Afghanistan: world's most booby-trapped place

Every step is a risk in Afghanistan's booby-trapped backyards

Business Recorder and The Frontier Post
July 3, 2000

KANDAHAR (July 3) : The tour through the minefield began near one of the main roads, among the houses where the little children were playing. Mohib Hashim, who leads a mine-clearing team, shouted at the youngsters in Pashto, "Hey, don't you know that red flag means it's dangerous here?" The children scurried away, but as always they would meander back. Housing is impossibly scarce here in war-devastated Kandahar, the second largest of Afghanistan's cities. Several families have taken shelter surrounded by the rubble of what is called Minefield 179, willing to risk the explosives buried in their new backyard.

Afghanistan, one of the world's most enduring battlegrounds, is also among its most booby-trapped landscapes. It has an estimated five million to seven million of the deadly devices concealed in the rocky soil - about one for every three of the nation's people. But in a place where even a scrap of good news has become as rare as a peaceful summer, there is some cause for thanks. A mine-clearing operation, perhaps the largest in the world, has in 10 years reduced the number of maiming explosions by half. Even then each day now, about a dozen people make a misstep that blows them apart. "Of course we are still scared of explosions, but I have eight children, and a father cannot keep that many small ones from running around," the New York Times quotes Abdul Nabi, a poor labourer who has built a home in the minefield from stony debris as saying. He had come out of his dark hovel into the fierce light. Two of his youngsters had been traipsing among the piles of crushed brick, chasing each other through a labyrinth of jagged half walls. About 15 yards from his door, a man in a hard white helmet was doing the tedious work of "de-mining," carefully probing and digging. The father did not want to be harshly judged.

This is Afghanistan, he explained, and there have been 21 straight years of war. Many of the ordinary rules of rational behaviour have, by necessity, been abandoned. He shrugged defensively. "Where else is there for us to live?" he said. "As they started clearing the mines, people began moving in. We have a good space here." The "de-miners" work for various international charities under the auspices of the United Nations. There are 4,800 people involved, split into teams throughout the country. In 10 years, more than a million explosive devices have been safely exploded or dismantled, said Richard D Kelly, who manages the programme. Minefield 179, about the size of a football field, is among the last contaminated grounds within Kandahar. Excavation at the site has been going on for nearly a year. So far, 11 mines have been unearthed, as well as 80 "UXO's," shorthand for "unexploded ordnance," which includes rockets, bombs and grenades. Some 30,000 metal fragments have also been found. Those objects further slow the monotonous work, because each one has to be uncovered carefully to be sure that it is not deadly.

Abdul Sattar is a merchant of some means, but even he decided to accept the risks of living in the minefield. His family owned property within No 179. He rebuilt his house in 1996. "Yes, there is some danger, but it does not bother me," he says with more nonchalance than bravado. One of his five children stands with him. Just a few feet away, on the other side of a brick wall, one of the men in helmets was busy ferreting through the unpredictable soil. "It's all up to Allah," Sattar said of the danger. "You must have faith." Afghanistan is not alone in its land-mine infestation, though it is surely among the most afflicted. Estimating global numbers is very difficult, but Angola, Cambodia, Iraq and Egypt also finish near the top of most lists.

Actually, large numbers are not as important as strategic location: how many people live near the minefield, how much fertile land is unusable. The men now taking the mines out in Afghanistan are local people, hired at a starting salary of $100 a month. This is a top wage these days, but the work is perilous, and there is no glamour to it - no cinematic images of a heavily perspiring man snipping coloured wires. The main danger comes from the boredom of sifting through dirt. So far this year, five de-miners have been killed in Afghanistan. "One was sheer stupidity," Chamberlain said. "The guy hit an antitank mine with a pick."--Internews

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