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Afghanistan: Land-Mine Problem Tackled With Some Success

Land mines at Kandahar's airport Afghanistan is one of the world’s most heavily land-mined countries, yet it has made progress in recent years in reducing the number of victims. Some 8,000 deminers are involved in Afghanistan’s mine-clearing program, which aims to rid the country of all mines and other unexploded ordinance by 2012. Authorities in western Afghanistan last week detonated nearly 20,000 land mines that were collected from various militia groups. Experts say Afghanistan can set an example in a land-mine-ravaged region.

Prague, 16 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- There are estimated to be more than 100 million land mines laid in about 70 countries. It is estimated that every 20 minutes someone is killed or injured by a land mine.

Najmuddin lost both his legs some 22 years ago when he drove over an antitank mine in Afghanistan. He is now the director of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s orthopedic center in Kabul, where he assists the victims of land mines. He told RFE/RL that many young Afghans are still injured and killed by land mines laid during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed.

“Most of the people who lose their legs because of mine blasts are young people, but there are also [young] children…[and] there isn’t any war going on in Afghanistan; people who go to the field or children who collect wood, they become victims of such accidents,” Najmuddin said.

But because of mine-clearing operations and programs promoting land-mine awareness, the number of land-mine victims in Afghanistan has fallen significantly in recent years.
Afghan authorities estimate that some 800 square kilometers of land is contaminated with land mines and other buried explosives.

Shohab Hakimi is the chairman of the Afghan Campaign to Ban Land Mines and the director of the Mine Detection and Dog Center. “[Before] the number of victims was very high, about 500 to 600 per month, but, as a result of the work of the mine-clearing organizations in Afghanistan, this number has been decreasing every year," he said. "Last year, based on the report we had -- we are talking only about registered cases -- every month about 100 people lost their lives [or were disabled] because of a mine explosion.”

Despite the progress, the country still has one of the highest land-mine casualty rates in the world. Afghan authorities estimate that some 800 square kilometers of land is contaminated with land mines and other buried explosives. There are also reports of use of land mines by militants groups.

Deminers such as Hakimi face a huge task, as the mines have been laid in almost every Afghan province, with most of them in the western, eastern, and southern regions.

Some 15 organizations are currenlty involved in the detection, removal, and destruction of land mines in Afghanistan. In the last decade, some 500 deminers have been killed or injured by land mines.

Hakimi said the future continuation of Afghanistan’s mine-clearance program -- one of the world’s largest and most cost-effective -- depends on international aid. “If donor countries [continue to] send financial help to the [demining] program, by 2007 all high-impact areas will be cleared," he said. "By 2012, if aid or money is [still] available, the mines from all medium- and low-level impact areas will be destroyed. We can’t say Afghanistan [will be] mine-free but we can say that we will destroy the effect of mines in areas used by people.”

Afghan authorities say more than $200 million is needed to carry out demining activities in Afghanistan through 2007. Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the region that has joined the Ottawa Convention, which prohibits the use, production, trade, and transfer of antipersonnel land mines. It also requires that stockpiles be destroyed within four years of the treaty coming into force.

Hakimi hopes that Afghanistan is setting an example for other countries in the region. He said land mines continue to have tragic consequences for people long after the battles and the wars have ended, as they remain functional many years after being planted.

“Those [countries] that produce land mines [should know] that their harm is much greater than their utility. They will particularly understand it when the war ends. We understand it now; we say that if we hadn’t had a land-mine problem in Afghanistan we could have gained expertise in something else and helped our people. The [land-mine-producing] countries should understand that the mines they have at their disposal will harm their own people, their own land, and it will take ages [to get rid of them],” Hakimi said.

China, which reportedly has the world’s largest stock of antipersonnel mines, and India and Pakistan, with the fifth- and sixth-largest stockpiles, have not joined the Ottawa Convention. Land mines in Central Asia are a problem in some border regions, where land mines have been placed to prevent illegal border trafficking.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are members of the Mine Ban Treaty. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have not yet joined the agreement.

Iran, which is contaminated with thousands of mines left from the Iran-Iraq War, has not joined the Ottawa Convention. According to the International Campaign Against Land Mines, Iranian officials have condemned land mines as “inhumane weapons” but they view them as a “necessary evil” to protect the country’s borders from drug smugglers and antigovernment terrorist groups.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.