Returning Afghans fear mine menace

International agencies are working to clear Afghanistan's former battlefields, as landmines continue to claim victims.
By Danish Karokhel in Takhar Province (ARR No. 46, 31-Jan-03)

More than a year after war ended in Afghanistan, the people of this remote province still live in fear of one of its nastiest legacies - landmines.

According to local officials, between five and ten people are killed or maimed every day in the region in northeastern Afghanistan - which had the misfortune of being on one of the most hotly contested front lines - by some of the estimated 10 million mines laid by one or all of the various forces that battled each other during 23 years of savage war. This makes Afghanistan the most mined country in the world.

"Most of the wounded die before we can treat them because we don't have ambulances to bring them to hospital," Dr Abdul Ahad Atif, director of public health in Takhar province, told IWPR. "We have asked the government for a light plane to bring victims to hospital in Taloqan."

Some of the most savage fighting in Afghanistan's bloody history took place in this region during the dying days of the war as the Taleban, which controlled most of the country, battled forces of the Northern Alliance led by Islamic mujahedin leader Ahmed Shah Masood.

Both sides planted landmines along a 100 km-long front line, and more were laid when the line moved after the student militia captured Takhar in 2000.

They range from small booby-trapped devices - that can blow off an adult's foot or kill a child and were designed to slow the advance and sap the morale of enemy forces - to monsters that can take out a tank. They can be deployed for as little as three US dollars, but cost around 1,000 dollars each to clear.

"This area was the front line between the Taleban and resistance forces for 14 months, during which time they planted mines all over, in residential and agricultural areas," the governor of Takhar Province, Sayed Irkam Masoomi, told IWPR. "The people are returning to Takhar, but between five and ten are falling victim to these mines every day."

The governor expressed some impatience over the speed of the mine-clearing operation being undertaken by the British-based charity Halo Trust. "They are working very slowly, and have stopped work for the winter," he added.

The deputy head of the local Halo Trust team, Dr Nasir Ahmed, said progress in their operation was hampered by the presence of thousands of metal fragments in the ground that registered on electronic detectors, and by the fact that many of the mines were laid by untrained fighters who left no maps recording their positions. He explained that they had stopped work for two months because the ground was frozen.

"We can't deploy our staff like sheep, to be blown up. We have 1,000 people working on mine-clearing in northern Afghanistan, and five have been killed in Takhar province so far," he said.

The Afghanistan operation is the largest run by the Halo Trust, which has some 5,000 trained workers clearing mines, unexploded bombs and artillery shells in nine countries.

In 2001 alone, they removed some 200,000 mines and shells in Afghanistan, enabling hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the country during the war to return home.

According to Afghan officials, some 200 square km of the country has been cleared, and over 100 square km of former battlefields remains.

The trust mostly uses ordinary heavy engineering equipment such as front-loaders, bulldozers and cranes, which are armour-plated and specially adapted with to dig out and neutralise the explosives. It is also looking into the use of sniffer dogs.

While they work, the mines continue to take their toll on ordinary people in the region. A few weeks ago, three shepherd boys in Sayab district of Takhar province set off a landmine, which killed two of them on the spot. The other suffered serious hand and stomach injuries and lost an eye, but survived.

Shaker Ahmad told IWPR that he and his family had returned to the area from abroad last December, "While I was rebuilding our house, I set off a mine as I was knocking down a wall, and suffered serious injury to a hand and one leg. Our relatives and other villagers are afraid to return because of the mines."

A local charity, the Comprehensive Disabled Afghans' Programme, CDAP - funded by the United Nations Development Programme and the Swedish and Norwegian governments - said it was handing out artificial limbs to some 40 people every month in Takhar province. "Since 2000, 95 percent of people getting these have been maimed by mines," CDAP manager Dr Said Hamidullah told IWPR.

Abdul Rahman, whose 16-year-old brother was the shepherd who survived the blast that killed his two friends, said the mines posed a daily threat to everyone in the region. "If we don't work in the fields or do not graze our animals, how can we live? We can't just sit at home and do nothing."

Danish Karokhel is an IWPR reporter/editor.