Afghanistan

Community-based deminers clearing Kabul neighbourhood with United Nations' support

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7 April 2011 - A week-long exhibit on living with landmines and the many faces of Mine Action by photographer Marco Grob today opens at Bagh-e-Babur Garden in Kabul to mark the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action.

Since the start of the demining season in March, local deminers with assistance from the United Nations project Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACCA) safely cleared four explosive devices from a Kabul neighbourhood as part of the United Nations' efforts to protect civilians and support the Government of Afghanistan on development matters.

An average of 50 people each month are killed or hurt by landmines and explosives remnants of war (ERW) in Afghanistan, according to the UN Mine Action Service of the Department of Peacekeeping. Approximately half of the victims are children who often collect firewood and scrap metal.

"People are hopeful again," said a resident of Darulaman, an area on the outskirts of Kabul facing the skeleton of Darulaman Palace destroyed in the civil war between 1990 and 1998 - the same time period as many of the mines and unexploded fragments now uncovered.

"We are very satisfied with the work being done. Before, we were taking mines out with our hands. Children had to avoid certain roads to go to school. It was not safe," the man added leaning on a cane due to a mine injury.

The area has some of the prime land in the city, away from the traffic and pollution of the centre and encircled by snow-capped mountains, but construction of the 150 two-storey family homes has been on hold since an explosive was unearthed in 2009.

It took the Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations more than a year to start an official mine clearance and explosive ordnance disposal programme at Darulaman, which is part of a two-year Kabul City Clearance Project (KCCP) designed to clear 2,340,700 square meters in seven districts in the capital city and the suburbs.

Coordinated by MACCA and the Afghan Department of Mine Clearance (DMC), the project is managed by UNOPS and implemented by Afghan Technical Consultants (ATC), a non-governmental organization, with support of trained locals.

"This is where the first anti-tank mine was detected during house construction," Abdul Ghafoor, Operations Officer with ATC, said pointing to a large black rock near a row of small white and red painted rocks delineating the cleared and potentially dangerous spaces.

A few meters away, Halil Rahmon, a Darulaman resident who recently completed a one-month demining training session was moving dirt by hand in a ditch for the 18 th day. Mine clearance is painstakingly slow work. At an individual rate of seven meters per day, it will take a demining team of 10 people three months to clear an area the size of 100 square meters. Each metal piece has to be investigated, even if it is simply a pen cap.

Rahmon is one of 30 professional and recently trained community-based deminers working at Darulaman. Since 5 March, the crews cleared more than 1,700 of the 5,990 square meter neighbourhood. Much of it done with the speedy help of mine finding dogs which are able to survey 70 per cent of the land where the dirt is not too deep.

In addition to an anti-tank mine, deminers also found what is likely a planted anti-tank mine and two anti-personal mines, along with more than 20,000 fragments of metal – the majority of which is not explosive.

"This is very important work. Before my training, I did not fully understand the dangers of mines," Rahmon said taking off a thick plastic mask that protects his body along with a rigid blue vest.

In a backyard less than a kilometer from where the main demining group worked, a half dozen people had gathered around a series of grey and pink wires sticking out from a dirt pit.

"We were working here, going to build a house, when we found these unfamiliar lines," said Rashid. A muddy explosive with a round bulb and a cylinder - looking a bit like a plastic radish - lay near a recently planted vegetable garden.

The family reported the findings to the local police, who in turn reported it to the deminers. An emergency response team was deployed within 48 hours.

Unlike a demining team, which needs to excavate slowly, an emergency survey team can gently lift out the explosive within several hours and detonate it at the Central Disposal Site coordinated by MACCA and the Afghan Ministry of Defence.

"This is proud work. It is our country and it needs this type of sacrifice from Afghans," said Zemaray Attaee, Operations Assistant with MACCA in Kabul, who lost his right leg as a surveyor in Parwan province.

Mine risk education classes and programmses are helping to lower the figures. Deaths and injuries from landmines and explosive remnants dropped by 65 per cent since 2001.

"Each civilian death is also human and personal; and we are adamant that no loss of life is acceptable," Staffan de Mistura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told the Security Council on 17 March in the context of civilian casualties of war.

The Special Representative was involved in clearing mines for the return of Afghan refugees when he worked in Afghanistan 22 years ago.

Aside from the physical dangers of mines and unexploded ordnance, the hazards prevent Afghans from using their land – either to build homes as in Darulaman, to farm or graze animals, or even to walk to school.

Approximately nine per cent of severely disabled Afghans have injuries from mines and unexploded ordinance.

Since the beginning of the Mine Action Programme in Afghanistan (MAPA) - coordinated by MACA - implementers of mine action have cleared over 15,887 hazard areas throughout the country. In 2010 alone, the MAPA cleared 157 communities and more than one million ERW.

Read more about MACCA and International Mine Awareness Day marked on 4 April.

Story by UNAMA Kabul