THE HUMAN COST OF DE-MINING AFGHANISTAN

By Robert J. Galbraith for the Montreal Gazette 10/10/07

Since 1989, sixty percent of Afghanistan had been cleared of landmines, but those mines that remain still take a deadly toll on innocent civilians and on the demining teams, whose job it is to rid the country of the horrible armaments. Thanks to a civilian army of 8000 Afghans who are involved in the demining program, by 2013 the country will be free of mines, or so it is hoped. The reality is, that even as you read this account, a new crop of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines are being sewn under the sands of this tortured nation.

Afghan Landmine VictimIn the last 20 years, over 150,000 Afghans have been killed or maimed by landmines, with three-quarters of the these being children. Presently, over 60 Afghanis are killed or maimed every month, by stepping on anti-personnel mines, or by driving over anti-tank mines. This figure was double that just five years ago, but it has been cut in half thanks to the efforts of the demining teams. Their task it is to find and remove land mines, so that school children can safely walk from home to school and back, and shepherds can tend their flocks of sheep and goats, without the fear of having their legs and arms blown off.

According to statistics released by the British de-mining agency Halo Trust, Afghanistan is the most mined country in the world, comparable only to that of Angola, Cambodia and Columbia. Though it is difficult to establish a precise number, it is estimated that anywhere from 7-10 million mines have been planted during nearly 30 years of war, foreign occupation and factional fighting. Many of these are made of plastic or ceramic-based materials that take decades or longer to become inoperative and are immune to detection by electronic mine detection wands.

Most of the mines were laid (or dropped by plane), by the former Soviet Union, during their occupation of the country from 1979-89. (Many others in use were manufactured in Italy, Pakistan, China, the United States, and other nations).

Land mines can be found, or stepped upon just about anywhere in Afghanistan, though the greatest concentrations can be found in eastern Afghanistan around Kabul, as well as in the northeast and southeast. Just about anywhere a person can walk or a donkey cart can be driven, there is and always will be the threat of stepping on a mine, regardless of the gallant efforts of the deminers. It is just impossible to get rid of every last one.

Anti-personnel mines have no face, they don’t eat, drink, nor take time to sleep. They are the ‘Boogie Man Under the Sand,’ the stuff of nightmares, insecurity and psychological stress. They are not necessarily meant to kill, but rather to maim.

Afghan Mine VictimDeath is final, and after the funeral everyone goes on with their life. But to loose a leg or arm in Afghanistan; this takes the victim away from being a contributor to the stability of the family, and makes him or her a burden to be taken care of. Sometimes it will result in family breakup, and force the children into the abyss of the child labour market.

Life in Afghanistan, needless to say, isn’t like life in Canada, by any long stretch of the imagination. The social safety net is the family. If you don’t work – you starve and your family starves, so at the best of times there is usually the necessity to have one or more of your children out working, under difficult conditions and very long hours. Needless to say, for many children of mine victim families, especially in the cities, life in present day Afghanistan is like living in Dickens’s England.

In Kabul, the nations capital, land mine victims of all ages can be seen begging in the market places and along the roadways. They are unavoidable, and a painful and constant reminder to the toll of the mines’ tally upon a population. They represent the anguish of the innocents who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But they also weigh very heavily on the conscience of those who have never had that misfortune. That you can see in the eyes and generosity from those who walk complete, as they pass offerings to the numerous invalids.

The Mine Action Program for Afghanistan (MAPA), is an umbrella organization coordinated by the United Nations Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan (UNMACA), and implemented by an array of international partners (of which Canada is the third largest contributor, behind the European Union and the United States) involved in financing programs to clearance, survey, mine risk education, victim assistance or monitoring, evaluation and training. It has cleared more than one billion square meters, of the contaminated area throughout Afghanistan since 1989, with more than 700 million square metres still needing to be cleared. In the last 17 years, it is estimated that over 5.5 million mines have been destroyed by deminers in Afghanistan.

SovietButterflyMines AfghanistanSince becoming the 126th country to join the Ottawa Convention (prohibiting the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and on their destruction) in 2003, the nation is committed to clearing all minefields in the country by 2013. It has also expanded its workforce from 432 Afghan deminers in 1990, to the present number of some 8000. Along with mines, they have also cleared the land of millions of pieces of unexploded ordinance, such as mortar shells, grenades, numerous types of other bombs and ammunitions.
For these Afghan heroes (as deminers are considered by most Afghanis), who’s job it is to risk their lives to clear a hostile land of life-taking and body-maiming land mines, their daily task is dangerous enough. But life just keeps getting worse for the deminer teams.

In March of this year, gunmen attacked a landmine clearing team in Kunduz province, Afghanistan, killing two members of the team; this while they were holding a ceremony to celebrate the completion of a demining project. A day earlier, in the neighboring north-central province of Jawzjan, five members of another demining team were killed and eight wounded by unknown militants. So the toll on the mine clearing teams, by militant gunmen and insurgents, just keeps rising.

Clearing the land of mines and unexploded ordnance allows refugees and displaced persons to return home, and all Afghanis to safely use the land, roads, and buildings. Without the security of the coalition and Afghan forces, a great proportion of Afghanistan’s land would be unusable, and development would be unable to continue. Much of the demining activities have been suspended in Kandahar and Helmand provinces as a result of security concerns. Security is the key to demining Afghanistan.

Probing for landmines AfghanistanIt is doubtless that more deminers will perish in their steadfastness to make Afghanistan free of land mines. They are the ‘heroes in the shadows’ to the cleansing of a nation’s landscape, where anguish and suffering seems to be part of a hereditary cycle.

According to police and military officials, hundreds of mines are still being sewn (particularly in the southeast) by the Taliban, even though they once declared them as un-Islamic. These include anti-personnel and anti-tank mines (as well as Improvised Explosive Devices, which also take the lives of innocent civilians), to block entry to areas where they operate, and to spread psychological terror amongst the locals. So the sad saga of the land mine in Afghanistan continues, even to this day.

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