Inside the Middle East

‘The Deminer:’ Unearthed videos reveal life and death of bomb disposal hero

CNN  — 

Walk around the streets of Duhok, northern Iraq, and you’ll see the same face staring back at you. Stoic and square-jawed, the inscrutable portrait is a common sight behind shop counters and stalls in this city, a short drive north from Mosul.

Everyone in Duhok has heard of the man known as “Crazy Fakhir.” For over a decade he risked his life to ensure others’ safety; a local hero who removed landmines with nothing but a knife, wire cutters and quick wits.

Now his story is being told in a new feature-length documentary that has been described as a real life version of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winning film “The Hurt Locker.”

Fakhir Berwari first demined as a soldier alongside the American-led coalition, following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He risked death for years in and around Mosul, surviving near-misses and the loss of his right leg to a mine in 2008. Wearing a prosthetic limb, Berwari returned as a colonel in the Kurdish Peshmerga, neutralizing booby traps left by a retreating ISIS.

Exactly how many mines the colonel successfully disarmed is unknown, but it is believed to be in the thousands. However, in November 2014 Berwari paid the ultimate price when he was killed in an explosion while clearing a mine-riddled house.

Each chapter of this remarkable story, through to its shattering conclusion, was captured on camera. Unbeknownst to his family, hours of footage were recorded by his colleagues and stashed away by Berwari on DVDs in a battered old briefcase. Three years after his death, the briefcase was discovered by Berwari’s son, Abdulla.

This cache from 2003-2008, paired with video shot in 2014, comprises the backbone of “The Deminer,” co-directed by Hogir Hirori – born in Duhok but now living in Sweden – and Kurdish filmmaker Shinwar Kamal.

Sustaining unbearable tension and pockmarked with extreme violence, the film joins a roster of recent award-winning documentaries including “The White Helmets” and “Nowhere to Hide,” stemming from Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Before its UK release, CNN sat down with Hirori to discuss Berwari’s unimaginable courage and the film’s difficult journey to screen.

The following conversation took place via an interpreter and has been edited for length and clarity.

A portrait of Fakhir Berwari hangs behind a shop counter in Duhok, Iraq.

CNN: Where did this documentary start for you?

Hirori: In 2014, ISIS was attacking areas in Iraqi Kurdistan. I was there making another documentary and I happened to see Fakhir. I knew about him; in our area he was portrayed as this local hero. I went up to him and asked about making a film. He said: “No, sorry, you can’t. Take my advice: go home to Sweden where it’s safe and stay there.”

But then as we started talking Fakhir said: “Well, there is actually this guy who’s just recently started making a film about me called Shinwar Kamal. If you want to do something go and talk to him, because we can’t have two teams running around making two films. It’s too dangerous.”

What do you remember of Colonel Berwari’s death?

Fakhir died three months after I met him. I was in Sweden; I opened my phone and my whole newsfeed on Facebook was filled with pictures of Fakhir. I realized that it was not good. I immediately called Shinwar to ask what happened and if they were ok. He and his team were outside the building (they were demining), but the ones filming inside the building – Fakhir and his two assistants – died in the explosion.

When he died the whole film-making process became more complicated. There was an ongoing story that was cut short.

Berwari during the Iraq War. It was US troops who dubbed him "Crazy Fakhir" for his gung-ho attitude to demining.

When was the archive footage discovered? And what condition was it in?

The majority was found in 2017, three years after his death. The material is purely shot by amateurs. One of the people responsible for filming was Fakhir’s driver – he’s still a little bit shocked his video is going to appear in a movie.

The footage wasn’t dated; there was no logic to it at all. There was a lot of work and time put in to speaking to Fakhir’s colleagues and friends to put together the whole puzzle and make sense of it. The process was not clear cut – that’s why it ended up taking 78 versions of the film before we reached the final edit.

What was the colonel’s reason for filming his work?

Fakhir and his team wanted to document what they were doing so they could show everybody else their work and what they were accomplishing. There was also another purpose behind filming: to show what the mines consisted of, how they were set up, how they were placed and how they were disarmed, so other teams could learn from that. But after a while it just became part of their everyday lives. They always had a camera rolling.

Why didn’t Berwari opt for the protective gear used by other bomb disposal personnel?

It was available for the specially trained and educated mine groups, but this always made the process so much more complicated and time-consuming. A specialist mine group could disarm one mine during a day, and then went home to their families. Fakhir could disarm 100 mines a day.

In the scene where he disarms his first mine, the Americans are saying: “What is this guy doing?” They had been waiting for a specialist mine team for about two hours and they never showed up, or it took them too long to arrive. Fakhir got frustrated and thought that mine could blow up at any moment. He went over to it, cut the wires and was like: “Ok, it’s done.”

Can you put a figure on how many mines Fakhir disarmed in total?

During the first year in Mosul they estimate about 600 mines, and then they just lost count. Fakhir just kept going and going and nobody was keeping track. During the ISIS conflict in 2014 the figure circulating is about 3,000-4,000 mines for that three-month period. In one scene when they’re putting mines in a truck, they’re counting them and saying “this is 1,050 mines” – that’s after three weeks of demining.

Wreckage in the aftermath of an explosion in "The Deminer."

The film doesn’t shy away from showing the devastating impact of these explosions. Was it hard judging what to show and – perhaps more importantly – what not to show?

In reality the material is very censored and carefully chosen. If we had shown all the archives then no one would be able to look at it, even for a couple of seconds. There were body parts flying everywhere and people getting hurt all the time.

The incident when Fakhir loses his leg is such a big part of Fakhir and his personality – his story – we just had to include it. Even that scene was cut. The worst part, when they entered the van with Fakhir when he’s lost his leg, that’s even more graphic.

Can you explain his legacy for people who are new to this story?

In his hometown there is nobody who doesn’t know who Fakhir is. But the legacy that Fakhir has left is that he never made a distinction between people according to race or background, if someone was poor or rich, or if they were Kurds or Arabs. They were just people. He was doing this to help other people and he would want that to live on.

What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

More love and less hate. I wanted to show how dangerous the situation with mines is and just how many mines there actually are. The other thing is to be inspired by the person that Fakhir was… that it is possible to help fellow human beings and to do something about a horrible situation.

I also wanted to show the real situations behind why people flee or leave those areas and come to the rest of Europe. It’s not that they want luxury lives, or they want benefits. They’re leaving really, really horrible situations that they have to get out of.

“The Deminer” is released in UK cinemas on April 27.