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Monday, 10 December, 2001, 20:09 GMT
Afghanistan's hidden killers
Marcus George

The ambulance had stopped in the middle of the road and in front of it men crouched over a young boy.

The boy let out a whimper which was barely audible. But he lapsed into unconsciousness as medical staff tended to his wounds.

First aid to a landmine victim
Children routinely ignore warnings
This boy is yet another statistic on a list of landmine victims. Minutes earlier the teenager had been foraging in the scrub collecting firewood on a sunny Monday morning.

But he had taken one step too far. A landmine had blown off his left foot and caused severe damage to his right leg.

Around him the asphalt road was red with blood and, while doctors applied emergency treatment, many doubted his chance of survival.

I met up with Dr Nasir, deputy programme manager for the Britain's Halo Trust mine-clearing agency, to look at some of their activities at one location in the heavily mined Shomali Plain region.

Landmines in Afghanistan
Cost of one mine: $3-$30
Cost of clearing one mine: $300-$1,000
Cost of clearing Afghanistan's mines: $500m
686,813 devices (mines and unexploded bombs) destroyed so far

But the cruel ways of war were only too apparent as this farming boy lay in motionless agony.

The anguish on Dr Nasir's face showed he could never get used to the tragedy inflicted by landmines.

"They know there are mines here. There are signs and we tell them all the time," he said angrily.

"But that doesn't stop them. They say they must go to these mined areas and that God will look after them."

Shomali Plain

We moved up the road to visit another site where a 28-year-old mine-clearer had just uncovered an Iranian anti-personnel mine in the middle of a path.

Mohammad Atiq was deftly uncovering the little green plastic box at the end of a narrow path 200 metres long which was hemmed in by the mines on both sides.

Mine-free path
Stones painted crimson red show the way to safety

The mine-clearing was quicker in this patch, I was told, because they had found the soldier who laid the mines in the first place and he had given them the information.

Having hosted front line after front line, the Shomali Plain is now one of the most mined areas in Afghanistan.

Stones painted crimson red mark the edge of a minefield and sit just under a metre apart on every road in the region.

Up until two weeks ago anti-tank mines, packed with 200kg of explosive, were buried in the asphalt.

Mine-clearers killed

The Halo Trust now has 500 mine-clearers concentrated in the region working all hours of the day to free the land, metre by metre, of mines and other explosives.

Mine-clearer  in action
Many mine-clearers are former sappers

But tragedy struck the charity just this week when two mine-clearers were killed trying to clear an area from highly volatile cluster bombs. A third faces an amputation in the coming days.

"This is a shock to our organisation," Dr Nasir said. "These two men were young and one of them had just become a father.

"But we are doing this to save the lives of others and our work must continue."

On the way back to Kabul, Dr Nasir castigated Afghan warlords for continuing the fighting in Afghanistan.


[Warlords] have left huge areas infected and this is the cause of death to civilians. But they don't care that people are dying because of them

Dr Nasir, from the Halo Trust

"They must stop this war and should not fight over control. If they want to continue their fight they should use only Kalashnikovs and stop laying mines.

"They have left huge areas infected and this is the cause of death to civilians. But they don't care that people are dying because of them. People are dying because of this."

Dealing with victims

In the centre of Kabul, the International Red Cross Orthopaedic Centre deals with the legacy of landmine victims.

Since it was established in 1988, the centre has registered more than 26,000 amputees and assisted them with prosthetic limbs and social rehabilitation.

The humanitarian organisation estimates that mines injure approximately eight people every day and this figure does not include people who are killed outright.

Mine-clearing methods
Manual clearance by trained personnel using metal detectors and long thin prodders to locate the mines
Mine-detection dogs, which can smell the presence of explosives
Mechanical clearance using machinery such as rollers and excavators to destroy mines in the ground

At the back of the hospital, scores of amputees test their new prostheses over steps and uneven terrain to prepare them for a new way of life.

But the centre also provides home teachers for paraplegic patients and runs a disabled job centre to help patients return to a semblance of normal life.

Head of the centre Alberto Cairo showed me 300 job applications that had been sent to him.

Jobs cannot be found for all of them, he told me. But a new "micro-credit" system has also been set up.

Under this, former patients are lent $100 for viable projects which is paid back in instalments. And more than 80% of the money returns, he emphasised.

After 12 years of unstinting work, Alberto has built the centre into one of Kabul's most important medical institutions.

"I will probably stay here forever," he said.

"The people give me the energy to stay. So as long as I can be useful I will continue my work. Now I think of Kabul as my home."


See also:

22 Nov 01 | World
Weapons that target children
15 Nov 01 | UK
How we clear landmines
09 Oct 01 | South Asia
Landmine threat to aid mission
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