Travelogue: Afghanistan (Continued)
Schlein shares his experiences first hand of Afghanistan, the
Taliban and the Adopt-a-Minefield program.
by Oren Schlein, Executive
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A Demining Challenge
A mine field is a difficult concept to grasp
without having visited a range of sites. There are so many physical
characteristics to mine fields, differing types of terrain, and varying climatic
conditions in which to undertake clearance operations. On the last day of our
visit to Kabul, we visited the village of Pashaye, a two-hour drive from the
The Dara-i-Pashaye valley, in which Pashaye is
located, was one of the most fertile areas I visited during my Afghan travels.
It was green, agriculturally productive, and clearly not affected by the drought
that has devastated so much of the rest of Afghanistan. Afghan Technical
Consultants (ATC), the country’s largest demining organization, had cleared
much of the agricultural land in the valley, which has been returned to the
villagers. They were now hard at work clearing the rocky hills above.
On the day of our visit, ATC had found three anti-personnel
landmines. As we sat in our vantage point halfway up the hill, we
observed more than 20 deminers carefully sweeping the ground with their metal
detectors, occasionally crouching down to clear the earth around a suspected
mined area. The deminers faced two big problems. The hills were steep and the
deminers were susceptible to accidents if not careful, and the soil itself was
hard and comprised of stones of high metallic content. The metallic content
slowed down the clearance process considerably because they triggered false
alarms, each one requiring the deminers to manually check the ground for mines.
It was by far the most perilous mine field that I have seen cleared over the
past several years.
There is a very sad footnote to this story.
Several days after our visit, we received news that one of the ATC deminers had
slipped while unearthing a suspected mine in these same hills above Pashaye. The
deminer lost part of his leg. Until this accident, MAPA had not suffered any
demining casualties in 2001, a significant drop from the 11 accidents in 2000.
It was a solemn moment for the entire demining community in Afghanistan.
Jalalabad: 6-7 July 2001
Early in the morning of July 6th,
we left the UN guesthouse in Kabul for the five-hour drive to Jalalabad,
Afghanistan’s easternmost city, about an hour’s drive from the Pakistan
border. The road was better than most in Afghanistan, even though more than half
of it was still unpaved. We caught glimpses of many unexploded ordnance,
including artillery shells and rockets, lying by the side of the road and high
up in the hills above us. Jalalabad is distinctly different from Kabul. It is
greener, more relaxed, and in some respects more animated than the capital city.
It is also much hotter and more humid than Kabul. In more prosperous times,
Jalalabad was a holiday retreat from Kabul.
We met officials from the Regional Mine Action
Centre for the Eastern Region, who discussed the mine contamination problem in
the area. As throughout Afghanistan, the Russians and the Mujahedeen both laid
mines during the Soviet occupation. After the departure of Russian forces, the
UN estimated that there was 131km2 of
mined land, including 110km2 of high
priority land, which needed to be cleared to enable refugees to return to their
homes and existing populations to cultivate their land. To date, 60 percent of
the high priority areas in the Eastern Region have been cleared, more than
70,000 mines and 91,000 UXO have been destroyed, and nearly three million metal
fragments found. In addition, more than 1.2 million people have received mine
National Capacity Building
One of the key challenges facing the
international landmine community is to develop national capacities for local
mine action organizations to manage their own programs without disproportionate
external assistance. The Mine Action Programme for Afghanistan has illustrated
the success of this approach over the past 12 years. In 1990, when the program
officially started, there were a few hundred deminers assisted by dozens of
international technical advisors. Today, there are nearly 5,000 Afghan deminers
and program managers, assisted by less than a dozen expatriates.
The Poppy Fields of Jalalabad
In Jalalabad, we visited three
Adopt-A-Minefield® sites along the
former frontline between the Mujahedeen and Russian troops. The area witnessed
heavy fighting and considerable casualties. Hills and mountainous terrain run
along a North-South corridor known for its abundant production of poppies. The
poppy trade has been one of the greatest sources of income for Afghanistan in
recent years, furnishing a vast amount of the world’s heroin supply. In 2000,
Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, ordered that all poppy crops
in the region be destroyed and replaced with wheat. On this blisteringly hot,
sunny July afternoon, as we drove through the villages of Nangarhar province,
there were no poppy fields in sight.
