BASHIQA, Iraq (Reuters) - Khedr Selim trod gingerly through the rubble of his old home, desperate to move back in with his family after two years on the run, but terrified in case Islamic State fighters, driven out at last, had wired the house to explode.
Just days earlier two former residents of his hometown Bashiqa visited their house for the first time since fleeing two years ago. They were killed by a bomb rigged to the front door.
“It’s dangerous here. The explosives need to be cleared from the town before we can even clean up the rubble, let alone come back to live,” he said.
“But we can’t stay away much longer. We’ve been renting elsewhere for two years and I haven’t found work. Money is running out and we need to get home.”
Thousands of Iraqis who fled when Islamic State swept through swathes of Iraq in 2014 are returning to homes as a U.S.-backed campaign to roll back the self-proclaimed caliphate has recaptured outlying towns and villages near the group’s biggest bastion, Mosul.
But in their desperation to return home, many villagers have been killed or maimed by mines and booby traps left behind by fighters as they withdrew.
Of the buildings left standing in Bashiqa, scene of heavy fighting and air strikes as U.S.-backed Kurdish forces seized it from Islamic State in October, several are marked with graffiti: “Danger – TNT”. Many streets are blocked off because they have not been cleared.
Not only are buildings booby trapped, mine clearers say minefields stretch for tens of kilometers (miles) to the southeast of Bashiqa, roughly along the former frontier of Islamic State-held areas.
In a village along that line in the Khazer area southeast of Mosul, dozens of yellow stakes hammered into the soil mark where mines have been cleared along a path leading right up to the local school.
“ISIS (Islamic State) decided to lay... a defensive minefield, but most of the minefields go through the houses,” said Salam Mohammed, whose team from the international Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is working to clear the explosives.
“At the same time, they booby-trapped the houses for when people tried to return later.”
Mohammed said MAG had so far found more than 350 explosive devices in that village alone, which was recaptured earlier in the year. Work on much bigger towns like Bashiqa has only just started.
The landmines, mostly large metal cylinders made in Islamic State’s bomb factories and weighing as much as 35 kg, were designed to kill, not to maim, he said. Of 25 civilian casualties from explosives in the Khazer area in recent months, 16 died.
Mohammed stood above a hole on the roadside where a resident had stepped on a mine.
“It turned him into three pieces. This is his boot,” he said, pointing at a black hiking shoe still lying on the ground.
The danger fails to deter some people from returning from exile, however.
“We knew the area was mined when we came back, but we’d been renting a house in Khabat (district) for nearly two years and have no money left,” said 73-year-old farmer Hamid Zorab.
“We’ve no choice.”
The family’s return several months ago came at a high cost. Zorab’s son was killed when a bomb detonated outside his house nearby.
Mine clearers are working as fast as they can to make safe areas Islamic State has been driven from, but do not know how much time it will take. They advise families to stay away but sometimes to no avail.
The force of a child’s footstep will set off most mines and the explosions can destroy a vehicle, Mohammed said.
His team detonated a device they could not defuse or remove. Smoke from the deafening blast shot up several meters into the air.
In a home in a still heavily mined village, MAG workers taught children to recognize unexploded ordnance and booby traps, which could take almost any form – a rigged fridge, a piece of pipe by the road, a toy.
Khalil Khobyar had moved back with his young family.
“The kids are becoming experts in explosives,” he said.
Reporting by John Davison; editing by Peter Graff