You are travelling on foot and you are tired. You sit on a rock by the side of the road to rest. But the rock is a camouflaged booby-trap. It explodes, killing you instantly or maiming you for life.
This is the kind of terror locals at the north Syrian city of al-Bab, recently captured by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels from Islamic State [IS], are living in. They say the extremist fighters have left behind hundreds of IEDs and booby traps -- apparently harmless objects containing concealed explosive devices designed to detonate when a victim touches it.
Several civilians have been killed by these murderous contraptions, according to local sources. Many displaced from the town after Daesh seized it in 2013, are now putting their plans to return on hold.
"Since the expulsion of IS from the town, Civil Defence crews are working around the clock to defuse the explosives," Abdul-Karim Balaw, head of the Azaz branch of Civil Defence, told The New Arab.
"Daesh has planted explosives in homes, roads, shops, schools and factories," said Balaw, using an Arabic name for IS. "They have shown homicidal creativity, rigging various objects from rocks to household furniture."
The Civil Defence found an entire workshop dedicated to making booby traps, he said, using material like gypsum to camouflage the explosives.
Nearly two thirds of the city is destroyed, and moving around is difficult
Despite the estimated high number of booby traps in the al-Bab, one man, a local who has experience, is almost single-handedly leading the de-mining process, said Balaw.
"We work from morning to evening looking for bodies of the victims killed in the bombardment of the town," added Balaw.
Nearly two thirds of the city is destroyed, and moving around is difficult, Balaw explains. "There is a risk of death with every uncalculated move. Last Friday, a civilian was killed in front of Civil Defence crews, who could do nothing to save him."
The man was travelling on a motorcycle, and did not heed warnings by the Civil Defence. He hit a tripwire, detonating an IED.
The man was killed instantly. The Civil Defence crews could do little more than extinguish his burning corpse, Balaw said.
"Nearly every day there is a new casualty in al-Bab despite our warnings," Balaw said. He explained that his organisation has made videos and graphics explaining the danger of booby traps, mines and IEDs, but "civilians sometimes do not heed our warnings."
"If we had de-mining crews in al-Bab, we would probably not lose any civilians or fighters."
"When I returned home, I found a mine. I did not touch it and it was defused by Civil Defence. However, I still cannot live in it. It is almost totally destroyed and there is no water or services in the city," Abu Mohammed, a returnee, told The New Arab.
Abu Mohammed said two civilians he knew were killed by mines upon returning to their homes. While there is no official tally of people killed by mines in al-Bab, a local coordination committee says 400 civilians have died from bombardment and mines.
The high contamination of unexploded ordnances and IEDs in al-Bab "is one of the main challenges facing returning civilians and humanitarians trying to respond." said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Sunday.
"With the situation on the ground remaining unstable, humanitarian priorities include assurances by all parties for freedom of movement for civilians, the facilitation of civilian demining activities and unfettered access for humanitarian agencies and partners," the report added.
More than 65,000 people have been forced to flee fighting in northern Syria, ravaged in recent weeks by dual offensives on Daesh.
Tens of thousands of people have left their homes in northern Aleppo province, particularly around al-Bab, OCHA said.
Turkey-backed rebels seized al-Bab from IS on February 23 after several months of fighting.
Al-Bab was a commercial hub in Aleppo's eastern countryside prior to the Syrian revolution.
(Reporting by Jalal Bakkour with translation and additional writing by Karim Traboulsi)
Copyright @ 2022 The New Arab.