By Qais Faqiri and Hasina Rasuli (ARR No. 84, 03-Dec-03)
Landmines in northern Afghanistan remain one of the biggest obstacles to reconstruction and development in the region, despite five years of clearance operations.
An estimated one million mines are still hidden in the northern provinces - most of them on agriculture land, which provides three-quarters of the country's income.
Afghanistan is one of the world's most mined countries, with millions of the explosives - no-one knows just how many - being laid over the past 23 years by a succession of armies and feuding militias.
"Most are placed in small canals which irrigate farmland so that farmers can't use the water for fear of setting [them] off - as a result land is not cultivated due to lack of water," said Sayed Azizullah Hashimi, head of the Balkh province's agriculture department.
Fifteen to 20 per cent of farmland in the province was mined, he said, and most of the devices have still not been discovered after five years of de-mining activities.
Hashimi said this menace was a major reason why farmers were increasingly cultivating opium poppies, which provides high profits from relatively small acreages. Afghanistan is now the world's biggest producer of the crop.
The changing agricultural practices combined with mine awareness programmes mean fewer people are falling victim to the devices. In 1989, over 1,200 people in the northern provinces were killed or injured by them; so far this year the figure is down to 44.
But even after the fall of the Taleban two years ago, and improved access to the countryside for de-mining organisations, the process of clearing the land is slow.
Across the country as a whole, over 70 square kilometers of former battle areas have been cleared of unexploded ordnances and mines, with nearly seven hundred thousand of them collected and destroyed.
The UN agency charged with the task in the north, AMAC - Area Mine Action Centre - estimates that at the current clearance rate, it will take another six years before the region is finally rid of the explosive; which means Afghans will continue to be killed and maimed.
Abdul Rahman waits in a long line outside the disabled department of a local hospital. Three years ago, at the age of 14, he lost his leg in a mine explosion in the village of Sholgarah, north-west of the regional centre, Mazar-e-Sharif.
"I could hardly walk to school," he said. "And couldn't play with the other children because I was unable to run."
The only hope for casualties of mine explosions in this part of the country is the International Committee for the Red Cross Orthopaedic Centre in Mazar, where victims can get artificial limbs.
Paul Hendrick, head of the centre, told IWPR, "In a normal situation, we receive about five to ten people a month who have lost parts of their body in explosions."
The centre not only provides the disabled with artificial arms and legs, it also offers them education and training to improve their employment prospects.
"We encourage non-governmental organisations and government departments to employ disabled people so they can make a living and become self-reliant," said Hendrick.
Patients are also helped to start their own businesses. Across Afghanistan, ICRC has given micro-credit support to well over a thousand patients over the last four years.
Abdul Ghafar, who lost one of his legs in a mine explosion nine years ago, now works at the centre. He is philosophical about his circumstances.
"Life is still beautiful for me," he said. "I was working for the Halo Trust - a de-mining charity - in the Salang Pass when the explosion happened. It was hard to get used to only having one leg. But now everything is ok. I can work here and make a living."
The likes of Abdul, however, are fortunate, as efforts to rehabilitate mine victims are likely to struggle to keep pace, in the short term at least, with the continuing toll of casualties.
Qais Faqiri and Hasina Rasuli are IWPR contributors in Mazar-e-Sharif.