One of the villages we visited, Lala Qala, had
been a base for the Mujahedeen fighters attacking Russian positions in the
hills. The area had witnessed 50 mine incidents and in a 22,000m2
area of agricultural land that had recently been cleared,
deminers had found 26 anti-personnel landmines and three unexploded ordnance, as
well as nearly 20,000 metal fragments. It took 35 days to clear the area,
benefiting 400 people from the local village. Aiding their efforts, the deminers
relied upon a mechanical backhoe excavator. Unlike manual clearance efforts or
mine detection dogs, mechanical mine clearance can be significantly faster,
although proportionately more expensive. Although mechanical mine clearance is
the least cost effective clearance tool, the deminers lower costs by using
Afghan machines and spare parts. Although not appropriate for all terrain, the
excavator is ideally suited for the flat agricultural fields and irrigation
canals of Lala Qala.
|This area between Kabul and
Jalabad is one of the few not to have suffered from
Afghanistan's recent drought.
Herat: 8-10 July 2001
Herat is unlike either Kabul or Jalalabad ¾
it’s a beautiful, desolate desert town. As we flew into Herat, all we could
see for miles was a barren, dusty wasteland. It was hard to imagine that the
terrain could support any life. Unexpectedly, the city appeared like an oasis in
the distance. While its outer perimeter blended into the outlying desert, the
city itself was remarkably green and lush, with handsome minarets and mosques
dotting the city center.
The UN security officer at the UN guesthouse
informed us that there were all sorts of Afghan factions in the mountains around
Herat who were fighting each other. At times, these factions allied themselves
against the Taliban. There was a major Taliban base south of the city and there
were major security threats to the east and south. In fact, the local militia
had erected large roadblocks and the threats were so severe that the Taliban
rarely ventured along the main road east of Herat anymore. The west was
relatively quiet because of a large Taliban presence, and the north experienced
some limited activity.
Upon inquiring, I was informed that there was
no evidence that either the Taliban or local militia were laying mines in the
Western Region. Nevertheless, large numbers of mines left over from the 1980s
threatened the local populations, the Kuchi (nomad) tribes, and the 95,000
internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in the area. There were six IDP camps
near Herat and large Kuchi populations that moved about frequently in search of
arable land, as the drought was particularly severe in western Afghanistan.
Awareness of the mine problem was limited in Herat. In the past two years, mines
had injured 15 IDPs, three in 2001 alone, and these are only the reported cases.
The Organisation for Mine Clearance and Afghan
Rehabilitation (OMAR) is among those organizations that has conducted
comprehensive mine awareness instruction throughout the region in an effort to
educate the population and help stem the tide of mine victims. One afternoon, we
visited an outdoor mine awareness class on the main road out of Herat. At least
50 children were in attendance. The collection of materials, including
silkscreen posters and coloring books, was impressive given the limited
resources. We had also hoped to see a women’s mine awareness class, but the
local Taliban officials even forbade the Western female in our party from
Sand Storms Near the Turkmenistan Border
We visited five minefields while in Herat, but
the most memorable was Kuhkst, about 25 kilometers south of the Turkmenistan
border. As we approached Kuhkst, a sand storm descended upon us and we were
overcome by a sand swell, which didn’t let up for 15 minutes. Apparently, both
sides of the road were mined. It was hard to imagine that this agricultural land
was viable given the harsh conditions. Yet, the soil has such unique properties
that they could grow rain-fed crops. I found myself in a field of sunflowers and
melons, although I couldn’t see more than five feet in front of me. In spite
of the strong winds and sand storms, manual deminers had been clearing the
entire area ¾ a seemingly impossible task. It once again illustrated the
perseverance and courage of the deminers.
Residential Mine Fields
Along the main road leading into Herat are
several villages that were heavily mined during the Soviet occupation, including
the village of Deza. It is located next to an old Russian munitions dump, which
the Mujahedeen blew up during the war. The ensuing fire burned for three days
and three nights. In all, 14 people were injured and eight killed. The
explosions also destroyed many homes. Years after this incident, the villagers
of Deza and four nearby villages continue to suffer from the presence of mines.
