International soldiers, Afghan firm help lead the way out of minefields for Afghan citizens

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Civilians who previously risked life and limb scrounging for scrap metal in minefields surrounding Bagram now have an opportunity to enjoy a safer existence and work in paid jobs, thanks to efforts of an Afghan firm and soldiers from Australia and the United States.

Landmines continue to saturate the landscape of Afghanistan more than any other country on Earth. Informed estimates suggest that as many as 20-million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines were laid during the Soviet occupation and the later conflict between the Taliban and Northern Alliance.

Over the past six years, more than 200,000 landmines have been cleared in and around Bagram Air Field, but it is a slow, tedious, dirty and dangerous job. Hundreds of Afghans are already employed as de-miners by government agencies and private contractors, but there are other civilians so poor, unskilled or young who are prepared to risk everything by venturing into the minefields in search of scrap metal.

"People wandering through the minefields present a danger to the de-miners as well as themselves," said Major Dave Bergman, an Australian Army officer who's in charge of the Mine Action Centre - an international military organisation focused on making the Bagram area safe from the mine threat.

"I know of one man with eight children who has been blown up four times and now has a prosthetic leg simply from gathering scrap metal in the minefields in order to make enough money to feed his family," he said.

Aware of the high rate of injuries caused by landmines being handled by non-qualified people, Major Bergman and his American staff members, began looking for ways to get the scavengers off the minefields while still allowing them to make a living.

The Mine Action Centre turned to Hemayat Brothers Demining International (HDI), the first Afghan company in the mine action industry which has been operating in the Bagram area with Coalition forces for a number of years. HDI was already a major employer of local labour, but was eager to assist with two pilot programs directed towards those who would otherwise try to make a living scavenging or tending animals on the minefields.

"HDI has established a demilitarisation program which recycles munitions from the minefields in a safe and secure manner as well as a carpentry program that teaches new skills and provides products for the community," Major Bergman said.

"The demilitarisation program employs five people. Three qualified carpenters are also employed in the carpentry program to teach up to ten locals who all have a mine-related disability."

"It's wonderful to see an Afghan-owned company empowered and successful enough to be taking the lead and finding solutions to help the citizens of this country in such a way."

The Mine Action Centre has also been at the forefront of negotiations to establish a medical outreach program through the Korean Hospital and has worked closely with the major base services contractor KBR to secure jobs on Bagram Air Base for the bread winners of poor families who have had a mine trauma incident.

Up to two civilians per week are injured by landmine explosions in the Bagram area.

The significance of the new programs and the hope they bring for a better life is highlighted by the tragedy inflicted upon Romina, a 12-year old Afghan mine victim.

"I was herding our cows in a field and they started straying," he said through an interpreter.

"All I remember is swatting them with a limb and the next thing I know I am on the ground and my sister is lying a little way from me bleeding. I didn't even realise my leg was gone until I looked over and saw it."

Left untouched, the mines littering Afghanistan will still pose a danger decades from now. With the help of alternative employment programs which allow poor people to make a living in safety, it is hoped many of the mines lurking in the soil will not find an innocent victim born years after the devices were laid.

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