11 September 2001>News Stories>400 Experts Try to Harvest Afghanistan's Field of Mines

400 Experts Try to Harvest Afghanistan's Field of Mines
C.J. Chivers . NYTimes . 18 December

Baraktullah, 12, being treated in a hospital in Kunduz, was wounded by an unexpended antiaircraft round when it was touched by Abdul Ghany, 16, who lost a hand.

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan, Dec. 17 — Mine-clearing operations in northern Afghanistan, where hidden explosives in the soil and roads make it one of the world's most heavily mined areas, are scheduled to resume on Wednesday with the arrival of more than 400 demolition specialists in several provinces.

The specialists, Afghan staff members of a British nonprofit organization, will move north from Kabul, the capital, where they have been working since the city was taken from Taliban control. Their work in the region has been largely idled since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America, and they return to a dangerous and complicated task.

Long before the American-led war against the Taliban, northern Afghanistan was cluttered with the hidden remnants of 22 years of war. Now the demolition teams must also find and disable ammunition discarded by fleeing soldiers or blasted from bunkers during two months of aerial bombardment, as well as unexploded bombs from American planes, many of which burrowed deep into the ground.

"This is quite a massive job," said Thomas P. McMullen, a coordinator for the Halo Trust, the British organization that has been destroying mines and ammunition in Afghanistan since 1988. "No matter how you do it, it's going to take years."

Relief and medical officials said time was pressing. When battle lines shifted and cities fell from Taliban hands this fall, many families began returning after long absences to villages to clean up war damage and reclaim farmland. As more people arrive in areas once abandoned, hospitals have been reporting an influx of wounded.

"We are getting several new mine victims every week," said Dr. Abdulhadi Jawid, a physician at the Spinzer Hospital in Kunduz, where on a single day last week five patients — two children, two teenagers and a farmer — were being treated for wounds caused by mines or loose ammunition. Two of the victims lost limbs that had to be amputated.

No one is certain how many mines are hidden in Afghanistan. Estimates range from the Halo Trust's 640,000 to as high as 20 million. Similarly, no one knows how many tons of American munitions lie unexploded on or under the ground. Whatever the number, it is evident that along former front lines and many strategic roads, mines and unstable ammunition are all around.

Halo Trust officials said the mines had been particularly concentrated around Kabul and cities near the border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where Soviet troops in the 1980's laid dense fields to protect important infrastructure, like airports, and where the Taliban and Northern Alliance buried mines and booby traps along battle fronts.

The problem was also in evidence in the south on Sunday, when an American marine stepped on a mine at the Kandahar airport. The blast severed one of his legs below the knee and wounded two of his peers.

The renewed removal effort — which will include work in Takhar, Kunduz, Baghlan, Samangan and Balkh Provinces — is being underwritten by donations from several nations, including $1 million from Canada, $3 million from Britain and $7 million from the United States, Kenton Keith, spokesman for the American-led coalition, said in Islamabad, Pakistan.

"This terrible legacy of war leaves a constant danger to the people of Afghanistan as they try to build peace," Mr. Keith said last week. "The coalition did not create this problem, but we will step forward to help Afghanistan deal with it."

Some Afghans took exception to those assertions, noting that the United States sent billions of dollars of arms and military aid through Pakistan into Afghanistan in the 1980's to assist the guerrilla resistance to the Soviets. The aid included mines and explosives training, several former guerrillas said. Mr. Keith also did not acknowledge the problem of unexploded American bombs, which in places are thick.

"America is the most powerful fighter in the world, and has been in Afghanistan for a long time," said Merzakhan, 48, whose 9-year-old son was wounded by a mine four months ago in Bangi. "Why do they say it's never their fault?"

To be sure, many Afghans laid mines without external prodding, and both sides in the recent war also laid booby traps, some of them fearsome. Departing soldiers of the anti- Taliban Northern Alliance mined one front-line area last year, with devastating results. In the worst case, a truck carrying refugees hit one of the traps, killing 64, Mr. McMullen said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which compiles injury data from hospital visits, said an average of 88 mine casualties were reported each month in the country. Mr. McMullen said the reports understated the problem because the committee was unable to visit every hospital, and many victims went to small clinics. Also, most hospitals do not have data for victims killed outright, or soon after, the blasts.

The effort this week will begin in several different areas.

In Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the trust's most experienced teams will be assigned to the Qala Jangi fortress, where American bombs, dropped last month to quell an uprising by Al Qaeda prisoners there, detonated a large munitions depot.

It created an extraordinarily dangerous mess. A tour of the former depot on Sunday found acres of loose munitions of almost every description. Many are unstable and could explode with the slightest bump.

"This is one of the most dangerous areas in Afghanistan," said Dr. Nin Muhammad, the trust supervisor in the region. Making the courtyard safe will take at least two or three months, he said.

As the effort begins, the Halo trust is turning up problems peculiar to this war. For instance, its officials said, a common and ordinarily innocuous type of unexpended ammunition — airburst rounds for 23-millimeter antiaircraft guns — seems to have become volatile here. In a few recent cases, they have burst with the slightest handling.

"I thought it was a normal bullet, and when I touched it, it exploded," said Abdul Ghany, 16, who was treated last week in the Kunduz hospital.

His face was pocked with tiny shrapnel holes, with here and there a larger gash. What remained of his hands were bound in gauze. "His right hand was eliminated," said his brother, Abdul Ghafor, 27.

Down the hall was a farmer, Maruddin, 35, whose left hand was amputated after he tried to clear antiaircraft ammunition from his rice field.

Demolition teams also hope to destroy unexploded American cluster bombs as quickly as possible. The bomblets, yellow and shaped like a can of spray paint, are the same color and roughly the same size as the plastic food packets American planes have dropped for civilians. There have been reports of children picking them up, with fatal results.

"It does make you wonder who at the ministry of incompetence is responsible for that one," Mr. McMullen said.

So far the United States has not provided a list of areas where it dropped cluster bombs, although on Sunday an officer at the coalition command post in Mazar-i-Sharif told Mr. McMullen that he would request one from his supervisors.

For now, Halo Trust staff members will continue the current method: driving through battle areas in a Land Rover, looking for the little yellow bombs themselves.