Old mines bring new casualties in Afghanistan

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Windblown villages of mud houses surround the huge Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul. These poor villagers make a living in ways that can also kill them — they graze their animals or forage for scrap metal on a NATO firing range.

The East River Range dates to the 1980s, when the Soviet army occupied Afghanistan. It's full of mines, grenades and other ordnance that should have detonated during training exercises over the years. It sprawls along a mountainside and grazing areas. It's poorly marked, and only small sections are clearly identified by signs and concrete barriers, NPR reports.

A couple of months ago, 16-year old Abdul Rahman was picking up scraps of metal like a lot of kids in the village. He picked up something he didn't recognize. It turned out to be a grenade. It blew off both his arms, making him one of 15 reported casualties on the range over the last few years.

Rahman says he wasn't aware of the danger of the range nor of the grenade. If he had known, "I wouldn't have touched it for a million dollars," he says.

Rahman's father Zergul lost part of his leg when he stepped on something that exploded while grazing his sheep at night. He says that in the dark, he couldn't tell where the range was. What's more tragic and vexing is that he didn't warn his son even after he lost his own leg.

A Legacy Of War

After decades of war, Afghanistan is littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance. In the last two years, more than 1,000 people have been killed or injured by so-called unexploded remnants of war.

Protecting Afghans from the dangers isn't just about cordoning off or clearing areas, it's as much about trying to educate them.

Mohammed Sediq Rashid is Chief of Operations of the Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan. It's an Afghan-run organization that coordinates all the de-mining activities in the country. He says that the main reason behind these incidents is economics.

"And we are constantly trying to work on this challenge, how to change the behavior of people," he says.

Mine Action has been doing awareness and removal work in Afghanistan since 1989. It oversees 13,000 people working to clear the country of mines and ordnance.

Rashid says NATO is taking more steps to alert the locals and keep them out of the East River range, but even fencing it off completely wouldn't stop people from taking chances. Particularly challenging is protecting children, who are often curious and unaware.

"When they find something unusual, they are playing with it, and they are playing with it together in groups," Rashid says.

That's why children make up the majority of casualties from unexploded ordnance, or UXO. And, while tragic and seemingly preventable, incidents at the range cause only a small fraction of the casualties each year.

About two-thirds of the UXO dates from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. But the war between allied NATO and Afghan forces and insurgents is leaving plenty behind as well, and Rashid says NATO is not adequately considering UXO that will be left behind when the war is over.

NATO says it does what is feasible within security constraints. Mine Action wants more coordination from NATO and wants to know sooner about incidents that might have left fresh UXO.

Spotting Mines

Mirwais Hussaini, who also works for Mine Action, visits a clearing operation in Hakim Village, north of Kabul. There hasn't been any fighting here for more than a decade, though several people are injured each year by mines dating back to the Soviet era.

A man covered in body armor demonstrates how he identifies a potential mine using a metal detector. Behind him, a clearing team is slowly working its way up a mountainside in the scorching sun.

Nearby, a group of villagers are asking to be trained to clear mines. One man lost his leg on the hillside six years ago. Another man was a fighter and says he planted many of the mines. Now, he wants to help remove them.

In this village, mine awareness seems to have taken hold –- the people generally avoid the hills that are still mined and stick to the areas Mine Action has cleared. One man says he has stopped women from gathering firewood in the hills because of the danger.

Hussaini says that whenever there is a report of new fighting in a particular area, a Mine Risk education team is dispatched to the scene. He says they tell residents to avoid the contaminated areas, and especially to keep their children away from the danger. He says that's the immediate solution.

Because of security issues, and limited resources, it can be months before Mine Action can actually start clearing away new finds of UXO. And it could take a decade or more to rid the country of these deadly remnants.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.

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