Afghanistan's 'Quiet Killing Fields'
FOR a teenager, school is incomplete without a playground outside. But Naazia Najibullah, a student at Kabul's Microrayan government school, stares out of her classroom window waiting for the day when she will be free to go out and play.
Students like Naazia are finally returning to school after three years of bloody fighting ended around Kabul, the Afghani capital, earlier this year. But they are finding that life is not easy in the war-battered city. Much of the school, including what little furniture it had, is destroyed, while essentials such as books and stationery are virtually nonexistent.
Among the most visible signs of the destruction facing this country are the almost-empty playing fields around schools. Children are warned against wandering off the main roads until Afghanistan is cleared of its most-pressing problem: some 10 million land mines buried across this Central Asian country.
Says young Naazia, ''There are many mines around here. We want help to de-mine this area [so that] we can go back to the playgrounds. I am anxious to see that day.''
The silence across the lush green fields outside the city and in the park close to the school is deceptive, prompting one relief worker to describe them as ''Afghanistan's quiet killing fields.''
This country has the largest concentration of land mines anywhere in the world. Most were planted by Soviet troops during their decade of occupation in the 1980s. Some were buried later as rival groups of mujahideen, as Muslim freedom fighters are known, fought each other.
Relief workers describe life in the Kabul as a ''peace emergency.'' There is an apparent calm because forces loyal to one Afghani warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have been pushed back over 60 miles and therefore are not capable of carrying out rocket attacks on Kabul, as they did frequently for almost three years from 1992 to March of this year.
But the casualties from the land mines promise to aggravate the humanitarian crisis. During the past few months, relief workers have reported up to 200 casualties from mine explosions every day across this country of 12 million. On some days, almost a fifth of those explosions occur in Kabul alone.
Recently, as I drove outside the city to a UN office, there was a sudden, loud explosion. The casualty was a seven-year-old boy who was playing in a nearby field when he accidentally stepped on a mine planted in the ground.
He was taken to the Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital in downtown Kabul, where up to 300 children, mostly victims of land mine blasts, are under treatment. Many have had their limbs amputated.
At the hospital, the children spend their days staring at the roof and walls scarred by bullet holes, vivid reminders of this country's 16-year-long conflict.
The cases of the children at the hospital have recently been publicized in the Western press. But once the children leave, they become forgotten names among the estimated half-million people in this country who have lost limbs in land mine explosions.
Even though the UN is trying to raise international awareness of the problem, it is not clear how much help Afghanistan will receive or how long the country will need to solve the problem.
De-mining in Afghanistan has slowed because there are not enough funds to create new teams to speed up the operation. One UN official says that the need to de-mine is so pressing that literally hundreds of teams could be set up if the money were available. Forty-four teams currently are at work in Afghanistan.
'WE need more secure funding for the de-mining operation,'' says Martin Barber, director of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan. The de-mining operation runs month to month, and we simply don't have commitments from donors that would allow us to expand the number of teams.''
Some 35.5 million square feet of area has been cleared of mines. But that is only about 10 percent of the area estimated to be affected.
Some relief officials are hoping for more funds as a follow-up to the UN conference on land mines now under way in Vienna. But many experts are convinced that even if the effort to de-mine Afghanistan is stepped up, the country may continue to face the problem for many years simply because of the vast numbers of mines still buried here.