As Fighting Ends, Mines Still Threaten Afghan Livelihood
UN team estimates five more years of demining needed. AFGHAN: FALLOUT
IT was supposed to be a day of celebration for Muhammad Jonarah.
A mujahideen fighter for the past seven years, Mr. Jonarah was on his way recently from the town of Baghrami, in eastern Afghanistan, to Kabul about 15 miles away. He wanted to visit a friend to revel in the ouster of the communist regime and its replacement by an Islamic government. But a wrong step as he walked along the road detonated a landmine. He lost his left leg below the knee.
Now, Jonarah, a bright-eyed 20-year old, faces a long rehabilitation and an uncertain future. "I'm not bitter that this happened," Jonarah said, as he lay in a bed at Kabul's Military Services Hospital. "I'm just happy an Islamic government has come to Afghanistan."
Jonarah is one of an estimated 400,000 people who have been maimed by mines during the 14-year Afghan civil war. Mines have killed an additional 200,000 people, according to United Nations estimates, and worst of all, the threat persists long after the fighting has ended.
"Mines are the worst legacy of the war. No one really knows how many are still out there, but we estimate there are about 10 million," says Graeme Membry, the manager of the UN mine clearance program in Kabul, which has removed 22,000 mines since it started in 1990.
"You'll never be able clean up all the mines," he continues. "There will be areas that will never be walked on again." Mines obstruct reconstruction
In addition to causing injuries and death, the mines are a major obstacle to the country's reconstruction, rendering farming and grazing land useless, and blocking important trade routes. According to Mr. Membry, about 2 percent of Afghanistan's territory has been sown with mines, enough to paralyze the country from a strategic standpoint.
The mines come in all shapes and sizes. Some are designed to cripple a tank, while others, such as the tiny "butterfly," look harmless, yet contain a highly sensitive, green liquid explosive. They were planted for a variety of reasons, Membry says.
The former communist-controlled Afghan Army used them not only against the mujahideen but also against its own soldiers, placing them around military bases to prevent defections.
The mujahideen also used mines, laying them indiscriminately all over the countryside.
"The mujahideen had little military knowledge and just laid mines anywhere," Membry says. "That's our biggest problem."
The UN demining effort uses a multi-pronged approach, designed to limit future casualties and revive the infrastructure as quickly as possible. Survey teams currently are working to mark off mine areas, while a "mine awareness" program is trying to educate the population on the dangers.
Demining is a painstakingly slow process, Membry says. Most operations are performed by hand with men crawling on their bellies, prodding the earth in front of them in search of the devices. The process also is dangerous, as 21 of the mostly Afghan deminers have been killed during operations. Currently there are 31 demining squads of 32 people each, but the UN has plans to triple the size of the operation as soon as the situation stabilizes in Afghanistan, Membry says. Lack of information on mines
The key to success is preplanning and prioritizing properly, says Membry, a major on leave from the Australian Army's corps of engineers. But the process is complicated by a lack of information on mine location. Documents left by the Soviet Army, which ended a 10-year occupation of Afghanistan in 1989, along with Afghan government data, have not always been adequate or accurate. The mujahideen, meanwhile, kept no records on mines.
"Our greatest source of information comes from talking to people," Membry says. "When you prioritize you can definitely get things restarted in a hurry."
Nevertheless, even in his most optimistic scenario, Membry predicts it will take five to seven years "before people have a safe place to walk."
Many Afghans already have been altered forever by mines. Jonarah, and others recuperating in the military hospital, try their best to remain hopeful, saying they expect to receive artificial limbs and be able to lead productive lives.
"Soon I will recover and will start my new life. I will go to school," Jonarah says. But while his voice sounds confident, there is uncertainty in his eyes.
Doctors at the military hospital offer a somber prognosis. To begin with, they say, there is a shortage of prostheses, but getting an artificial limb is just the start of the long road of reassimilation into society.
"Their future is doubtful," says a military hospital administrator. "The country is a society of invalids. They'll have nothing to do. No jobs."
The UN demining program also does not have a completely secure future. According to Benon Sevan, the special UN envoy to Afghanistan, the demining effort is short of funds, having received only about half its allocated $15 million this year.
In addition, fighting among mujahideen factions in and around Kabul has disrupted operations. But he adds that despite all the difficulties, the determination of UN demining specialists to carry on has not been dampened.
"Here it's possible to do some good. It's the first time I've ever felt the humanitarian side of things," says Membry, a demolitions expert.
"I've realized there's another side to the skills that I've learned," he adds.