Meet the Winnipeg woman taking weapons from ISIS
Devin Morrow is working on the front lines in Iraq tracking illegal weapons
If you were to look in Devin Morrow's office, you'd likely find a ruler, camera, laptop and the schematics of an AK-47.
"Working in a sector that investigates weapons and ammunition will always be dangerous," Morrow explains.
- ISIS use of chemical weapons in Iraq is alleged again
- Images back claims of ISIS chemical weapons attack in Iraq
"There are definitely some hairy moments."
Morrow, a 30-year-old Winnipegger living in northern Iraq, is a technical advisor with U.K.-based Conflict Armament Research, a company that tracks and documents illegally diverted weapons in conflict zones.
When weapons are captured from ISIS, Morrow and her team try to decipher what those weapons are, where they came from and how they got there.
Morrow previously did an internship with Mines Action Canada in Ottawa, a company that works on landmine advocacy all over the world.
She worked in Cambodia and ended up in the humanitarian sector in Iraq responding to the refugee and displaced persons crisis.
Through these efforts, she came to a conclusion. "I realized my interest was in disarmament and determining how conflict occurs," she says.
"As opposed to being reactive to it, I wanted to know how it happens at all."
While Morrow is based in northern Iraq, Conflict Armament Research also conducts investigations in Somalia, South Sudan, Libya and Yemen.
- Wave of ethnic killings in South Sudan town 'could evolve into genocide,' UN warns
- 'We are fed up': Winnipeg's South Sudanese community holds peace circle
Morrow says the most time-consuming part of the job is figuring out what each piece of weaponry is, which can only be learned through experience.
"It's a slow process because everything I do is field-based — I don't rely on secondary research or social media," she explains.
"The only way you can guarantee your information is if you get it yourself."
She explains that it's important to have a large, strong sample size and become used to seeing familiar markings and shapes.
Aged ammunition still being used
Some of Morrow's colleagues, who have been working in the sector for over a decade, still find items that stump them.
"They've come across weapons that are 40 or 50 years old and still being used in battle today," Morrow explains.
"Even ammunition that dates back to Nazi Germany is being stored and used somewhere."
The most common illegally traded weapons are small arms as they are the most prolific item used in war, Morrow says. And the AK-47, the mass-produced assault rifle used for decades, beginning in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc.
It's a very versatile and easy-to-use weapon — it's also easily traded and will always be worth something.
"The entire Eastern Bloc created their own version of the AK, so dozens of the weapons we track are not AK-47s per se, they're an AK variant," says Morrow.
"It just takes time to learn and be exposed to them."
Being a Western woman in Iraq and working in a male-dominated field with the military has its challenges, but Morrow says that's changing as women are becoming more interested and engaged in the security-based field.
At first, though, she was worried she would be dismissed or not taken seriously.
A different side of Iraq
"The last thing anyone wants is for me to feel unsafe or feel fearful of them," she says.
"Once people realize I can take apart a gun and explain what a headstamp on their small calibre ammunition is, they're taken aback."
For Morrow, the generosity and resilience of the Iraqi and Kurdish people have been astounding.
She says people are constantly inviting her in for tea, and that kind of overwhelming sense of hospitality is unique to the region.
"They have dealt with war for a number of years and a lot of areas around Mosul are literally just rubble," she explains.
"But people are going home and rebuilding."
That side of Iraq isn't necessarily noticed or covered enough in media, she says. It's typically very much about the nature of the war, the collapse and Islamophobia.
"It's difficult to cover the human stories, and if the media does, it's always a label of a refugee or a horrifying photo of a crying child," Morrow says.
"Seeing families welcome you is very powerful — I wish people were able to engage that side of Iraq on a more frequent basis."
Morrow's family is very supportive of her work and say they are behind her 100 per cent, but still they have some concerns.
'Healthy level of fear'
"They have a healthy level of fear as I always do," she says."If you don't go into these situations with a certain amount of fear, you're not doing your job properly."
Morrow's job is stressful and tiring and a lot of her time is spent waiting in vehicles and sitting at checkpoints.
When this 30-year-old technical advisor returns to Winnipeg from northern Iraq, she likes to unwind and decompress.
"I'm a big cyclist in Winnipeg and I hate constantly riding in taxis, so I really miss my bicycle," she says.
"And I miss cooking, especially because I'm constantly on the road living off hotel food, so when I come back, I take time to appreciate those really normal things that I take for granted."
"I kind of forget how much I enjoy doing things when I can't do them anymore."