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Majnoon: From battlefield to oilfield
Majnoon in Southern Iraq bears the scars of what once happened here.
Picture the Battle of the Somme, from the First World War,
fought out with modern weapons.
In the 1980's this was the main battlefield for the Iran-Iraq war.
This territorial conflict between the neighbouring countries raged for eight years.
All around us are the remnants of that war,
the barbed wire, the trenches and the craters.
The area behind me is churned up by hundreds and thousands of bombs, mortars and mines.
Majnoon sits directly above one of the largest oil reserves on the planet.
Reconnecting it to the world's energy supply is a potentially deadly task.
Shell has been developing the Majnoon oilfield since 2010
under its contract with the state-owned South Oil Company.
After a major upgrade, the oil is now flowing,
but more wells, production facilities and pipelines
are needed to make it fully productive,
and to help get Iraq's economy back on track.
The desert is littered with thousands of live munitions.
These must be cleared before any expansion can take place.
This critical task falls to Majnoon's Explosive Remnants of War team.
It's coordinated by former British Army bomb disposal officer, Tony Wyles.
Martin and Gerry, if you could go over to OPF2.
- Yeah, Roger that, mate. - And I'm going to go down into Source Line.
Today the team's clearing an area where geologists need to conduct seismic surveys.
Tony is well aware of the dangers.
Having been blown up in 2006 myself, the clearance is very close to my heart.
An IED was detonated under him after he rescued two people from a minefield in Lebanon.
I saw the wire but unfortunately wasn't fast enough to get away from it
and it ended where I was traumatically amputated on the right leg.
Since the clearance started in Majnoon,
there hasn't been a single injury among the team.
OK, so what we're going to go for is, we're going for a visual search.
50 metres by 50 metres.
Clearing an area of battlefield they know isn't mined,
they start searching the surface for ordnance.
Finds come fast and often.
So here we have a mortar.
At the moment I can't see what type of mortar it is because it's partially buried.
The device is uncovered and its threat level established.
Once it's been uncovered and identified, it will go into two categories.
It'll be UXO – unexploded ordnance,
or it will be scrap metal.
If UXO, if safe to do so, will be moved to the stockpile then the military will do the demolition.
This mortar is scrap and poses no threat.
But other unexploded ordnance could be hidden subsurface.
Identifying where, amongst the scrap metal from the battlefield, is a challenge.
The entire surface of Majnoon is covered in metal fragments.
Traditional mine-clearing techniques could not be used here
because the metal fragments on the surface simply triggered the equipment every time.
To tackle this problem, Shell has come up with a unique solution.
Its own fully armoured bulldozer to remove the most dangerous layer of soil.
If we go and have a look at the place where we're going to break ground.
Then everybody else follows after.
- OK. - OK.
The team has learnt that the vast majority of unexploded ordnance
is in the top 40 centimetres of soil.
Mechanically clearing that layer creates safe working lanes across Majnoon.
The current bulldozer is off the shelf,
but we've put 16-mm armour around it,
and we've bespoked a plough to the front.
29-year-old Wasm Hammad is one of 250 Iraqis
now employed by Shell's Explosive Remnants of War team.
He's more used to driving on construction sites than on a battlefield.
Other team members watch from a safe distance while Wsam breaks fresh ground alone.
During the conflict there was a lot of anti-vehicle weapons used,
so by armouring the equipment that we use,
it gives an added protection to the driver
if something was to function while it's being pushed away.
But today, the find is not unexploded ordnance.
Hello, Hugh. It's Nige.
You've found some human remains on MJ09. OK.
In his role as Company Site Representative,
Nigel Rees is called in whenever bones are unearthed.
I've just received a phone call saying that they've found possibly a body
on one of the mechanical sites,
so I'm just going out to see now to verify if it's a body.
We're very mindful, obviously,
the people working for us could well have been involved in the conflict themselves,
or have family members - you know, brothers, fathers or uncles, grandfathers,
so once we identify a body, we try and afford it as much dignity as we can.
Hi Hugh.
- Hello, Kadhum. How are you doing, my friend? - Good.
Came back here, we've done a little search around and found the rest of the body.
- OK. - So what we've done,
we've excavated what we can, we've covered it over, we gave you guys a call.
We know straightaway it's a body of sorts.
Nothing in the surrounding area other than this one at the moment?
Just this one at the moment. I've taken photographs, I've got the grid.
Kadhum, can you pull this back, please, so we can have a look?
Have we got no uniform? Sometimes we find uniforms with them.
The Iran–Iraq war was one of the longest of the 20th century.
It's estimated that more than half a million people died.
To date we've probably found about 28 bodies.
Most of the bodies have been damaged or broken up over time,
but today is the first time since we've been in Majnoon
that we've found a complete skull.
The team notes the GPS coordinates and leaves the skeleton covered in a safe area.
I know before there was a war here.
You know, sad thing he died.
So I just feel sad, but...
I can't do nothing.
The remains will be undisturbed until the Iraqi authorities come to take them away.
The bulldozers have cleared the top 40 centimetres of soil,
but the team leaves nothing to chance.
Now the priority is to check for unexploded ordnance buried deeper in the ground.
The equipment that we're using here
is a large loop that is just basically a metal detector.
There's a lot of unexploded ordnance that is subsurface.
It can range from munitions, up to 155 calibre,
right down to your average bullet round that you get from a weapon.
They place a marker in the area where metal is detected.
Then a more precise detector is used to pinpoint the exact location.
Although this find is 30 years old, it's still potentially a lethal weapon.
We have found a hand grenade here,
and it's not safe to move because the safety pin is missing.
Any movement on it, it might just go off.
So what we have done is we have marked four pickets here
and I've taken the coordinates of this place
and this will be informed to the military guys to come and remove it.
With the ordnance in this area now identified,
the team takes a break from the scorching heat.
Once the Iraqi military has removed the team's finds,
this part of Majnoon will be safe for geologists to begin their seismic survey.
It's working.
Over the last three years we have cleared over 12,000 items of unexploded ordnance.
We've cleared, in that time, about 5% of the field,
an area equivalent to about 9,000 football pitches.
And yet the biggest challenge lies ahead.
As well as clearing battlefields,
the team will soon be clearing one of Majnoon's largest minefields.
The only way to do this is by hand.
Minefields in general are a higher hazard than battle area clearance.
With minefields they're generally buried,
so it's very difficult to clear minefields in this terrain.
The de-miner has to do it by the feel of the shovel
and slowly removing the soil in front of him,
looking and feeling and prodding as he goes along.
Iraq is one of the most landmine contaminated countries in the world.
More than 80,000 Iraqis are amputees.
The problem we've got in Iraq is that the local population has grown up around war.
So they see mines every day so they don't deem them being dangerous.
However, it's always the ones that are under the ground that people don't see
and that's how accidents are caused.
Before the team sealed off Majnoon's minefields,
they were a major threat to the local community.
There were two separate incidents
where two children were walking across the area collecting metals
and they both stood on anti-personnel mines and both lost a lower leg.
Incidents like these, and Tony's own experience in Lebanon, give him the incentive to carry on.
I've never had the thought of giving up this career at all.
It is something that I get a lot of satisfaction out of,
and out of all this time I've never woken up in the morning saying that I never want to go to work.
It's just kept me driving forward.
Clearing Majnoon of its war-torn past
is an ongoing mission for Tony and his team.
Developing the rich oil reserves beneath it would be impossible without their work,
reserves that many hope can help Iraq leave its past behind and build a better future.
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