Fakhir Berwari with defused minesBBC / The family of Fakhir Berwari

My dad disarmed landmines with his bare hands

Abdullah’s father spent six years deactivating deadly landmines in Iraq – saving thousands of lives in the process

Abdullah Fakher Ibrahim, 19
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My dad, Fakhir Berwari, was a true hero.

He worked in the Kurdish army as a ‘deminer’ - meaning that he spent his days manually disarming thousands of bombs against a backdrop of war and turmoil in our country. He started his unusual career during the Iraq War of 2003 to 2011, and was drawn back into it after the rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS).

Landmines have been used in Iraq for decades. In fact, the British charity Mines Advisory Group (MAG), has called Iraq 'one of the world’s most landmine-affected countries,' after the weapons were widely used in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the persecution of the Kurdish people under Saddam Hussein's government. 

Most recently, they were deployed to devastating effect by fleeing IS soldiers. They are a particularly brutal form of weaponry: filled with explosives and sometimes shrapnel, they have the power to wound, maim and kill anyone who comes into contact with them. They are generally activated by someone stepping on or even just coming near to them, though they can be detonated remotely. 

In 2017, research suggested that there has been almost 40,000 casualties in Iraq from landmines and other deadly remnants of war – unexploded shells, grenades and bombs.

My dad joined the army in 1991 when he was 16 – before I, the eldest of his eight children, was born. Following in the footsteps of his dad and his elder brother, he enlisted with the Peshmerga forces, which protect the self-governing area of Iraqi Kurdistan, where our family are from. After his death, three years ago, he was given the title of 'General' in recognition of his bravery.

Life was tough for our people under the regime of Saddam Hussein, who persecuted the Kurdish people during his two decades in power. In 2006, an Iraqi court charged Saddam with committing genocide and killing at least 50,000 of our people in the late 1980s. 

My family and I were happy when the Americans came to occupy Iraq in 2003 because it meant we would be free of Saddam. We just wanted peace after decades of bloodshed.

Fakhir Berwari with US soldiersBBC / The family of Fakhir Berwari
Fakhir Berwari (left) with US soldiers.

It was then that my dad started defusing landmines. The first time came when he helped the US special forces take control, amid much fighting and looting, of the city of Mosul - Iraq's second largest city - in 2003. 

In the wake of the fighting, bombs had been planted across the country. The devices were laid under roads, and by schools and hospitals.

That first time, my father only had a pair of wire cutters and a knife, and no protective clothing. To the amazement of everyone and, in defiance of US orders that he step back, he found the landmine and disarmed it with his bare hands by cutting the wire trigger that would detonate it.

After that, it was no wonder that the Americans admiringly called him 'Crazy Fakhir'.

My father didn’t have special training - it was just something that he instinctively knew how to do. It was like a sixth sense for him.

Fakhir Berwari defusing a mineBBC
Fakhir ignored orders to step back and defused a mine

Growing up, I wanted to become a 'deminer' just like my dad. Sometimes, when he had time, he taught me how to defuse simple bombs like those connected to a mobile phone. They’re not activated by stepping on them, but by dialling the phone – you have to cut the wire, so the phone can’t detonate the bomb.

It might not be the normal type of father-son bonding, but those moments brought us closer together.

Mum used to worry about him a lot. She told me that the fact he wasn’t trained to handle bombs terrified her. 

Sometimes when he came home, they would argue. “Come back to your family, it isn’t worth it,” she would plead. But my dad said that the kids who were dying from the bombs were like his kids, so he had to go back.

He knew how risky it was. Many deminers die within the first few months of starting a job, because it's just so dangerous. My dad didn’t care about money - he just wanted to help reduce the suffering in the world. Every bomb deactivated was another life saved.

I always knew he was brave, and that his work was important, but it was only in 2017 - three years after he had died - that the true extent of his heroism really hit me. We were in the middle of moving house when I came across an old briefcase full of video tapes. 

Abdullah with suitcase of filmsBBC
Abdullah discovered a suitcase of his dad's films

Dad had started using our family video camera to film himself at work. He wanted to show his fellow soldiers how to disarm these deadly bombs and to document the work he was doing. Much of the footage was filmed by his driver or other soldiers who followed him into danger zones.

