The lion's share of the responsibility for fighting Islamic extremists in Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led coalition in the country has been given to the American soldiers, helped by Canadians and special forces from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. But there is also a Polish contingent doing important jobs in the country. Poland is the only one of the three new NATO members from Eastern Europe to have substantial numbers of men operating in the country. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Afghanistan.
Bagram, Afghanistan; 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Polish soldiers operating in Afghanistan, as befits those from a passionately Catholic country, are not only looking after the physical safety of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, but also their spiritual well-being.
Polish Army Chaplain Mariusz Agostin holds services each day for Catholics from all nationalities at the huge air base at Bagram, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, the main base for coalition forces.
Agostin is a burly man with a short military haircut and a jolly smile. His uniform, with its red and white Polish flag on one shoulder, is indistinguishable from those worn by other Polish soldiers, except for a cross emblazoned on his chest pocket.
The largest part of his congregation each day is formed by his own compatriots. He says that is partly because Poles are such fervent Catholics, but also because the Polish contingent -- even more so than combat soldiers -- risk their lives on a daily basis because of their involvement in mine clearance.
Bagram was the largest Soviet base during Moscow's occupation of Afghanistan. Much of the area is still infested with mines planted not only by Soviet forces but by the numerous Afghan factions that held the base during the prolonged civil war that followed Moscow's withdrawal in 1989.
The United Nations and coalition forces estimate there are more than 11 million mines scattered across the country. About 10 Afghans are killed each day after stepping on mines. The large number of amputees seen in every town and village in the country testifies to the even larger numbers of Afghans who are injured by mines.
Experts hesitate to predict how many years it will take to clear the country of mines, but they talk in terms of decades.
Bagram is considered the most heavily mined area in the world. One of the main tasks undertaken by the 87-strong Polish contingent of engineers and soldiers is to clear the sprawling air base of thousands of these mines.
The "sappers," or mine clearers, come from two regiments of the Polish army, a platoon from the First Engineer Brigade from Psek and the Tenth Logistics Brigade from Opole. Their commander is Major Darek Tulin. "This Polish contingent is dedicated for engineering work and also for logistics. Also we have two teams for providing demining of the area and some obstacles. And we started with a few projects at Bagram base. Basically, there's demining for the P-Ha, the personnel handling area, in the airport (the area where people have to move around) and also construction work within the American and British camps."
The troops arrived on 16 March for a six-month stay. Although U.S. and Canadian troops chasing Al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains often capture the headlines, the mine-clearing operations are also extremely dangerous.
"I think this is very risky and also a very sensitive area because this place is located in the middle of the airfield and all the traffic is going around, and we have to be very careful to avoid any mine strikes and also to avoid any casualties."
The members of the Polish contingent in Afghanistan are all professional soldiers, and many of them have served in missions in such far-flung locales as Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon, Syria, and Cambodia.
Polish Warrant Officer Jacek Hanycz commands the sappers. He said the usual course of action is to use metal detectors and sharp, metal spikes to prod the ground for the location of individual mines. These are then checked for detonation devices before being lifted out of the earth as delicately as a baby being taken out of its cradle.
"We are dealing with a great number of land mines and unexploded bombs, all different kinds of ammunition -- grenades, mortars. They all are remnants of the various wars which took place here in Afghanistan."
Depending on the type of mine, they are then destroyed by exploding them in a safe location or by burning out the plastic explosive contained inside. Hanycz said plastic explosive needs an electrical or explosive detonation to set it off and that burning plastic explosives can be done safely.
Major Tulin said his men are learning a lot as they carry out their duties. He said the job of removing mines is slow work, especially since some equipment is not available to them in Afghanistan.
Tulin spoke regretfully about the lack of something called a "flail" -- a series of chains attached to a rotating drum. The mechanism is attached to the front of a tank and explodes mines in front of it while the crew sits safely inside. Hanycz spoke of the possibility of getting a flail in the way some people speak of winning the lottery.
There is a frightening array of mines at Bagram, as there are all over Afghanistan.
So-called "butterfly bombs" are small devices scattered from aircraft which have green plastic wings that prevent the mines from exploding when they hit the ground. They are designed to maim rather than kill. Over the decades, hundreds of children have been horribly injured after mistaking them for toys.
There are Italian-made antipersonnel mines which, when triggered, jump out of the ground to waist height, scattering metal balls in all directions. There are grenades on top of sticks that are triggered by trip wires, as well as large mines, with the thickness of tires, that can destroy tanks.
Hanycz explained why he and his fellow soldiers, who are also responsible for building the defenses around the perimeter of Bagram in case of an Al-Qaeda attack, believe it is right that Poles should find themselves in a combat zone in South Asia because of terrorist acts committed in the U.S.:
"Concerning our stay here in Afghanistan, I am a soldier of a country which belongs to NATO. We have a responsibility to help others because we could also need help at some time in the future and the carrying out of this task gives you a sense of fulfillment because the problem of terrorism could very easily reach Poland." Out of the three new NATO member countries -- Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary -- Warsaw has contributed most to the coalition effort. A small team of Czech physicians is already working at Bagram and are to be joined by colleagues to form the staff of a complete field hospital.