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Afghanistan: Country Still Struggling With Land-Mine Legacy

  • Farangis Najibullah

Among its many challenges, Afghanistan is still struggling with a dangerous legacy of some 8 million land mines laid by invading Soviet forces and rival Afghan groups in the 1980s and '90s. The land mines have claimed thousands of lives, and Afghan officials say over 150,000 people have been permanently maimed by the hidden explosives. The country's demining agencies, working together with international NGOs, are hoping to clear Afghanistan of all its minefields in the next four years.

Prague, 9 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign observers say land mines in Afghanistan kill or injure 150 to 300 civilians every month. With more than 8 million mines scattered over some 720 million square meters, it is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.

Shahob Hakeemi heads the Kabul-based Mine Detection Center (MDC). He told RFE/RL that international NGOs and local agencies like his have been working for years to clear the country of mines and other unexploded ordnance.

"Over the past 10 years, all the demining agencies cleared some 263 million square meters of minefields. These places were classified as high-priority areas for clearance. But there are still 470 million square meters of land in Afghanistan considered to be dangerous because of the land mines," Hakeemi said.

Altogether, there are some 8,000 specialists engaged in demining operations all over the country. Funds and equipment have been provided by the international community; the European Commission alone has contributed $10 million to the effort.

Even so, Afghan civilians are complaining about the slow pace of the demining project. They are frustrated that 10 or 20 years after the mines were laid, their land and roads are still not safe to use. Some of them blame NGOs for misusing millions of dollars in foreign aid.

Qaher, a young man from the Mahipar region on the outskirts of Kabul, criticizes the way demining agencies have prioritized which areas should be cleared first. "I can't understand why the mine-clearance specialists are working in Kabul," he said. "They have to go to the provinces. There are so many mines in the provinces -- in my hometown, for instance. Recently, my friend in Mahipar stepped on a mine. The specialists work around Kabul's Pole-charkhi area, but there are no mines in Kabul."

Kefayatulloh Eblagh heads Afghan Technical Consultation, an NGO involved in demining operations. He said the United Nations Mine Action Program prioritizes lands for clearance after a thorough survey. "It is not up to the [individual demining] agencies to choose which area to clear. We work according to the requirements of provincial or other authorities who ask the agencies to demine important areas, such as roads or the fields around a hydropower station. They send their requirements to the UN Mine Action Program, which coordinates all the mine-clearance operations in the country. The agency studies the requirements and makes the final decision. It is up to them to decide which region takes priority," he said.

Some Afghans believe the country's rival factions have continued to lay new mines in the provinces. Hakeemi of MDC said demining agencies have convinced some regional commanders to agree to destroy their unused weapons. He added that similar negotiations are under way with the Defense Ministry.

"Our negotiations with the Defense Ministry have been very positive. Last month the ministry destroyed all the mines in one of its depots, in front of journalists. Altogether, the ministry has 49 depots in Kabul. Our agency -- along with the Defense Ministry, the UN office and the international peacekeepers [the International Security Assitance Force] -- are working on a special project. In the upcoming months, tens of thousands of mines that belong to the ministry will be destroyed in front of people, in front of journalists and international observers," Hakeemi said.

If clearance continues at its current pace, Afghans can hope that some 350 million square meters of high-priority land will be mine-free within the next four years.

However, for the 150,000 Afghans disabled by the explosives, the issue of land mines will never be over. In a country where even the young and able-bodied struggle with poverty and unemployment, mine victims missing arms and legs are left in especially desperate circumstances. The disabled received 100 Afghanis ($2) a month from social services -- barely enough to cover a month of bus fare. Wheelchairs and artificial limbs are in short supply.

One land-mine victim, Ruzegol Pashtunyar, described his condition: "A mine is a dangerous weapon that doesn't discriminate between friend and foe. I'm a land-mine victim myself. I stepped on a mine laid by Russians. It blew off both my legs and paralyzed my arm. I still have headaches and also have severe back pain. I feel nervous. My 7-year-old son once asked me, 'Dad, what happened to your legs?' I felt so sad."

Demining is a slow and risky process, and Afghanistan has a long way to go before it will be rid of the deadly legacy of two decades of civil war.

(Zarif Nazar of RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)