I watched those videos with Hogir Hirori, a film director who was making a documentary about my dad. It was a tough experience. Alongside my dad's many successes there are also moments, captured on camera, when innocent people died, and buildings and cars were blown up. 

The hardest moment was watching one of the worst days of my life play out on the screen. That was 23 August 2008 - when my dad was nearly killed in an explosion.

He’d just defused one bomb in a seemingly abandoned house, when a second one detonated unexpectedly. In the footage you see and hear the full impact of the blast. There are no words to describe how I felt watching it. I just cried and cried.

At the time, when it happened, we were all in shock. I remember everyone sobbing when we heard the news. We thought he was dead.

But when we got to the hospital, we learned that he was still alive but in a coma. Somehow he survived, and slowly recovered. He had lost his right leg, his hearing was damaged and he was badly burned, but he was still alive.

I never asked him why he kept risking his life – I knew how much his job meant to him. That’s why his injury was so devastating.

Fakhir Berwari with crutchesBBC / The family of Fakhir Berwari
After his injury, Fakhir was unable to go back to work in the army

After a few months, once he had largely healed, my father was impatient to go back to the army. But it wasn't possible because of his disability. He was devastated. For six years, my father was forced into civilian life. During that time, he was always angry. I barely recognised him.

He was desperate to return to his old life. 

Everything changed in 2014, when IS captured Mosul. In the years after the US occupation of Iraq and the political vacuum that followed, militant groups had sprung up throughout the country, including IS. But now they had achieved what we had all feared, and many thought was impossible: they’d taken Iraq’s second city and were preparing to impose their extremist regime on the people there.

Once IS had full control of the city they began kidnapping people, killing them, abusing the girls. They did things that were disgusting, for which there are no words. Everyone was terrified that they would come even further north to Kurdistan.

Dad was determined to join the army as a volunteer and use his skills to help save lives. As part of their reign of terror, IS had planted landmines not seen on this scale in 20 years.

Fakhir Berwari returns to the armyThe family of Fakhir Berwari
Fakhir's prosthetic leg caused him pain

His wounds weren’t fully healed but he was able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. His stump caused him a lot of pain but there were so many bombs to deactivate he barely had time to rest. He even got sick with an infection, but still he carried on defusing bombs day in and day out.

That same year, the worst finally happened. My father had been in a village, clearing out houses that IS had filled with bombs. He was about to drive home when some villagers asked him to check on a house that they thought was mined. He agreed.

A soldier filmed inside the house. My dad began carefully cutting through the wires and disarming the bombs. Suddenly a phone rang, connected to a mine. My dad brought it outside and disarmed it, then went back in, despite people’s pleas for him not to. After a few minutes, a phone rang out again. That time, the bomb went off. He was killed instantly.

Fakhir Berwari defusing a bomb in a houseBBC / The family of Fakhir Berwari
Fakhir bravely defused houses full of landmines

A few days before he died, I had pleaded with him for the first time to stop risking his life. “Take me with you, or stop it,” I said. 

We all knew his end was coming - you could feel it. When you do something that risky, that regularly, it’s inevitable that your luck will run out.

It’s been almost four years now and I still don't fully accept that he's gone. Deep down, I know he isn’t just away with the army again, but sometimes I like to imagine that he will come back to us. 

His death changed things for me. I abandoned my dream of becoming a deminer because I became financially responsible for my siblings. I didn’t feel I could risk my life and leave them all. My twin brothers never knew our dad – they were born shortly before he died. 

I decided to continue my studies to ensure a better life for my family. I’m currently studying English at the American University in Kurdistan. One day, I hope to join the intelligence forces to help protect the Kurdish people. That was what motivated my dad and it’s what drives me too.

In total, it’s estimated that my dad saved thousands of lives as a result of his work. I still find myself surprised and overwhelmed by his bravery. The world needs more people like him.

My greatest hope for the future is that we live in a world with no landmines, no war, where everybody can exist in peace and freedom.

As told to Mirren Gidda

Hurt Locker Hero is available on BBC iPlayer now. Watch the trailer below.

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