One of the biggest challenges facing the people of Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era cannot be seen. More than 8 million unexploded mines are believed to be buried throughout the country, many of them in and around the capital, Kabul. Thousands of experts are now in Afghanistan to help rid the country of this scourge. RFE/RL correspondent Dan Alexe recently spent time with a French mine-clearing brigade and filed this report.
Kabul, 30 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Shouts in French of "Four...three... two...one...fire!" and the noise of an explosion from afar signal men at work.
Near the recently reopened Kabul airport, a special demining brigade from France is destroying the contents of an old Soviet depot that serves as a storage facility for some 22,000 antipersonnel mines.
During Afghanistan's various civil wars, warring factions heavily mined the Kabul airport, as well as the Bagram military airport and the road from both airports into the city. The bumpy, 40-kilometer road running from Bagram to Kabul stretches today through one of the most desolate landscapes in the world. And one of the first pieces of advice newcomers to Afghanistan receive is: "Don't step off the road."
Both sides of this narrow lane of asphalt -- which once formed the front line between the Taliban and Tajiks and Uzbeks from the north -- are strewn with the burned-out carcasses of military and civilian vehicles.
Villages along the road are deserted. The high walls that surround practically every house in Afghanistan's traditional villages still stand, but the mud-brick houses they were meant to shelter are now empty shells -- their roofs blown away, their courtyards littered with useless household belongings and corrugated pieces of metal.
The sides of the road are basically vast minefields, as advertised every kilometer by inconspicuous signposts. Even some parts of the city itself are mined. And the maps to all of these minefields have long since disappeared.
The French demining unit has previously worked to clear mines in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Lebanon. All of the countries contributing troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul -- including Britain, Germany, and Norway -- also have sent demining teams. Including the staffs of non-governmental organizations specializing in demining, between 5,000 and 7,000 experts are cooperating in clearing the territory around Kabul and between Kabul and the military airport in Bagram.
The area around the Kabul airport is a priority because of its heavy use, followed by terrain surrounding ISAF facilities throughout the area.
Captain Roinel of the 17th Brigade of French paratroopers from Montauban describes a particular type of mine encountered by his team of "sappers," as they are called.
"These little things are the most vicious," Roinel says. "You see, these small mines look like some plastic butterflies -- toys. But these are mortal toys. They explode when someone picks them up."
Roinel explains in more detail how the mines work: "There are 26 of them in each container. As soon as the mine is out of its container, it is armed slowly, by means of a timing system. This model has a device of auto-destruction, which is activated three to 30 hours after the opening of the container. This was 15 years ago, when these mines were brand new. Now, we think that time has taken its toll, and we prefer not to take them out of their containers, for fear of having them blow up in our faces."
Because of their shape, most of the victims of these mines are children.
"They look like small green butterflies that one can hold in the palm of the hand," Roinel says. "They have an accumulator of pressure, which means that a person can step onto one of these without any effect. But after that, if someone takes it into their hand, it can explode in the hand."
The mines came from the old Soviet depot. The munitions have been abandoned there, unused, for more than 10 years, which makes them dangerous to manipulate. The French demining battalion discovered the depot after investigating information supplied by the local population. The French team says it has destroyed some 1,500 containers of these mines so far.
Captain Roinel describes more types of unexploded mines his team has found: "These are antipersonnel bomblets. They are dropped from an aircraft. When they fall in the air, the air speed arms the detonator, and when it reaches the ground it explodes. There is a fragmentation inside the bomblets, which can kill people in a circle of about 20 meters around the falling point."
Other models, resembling bowling balls, are stuffed with fragments of metal. They rebound when they hit the ground and explode at waist height, spraying the surrounding area with shrapnel.
When will the demining operation be completed, and when will Afghans be able to return to their homes? French Major Bernard Sellier has no answer: "It will take time. It will take time. The number of mines planted in Afghanistan is estimated at more then 8 million. I think it will take a long time."
Even if the mines are cleared, villagers who fled this once-fertile region now have little to return to. The orchards that formed the basis of the peasant economy have disappeared. The trees have all been cut to the root by bombs or by displaced people desperate for firewood.
Even if they return from refugee camps in Pakistan, or from temporary shelters in Kabul, these villagers will find it hard to pick up where they left off. The land they once knew is now an endless desert, and it will be virtually impossible to find or defuse all of the mines sprinkled across the countryside.