped the wire to another mine.
Muhanned and Juwaili were killed. So was the deminer. Shrapnel struck al-Ghobaily’s right forearm, fracturing it.
Tripoli’s children are being hit especially hard by the epidemic of mines and other munitions.
Abdulrahim, 9, and his cousin Muhammed, 10, played video games together. They liked the same soccer teams. They went to school together. “They were inseparable,” says Ali Shama, the father of Abdulrahim, the youngest of his six children.
The family had returned to their home a week earlier after fleeing Haftar’s offensive, and the boys were outside playing with firecrackers near a half-built wall, when a huge explosion occurred, most likely an unexploded mortar round, deminers would say later.
Shama, who had been inside his house performing his afternoon prayers, ran out. “When I came, I found my son’s head, covered with blood,” recalls Shama, his eyes red and tears flowing down his face. “He was already dead.”
“My nephew was still alive,” Shama continues. “He had lost one hand. It was almost 50ft from his body.”
He died in the ambulance.
“That was when I knew the war had not ended,” Shama says.
The Washington Post’s Husen Gdora contributed to this report.
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