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The man who disarmed thousands of bombs with his bare hands

Colonel Fakhir Berwari takes a break beside a pile of defused landmines. Source: Hogir Hirori

Equipped with little more than his bare hands, a pair of wire-cutters and a steely resolve, Kurdish-soldier-turned-bomb-defuser, Fakhir Berwari, disarmed thousands of mines in Iraq.

Three years after the death of his father, Abdullah Berwari found a battered old briefcase in the family home that had previously gone unnoticed. Inside were thousands of hours of footage documenting the dangerous day-to-day life of his father, Fakhuir Berwari – a Kurdish bomb-defuser who had been loved by his people and inspired awe in the American troops he worked alongside but was hated by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. 

Abdullah had recalled his father buying a camcorder to film their family, but hadn't been aware that once he was deployed to the heart of Iraq's conflict-zone in Mosul, the camera went too. 

Yet, neither Abdullah nor his seven other siblings had known about their father's meticulous filming until the discovery of the briefcase. 

Fakhir Berwari
Fakhir Berwari was dubbed "Crazy Fakhir" by American troops.
Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal

Captured in the reels and reels of amateurishly shot video are extraordinary scenes of his father at work. He digs up roadside landmines buried in the hard dirt, calmly takes apart homemade bombs with his bare hands, and snips wires attached to volatile explosives with the nonchalance of someone disassembling a piece of IKEA furniture. 

In other clips, Mr Berwari's fellow soldiers, sometimes the same ones behind the camcorder, beg him to "please leave it", before he successfully neutralises a bomb. In one such recording, "the deminer" emerges from a car with the detached wires for the bomb that had been planted inside, holding it aloft with a grin on his face. 

Interspersing all of the footage of apparent calm and camaraderie though is the sobering reminder that Mr Berwari's workplace is a war-zone. In another scene shot from inside a moving vehicle, the pretense of normalcy is shattered with a thundering explosion that sends the screen black. 

It's anxiety-inducing stuff that is equally awe-inspiring. 

'Those who planted the mines threatened to kill my dad'

Fakhir Berwari had been a 'Peshmerga' -- a 'Freedom Fighter' --  in the Kurdish army since he was 16-years-old. The Peshmerga are the official armed forces of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, made up of all the Kurdish political parties, whose name literally means "those who confront death".

When Saddam Hussein was toppled from power and US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003, the civilian death toll rose dramatically from the bombs deployed all around Mosul. 

Mr Berwari began defusing the explosive devices left scattered about, equipped with little more than a pocketknife, some wire-cutters and a steely resolve.

"Dad decided pretty quickly to become a de-miner to save the lives of innocent people," Abdullah said. "Just during the first year he disarmed more than 600 mines.

"Those who planted the mines threatened to kill my dad."

Over the next decade, Mr Berwari lost count how many bombs and landmines he defused, but it was estimated to be in the thousands. His work wasn't without mishap and near-misses though. Between 2003 and 2014, he survived seven explosions, the most deadly of which resulted in the loss of his right leg in 2008. But it didn't deter him. After some time spent away recuperating, he returned to Mosul in 2014 with a prosthetic leg and continued his work. 

The American troops who saw him in action dubbed him “Crazy Fakhir”, while among his own people he was given something like superhero status. 

'He was my hero... He saved lives'

Among those swept up in the awe surrounding the bomb-defusing Freedom Fighter was Kurdish filmmaker Hogir Hirori. 

"He was my hero," he told SBS Kurdish. “He was like a symbol to everyone, he did a lot for humanity and sacrificed a lot." 

Mr Hirori decided he needed to make a film about this man to "show people what he did for humanity" and how "he saved lives."

But when he reached out to Mr Berwari with his request, the deminer had initially refused. It was too dangerous, the soldier had told the young man. Eventually though, a compromise was reached and Mr Hirori went into making a project with Shinwar Kamal, another director who was already making a short film about Mr Berwari. 

Fakhir Berwari
Fakhir Berwari disarmed thousands of mines in northern Iraq from 2003 until an explosive device killed him in November 2014.
Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal

For the project, Mr Hirori travelled out from Sweden where he was based to meet Mr Berwari in 2014. He called his encounter with the celebrated Freedom Fighter colonel "like a dream come true". But it was the first and last time he'd see his hero in the flesh. Three months later Mr Berwari was dead.

Death of the deminer

While clearing a house riddled with mines in 2014, the deminer was killed. He had lived through many close-calls before, but he didn't survive this one. He was 39 and left behind a wife and eight children. 

In the meantime, the briefcase full of footage he'd been stashing away went forgotten.

When it was eventually found by his son it was an eye-opener for Mr Berwari's family. 

"He filmed everything," Abdullah Berwari said. 

But they weren't the only ones pleased with the incredible find. 

Fakhir Berwar
Fakhir Berwari had been a 'Peshmarga' -- a 'Freedom Fighter' -- since he was 16-years-old.
Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal

'The Deminer' documentary

Since the death of the subject of their documentary, filmmakers Mr Hirori and Mr Kamal had had to shelve their project. 

In the same year the videos were discovered in the old briefcase, the director-duo pieced them together into a feature-length film and showed it at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. The Deminer picked up the Jury Prize and also received mostly positive reviews, with the Hollywood Reporter calling it "a non-fiction counterpart to Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker."

There's little narrative-structure in the final product, but with Abdullah's voice narration, it's perhaps intended to recreate for the audience what the young man saw when he found his father's stockpile of raw footage and started to watch it it. 

The Deminer will screen at this year's Sydney Film Festival on June 7 at 4.30pm and June 9 at 2.15pm. Tickets are available on the SFF website.

The Sydney Film Festival runs from June 6 - 17, 2018, at various venues and cinemas around Sydney.  


Source SBS Kurdish
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