Afghanistan: A Burial Ground for Landmines

February 12th, 2007 - by admin

Michael Kohn/ Chronicle Foreign Service – 2007-02-12 23:33:22

10 Million Deadly Traps:
Afghan Teams Whittle away at Country’s Legacy of Landmines

Michael Kohn/ Chronicle Foreign Service

KABUL, Afghanistan February 11, 2007) — Nestled peacefully in the soft earth of TV Mountain, the land mines look like harmless hockey pucks abandoned by their owners. There are 10 visible in the space of 100 yards, but many more lie buried underground.

“Step there,” said Mohammed Mahfooz, advising a reporter to follow his footprints. “Now here.”

Mahfooz, a field commander for the Kabul-based Organization for Mine Clearance and Rehabilitation, walked gingerly along a path that had been cleared in previous weeks — stones painted white indicate safe passage. The de-mining team works uphill; everything to the right has been cleared, while a false step to the left could be fatal in one of the most mined areas in Kabul.

This de-mining operation is financed largely by international donors, including the US Agency for International Development, which contribute around $70 million annually to provide workers with metal detectors, special picks for digging and body armor that can withstand the force of a typical mine explosion.

Mahfooz’s organization is part of a loosely linked network of government and nongovernment organizations with 9,500 workers. With 645 employees, it is one of the nation’s largest employers.

Last year, the Afghan government destroyed more than 200,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines littered across the country after 25 years of warfare involving the former Soviet Union, homegrown warlords and the US-led campaign that ousted the Taliban. Almost 10 million more remain, say ordinance experts, making Afghanistan, along with Cambodia and Colombia, one of the worlds’ heaviest mined countries.

The Canada-based Landmine Monitor says approximately 150 Afghans are killed annually, while 800 are injured, half of them under 18.

An added danger comes from the unexploded cluster bombs dropped by US warplanes during the 2001 invasion, which children sometimes mistake as toys. On TV Mountain, a critical strategic hilltop, a German contingent of NATO soldiers protects a forest of radio and television antennas. In previous years, the hill changed hands several times, from the Russians and mujahedeen fighters to the Taliban. Their combined legacy is a mountain littered with barbed wire, spent artillery shells, blown-up trucks and deadly unexploded ordinance, known as UXOs.

Further along the path, de-miner Abdul Kahel, his thick beard curled around the straps of his reinforced helmet, had just discovered a mine caught in a scraggly bush. A small bunker nearby contains a hodgepodge of UXOs, anti-personnel mines, grenades and mortar rounds of different sizes and state of deterioration. Mahfooz says there are too many to detonate here; they must be moved to a secure location outside the city.

Instead, he ordered the detonation of eight land mines retrieved during the day’s clearance. A de-miner, clad in a heavy Kevlar vest, helmet and clear blast shield, was dispatched up the hill with fuses and explosive triggers.

“Land mine detonation!” Mahfooz bellowed through a bullhorn toward the village at the bottom of the hill. “Take cover!”

Village children who had gathered on rooftops for the daily fireworks show continued to fly kites in the breeze. The fuses smoked away until a flash of fire, smoke and dust appeared. With eight blasts echoing down the valley, the de-miners crept out from their rocky hideouts.

“That means eight more lives saved,” said Shah Wali, the organization’s operations manager.

Nearby, children poked their heads out of the door in a hillside house, located 100 yards from the active mine field.

“They are poor,” said Wali. “Once we clear an area a family starts to build a home.”

Cane in hand and following his water-laden donkey, Wahid Hotak approached the de-miners. He and his family recently returned from Pakistan; with nowhere to live, they claimed this plot of land the moment it was declared mine-free. He said his children are well aware about straying into the field after a lost kite.
“They know the dangers,” he said with a toothless smile. “When there are no blasts, they ask their mother why no bombs exploded that day.”

Mahfooz added TV Mountain to the list of de-mining projects he has undertaken since the early 1990s, from the northern Panjir Valley to the Iranian border.

In this type of work, such longevity is rare. Since 1990, more than 80 de-miners have been killed and more than 600 injured, according to the Afghan government.

“I have lost many of my comrades,” he said, wiping sweat from his chalky brow at the end of a workday, “especially in the early days, when we had no equipment; no metal vests, no helmets, nothing.”

The process is a safer nowadays — and pays better, too. Mahfooz earns $350 a month, about three times the average Afghan wage. He and his team clear mines from 7 a.m. until noon. After work, they take courses in literacy and computer skills.

“Every day when I leave, my family prays for me,” Mahfooz said. “But I do it for three reasons. The first is to feed my own family. The second is to save the lives of the people in these villages. And the third is to free Afghanistan from the menace of mines.”

De-mining Afghanistan
Last year, 200,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines were destroyed.
Each year, about 150 Afghans are killed and 800 injured by mines or UXOs (unexploded ordinances). About half the victims are under age 18.
In 2005, the Afghan government de-mined more than 54 square miles.
Each year, about 1.8 million people are educated in land mine safety.
Afghanistan joined the land mine ban treaty on Sept. 11, 2002.
About 9,500 Afghans work in de-mining.

Puppets Help Warn Children of the Dangers

KABUL (February 11, 2007) — Each year, 1.8 million Afghans are educated about the dangers of land mines and how to avoid them, according to the Kabul-based Organization for Mine Clearance and Rehabilitation.

Lectures include puppets, a gimmick that seems effective on children, the organization’s officials say. Young Afghans are frequently victims of explosions while playing in fields, tending animals or foraging for wood or water.

De-miners also work to eliminate mine stockpiles. Since signing the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction — known as the international land mine ban treaty — in 2002, Afghanistan has destroyed 66,000 mines, which were stockpiled mostly by the Afghan army.

The next, more difficult goal is to wrest stockpiles from warlords, who aren’t eager to give them up.

Mine casualties have fallen sharply since the 1990s, according to Canada’s Landmine Monitor. In 1993, the Afghan government reported 700 casualties a month, compared with fewer than 100 now.

But amputees number around 750,000, and a meager social support network — government assistance ranges from $3 to $6 per month, at best — means that many are forced to become beggars.
San Francisco Chronicle
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