There have been several mine accidents and much land is unusable. During recent
clearance operations, deminers found more than 300 UXO and 48 anti-personnel landmines in the area immediately adjacent to the old munitions depot. As we
walked through the village, debris, including old burned out tanks, was strewn
everywhere. Red stones and red flags marked those areas where mines had been
found, some as close as five or ten meters from village homes. Several children
greeted us during our visit. They played in areas that had been cleared by the
deminers, although it was evident that so long as some of this land remained
mined, there was an accident waiting to happen.
|The village of Haji Basher was a
former Russian military base along the main transit route from
A few miles closer to Herat is a compound
belonging to one of the city’s prominent religious elders, Eamaddin, who has
more than 200 followers. During the war, Russian forces used his large,
luxurious house as a military base and also conducted heavy aerial bombings of
the area. The site changed hands many times between the Russians and Mujahedeen.
What remains today are some external walls and the façade of some of the houses
within the compound. The area is so heavily contaminated with mines that none of
Eamaddin’s family are able to return to their homes. Of the eight families
that lived here before the war, six families are refugees in Iran, and two
families have returned to Herat to rebuild the compound once it has been cleared
of mines. Eighty family members in all hope to move back after demining
operations are completed later this year. Wahid Duddin, Eamaddin’s son, lives
on the edge of the compound with his two sons and wife in a new house that he
has built until he can move back into his old home. They are literally living in
a live mine field. In 1995, an anti-personnel landmine killed one of Wahid’s
relatives and injured another when they entered the compound.
Kandahar: 11-13 July 2001
The final stop on our Afghan journey was
Kandahar, home of the Taliban. After more than a week of hearing Taliban stories
from my UN hosts, and having met a few in Kabul, I was somewhat apprehensive at
the realization that I would be spending the next few days in Mullah Omar’s
backyard. Mullah Omar lives just a few miles from the airport, and we passed his
home on our way to the UN guesthouse. As the guesthouse is on the opposite side
of town from the airport, we also had to drive through the central marketplace.
It was bustling with activity, more so than any of the other cities we had
visited. This was largely because the Taliban feel more secure in Kandahar than
elsewhere in Afghanistan and they impose fewer restrictions on the local
population. As foreigners, however, we were strongly advised to keep an even
lower profile in Kandahar than in the other Afghan cities.
Kandahar has a long and turbulent history. The
city was destroyed during the Soviet occupation. Years of fighting have left it
with the dubious distinction of being the most heavily mined city in
Afghanistan. As I discovered during my two-day visit to Kandahar, virtually
every part of the city has been mined. Homes and agricultural fields within a
stone’s throw of the UN guesthouse are mine-contaminated. It is an urban
disaster that has not afflicted other Afghan cities to the same degree, nor with
the same level of long-term humanitarian consequences. The mine problem is not
limited to Kandahar city, however. The rural areas of the Southern Region are
Demining a City
The most poignant memories I have of Kandahar
are visiting mine-affected communities on both sides of the main road that runs
through the center of town. The first site we visited was Ward 6, a five-minute
drive from the UN guesthouse, on the west side of Kandahar. The site is a
51,405m2 residential area, which was
the scene of intense fighting between Russian troops and the Mujahedeen. The
Russians held the top of an adjacent hill to monitor traffic on the main road
below. The Mujahedeen advanced from positions on the other side of the hill.
Both parties heavily mined the area. Because of the complications of detecting
and removing mines and unexploded ordnance amid the rubble of the old homes, the
demining teams have had to flatten many of the houses. As of my visit, they had
unearthed 71 anti-personnel landmines and 189 UXO, and the most complex part of
the task, clearing the area around the walls of the homes, was yet to be
An hour’s drive to the east, we reached the
village of Haji Basher. Haji Basher was a former Russian military base along the
main transit route from Pakistan, which was used as a strategic post to defend
Kandahar city. The village was so strategically important to the Russians that
they laid a large mine belt around the village and surrounding areas. Although
most of the villagers no longer live in Haji Basher, Kuchi tribes regularly
travel through the area. Because of the high level of mine contamination, the
accident rate is very high. There have been 15 accidents in this area, including
three deminers, five Kuchis and villagers, and several animals. While walking
through the ‘safe lanes’ (two lines of white painted rocks) carved out of
the mine belt, we found the remains of a camel that had detonated a mine last
year. Because of the high-density nature of the mine field, mine detection dogs
do not work well in this terrain and the local demining organizations do not
have suitable machines to clear the land. The entire area is being cleared
manually. Eight different tasks have been surveyed and it is expected that it
will take several more months to complete the project.
|A demining dog and handler from
the Afghan organization, Mine Detection and Dog Centre.
