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. Stop. 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.

16 thoughts on “Majnoon: From battlefield to oilfield

  1. Tears from the heart for those people who lost their legs , it is wonderful to see that great hard work of great hearts for HELP.

  2. Having lived and worked on that very patch of earth during 2003 – 2005, I find it very exciting to see the progress made in the area over the last 8 years. No one outside the country would believe what total devastation took place along the Iranian border in Majnoon or what was left after the war for the local inhabitants.  Thank you for this extremely descriptive clip, taking me back to a very emotional time in my life – well done and good luck in your endeavours!

  3. This unfortunate country (Iraq) has suffered greatly in useless 40 years of wars. The Iraq-Iran war ended with Iraq giving Iran its air force as a present. Some of the latter is being refurbished and handed back to Iraqi air force. What was the fighting for then? Why did thousands of innocent people die for? I would like to thank the men in the video for their courage and persistence. Thank you gentleman and God bless. Iraq will never forget you, Dr J. Allawi,  

  4. They keep promising the Iraqi people with fake videos and wrong information for almost 15 years ! And the truth is those who destroyed Iraq will never build it again for Iraqis , or even let the Iraqi people build their country again!

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