Security

Clearing Afghanistan's land mines one careful step a time

By Salaam Times and AFP

For decades Afghanistan's Helmand province has been on the frontline of the country's conflict, and the landscape bears the scars. Since the fall of the Afghan government in August 2021, the remnants of war remain a serious threat to Afghans' safety. In an effort to prevent any further loss of life, demining NGO the HALO Trust is racing against time to 'decontaminate' one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. [Maryke Vermaak/AFPTV/AFP]

NAD-E-ALI -- Weeks after the fall of the Islamic Republic in Afghanistan, families who fled the fighting in one southern district returned home to find something strange: the cricket ground had been circled in rocks painted red and white.

White, it turned out, meant it was safe for children to play. But red signalled buried land mines and other ordnance -- the explosive remnants of war that have killed or maimed tens of thousands of Afghans over the past four decades.

Helmand province's Nad-e-Ali district became a front line in the final days of the war, and was besieged for two months before the fall of the previous government in mid-August.

When its residents returned in September, they found the district school riddled with gunfire, its roof blackened by smoke, and the children's swings reduced to just a metal frame.

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This picture taken November 9 shows children walking past an area marked as clear from mines in Nad-e-Ali district in Helmand province. [Javed Tanveer/AFP]

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A teacher from the HALO Trust educates children about mine risks in Nad-e-Ali district in Helmand province November 9. [Javed Tanveer/AFP]

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A deminer from the HALO Trust scanning the ground for mines with a metal detector in Nad-e-Ali district in Helmand province November 9. [Javed Tanveer/AFP]

They also found that the area had been "totally mined" in the fighting, according to Juma Khan, the local co-ordinator for the HALO Trust, the main mine-clearing NGO operating in Afghanistan.

Newly laid land mines and other booby traps were buried under building doors and next to windows.

"The rooms inside had mines and there were mines on the main street," Khan told AFP.

About 41,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or wounded by land mines and unexploded ordnance since 1988, according to the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS).

More than two-thirds of the victims were children, many of whom spotted the deadly devices while playing and picked them up.

The HALO (Hazardous Area Life-Support Organisation) Trust was founded in 1988 specifically to tackle ordnance left behind during the Soviet occupation of the country.

The country was so badly contaminated, however, that the clearance work never stopped -- even after an international treaty banning the use of land mines was signed in 1997, with Afghanistan ratifying the convention in 2002.

More than 30 years later, mines and improvised explosive devices (IED) were again laid and left behind by all parties to the war.

Land mines and IEDs continue to harm innocent civilians in a number of countries, including Afghanistan, according to an annual report by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor published November 10.

Afghanistan recorded more than 100 casualties from mid-2020 through October 2021, the report said.

Painful incidents

HALO struck an agreement with the new government in September to have its more than 2,500 Afghan employees return to work.

But even as demining efforts persist, explosions have already caused casualties among villagers in Nad-e-Ali.

Two months ago, the wife of a teacher lost both her legs when an explosive device detonated the moment she opened the door of her house.

"This incident was very painful. I saw it happen with my own eyes," said the teacher, Bismillah.

"I saw my children screaming and crying... I'm alone and the stress is too much, too much."

Since then, the district and its school have been classified as a "high priority" demining zone.

It was HALO that set up the red and white rocks to mark out safe corridors for their 10 teams of deminers as they carefully inspect the ground using metal detectors. Each team has eight demining experts.

"When it detects metal, battery or anything it rings an alarm. Then we mark the area, and start to dig very carefully," said supervisor Bahramudin Ahmadi.

"As soon as we have a visual of the mine, we inform the demining team and we inform the local security, as they have to give the permission to clear the zone, and after that we detonate it."

Over the past three months, 102 explosive devices have been defused in the region, including 25 in the district -- but that is believed to be just a fraction of what remains buried in the ground and hidden inside some houses.

For HALO, it is a race against time in post-war Afghanistan to decontaminate one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.

The priority is to protect children. In Nad-e-Ali, HALO workers were blunt about the dangers.

"Please understand, if you lose a leg you know how much it will cost your parents, and if you die how much sorrow," Nazifullah, a HALO programme manager, told a group of children sitting cross-legged on the ground.

"What do you do if you see this?" he asks them, pointing at a picture of a land mine.

"I will immediately tell my family, my brother or my imam at the mosque," said eight-year-old Nazia.

"I am afraid, but I know that when I see white rocks we can play and when it's red we can't play."

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