Our final stop was a medical and agricultural
university in the heart of Kandahar. The school was heavily mined during the
Soviet occupation and most of the buildings were either bombed or ransacked. It
was a difficult clearance task because of all the rubble. Deminers found 19 anti-personnel
landmines and 10 unexploded ordnance in the compound. Although
most of the buildings have not yet been reconstructed, the students we met were
very proud that they were able to study in such adverse conditions. Our UN hosts
informed us that these same students had helped loot their own classrooms during
To Quetta and Home
We concluded our trip to Afghanistan with a
sumptuous meal provided to us by the Kandahar office of the Mine Detection and
Dog Centre. Because of the restrictions on foreigners visiting Afghan homes, all
the demining organizations we met in our travels offered us elaborate meals or
refreshments in their offices or in the field. We never lacked enough good
Afghan food ¾ Palau, lamb korma, chicken korma, melon, firni (milk custard
dessert), and green tea. The hospitality extended to us was unforgettable.
Afghanistan Program Update
Since the terrorist attacks in the United
States on September 11, 2001, and the most recent military strikes against
Afghanistan, the United Nations has suspended all demining operations in
Afghanistan until security conditions improve. As a result, we have had to
temporarily suspend all minefield adoptions through the Adopt-A-Minefield®
program in Afghanistan. UNOCHA and MAPA offices throughout the country are
closed, except for a small number of deminers who have been retained in each
regional center to respond to emergency needs. UNOCHA and MAPA headquarters in
Islamabad remain open and MAPA is currently developing post-war plans for
responding to the immediate threats resulting from the current conflict.
Once demining operations resume, we expect
MAPA to reassess the mine contamination problem in the country and to formulate
a new work plan for its clearance activities. It is possible that some of those
Adopt-A-Minefield® sites that were
being cleared or scheduled for clearance when the program was suspended may no
longer be high priority sites once this reassessment is concluded. We will
inform all donors whose sites are affected by this reassessment and offer them
alternative sites to which they can apply their funds. All donations received
for the Adopt-A-Minefield® program
in Afghanistan prior to the suspension will remain in escrow with the United
Nations until clearance operations resume.
Since the military strikes against Afghanistan
were launched, the UN has resumed limited humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to try
and alleviate some of the harsher consequences of the drought and the population
displacements. MAPA for its part is developing contingency plans for addressing
the probable impact of the current military strikes. They have identified three
areas of critical concern to the projected 1.5 million Afghan refugees and 2.25
million internally displaced persons: the threat of existing mines and UXO; the
threat of collateral damage from extensive aerial bombardment; and the threat of
new mines, UXO, and munitions. MAPA’s response to these threats will include
strengthening existing mine awareness capacities around the country; deploying
quick reaction teams to each major city; and utilizing survey teams, clearance
teams, and explosive ordnance disposal teams to clear roads and essential urban
areas in order that humanitarian activities can resume and that refugees and
internally displaced persons can return to their homes. Currently, MAPA is
training its staff and partner organizations to address Afghanistan’s post-war
requirements. Until it can resume operations inside Afghanistan, MAPA is
focusing its efforts on providing essential mine awareness instruction to
refugees and internally displaced persons along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
|The desecrated mausoleum of
the former King of Afghanistan, Kind Nadir Shah, the father of the
exiled King Zahir Shah.
has established an Afghanistan Emergency Response Fund to accept donations to
support the UN’s emergency response efforts in Afghanistan. We will forward
the UN 100 percent of all donations received through this Fund.
Adopt-A-Minefield® will work
closely with its UN colleagues in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and New York to obtain
regular updates, which will be posted on our website (www.landmines.org).
Over the long-term, the Afghan people must
have their land cleared regardless of who rules their country or how hard their
lives are. Afghans need help now more than ever. Prior to the current conflict,
landmines affected all aspects of life in Afghanistan. Recent events have
compounded the hardship that communities across the country face and
significantly increased the pressures on the financially strapped mine clearance
organizations that operate in the country. In the weeks to come, we are hopeful
that the situation in the region will stabilize and enable the UN to resume its
demining operations. In the meantime, Adopt-A-Minefield®
will continue to support the UN’s humanitarian work through the Afghanistan
Emergency Response Fund.
This travelogue is excerpted from a
full-length document, which can be viewed online at www.landmines.org or by
requesting a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*All photos courtesy of Adopt-A-Minefield.
United Nations Association of the USA
801 Second Ave.
New York, NY 10017
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