Minefields are deadly part of Afghan life

Millions of devices planted in country sap military resources

War On Terrorism

November 04, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CHARIKAR, Afghanistan - Zabad Hassan has planted about 50,000 mines in the soil of his native Afghanistan over the past 20 years, and calculates they have maimed or killed about 1,000 people. "I grew up in a minefield," he says mildly. "Mines are my friends."

They have not been kind to him. Hassan was blinded in one eye two years ago as he handled a puck-shaped mine that exploded. The blast shattered one of his hands and blew off some of the fingertips of the other. He wears sunglasses to cover the injuries to his face.

More than 5 million mines are hidden in Afghanistan's fields, orchards, along its roads and in abandoned houses and courtyards, according to U.N. estimates. And the risk they pose will escalate dramatically if Northern Alliance soldiers begin an offensive against Taliban troops.

If alliance forces march forward on any of the war's scattered fronts, they will have to walk through a patchwork of minefields laid by both sides. And displaced civilians will return to their abandoned homes and farms, only to discover them booby-trapped.

Farmers plowing fields will step on mines. So will young men chasing wandering cattle. So will women gathering firewood. People on every side of the Afghan conflict risk losing their limbs and their lives.

Hassan hefts an olive-green Russian PM-2 mine, shaped like a child's toy drum. It is simple, effective and easy to plant and cover with a scoop of dirt. All of this is important if the mines are being buried near enemy positions in the middle of the night. "It is best, for the Taliban," he says.

Few civilians share Hassan's enchantment with these devices. Mines come in a variety of shapes - such as pineapples-on-a-stick, library file card boxes and toilet-bowl floats.

"Tell him to come here and see what happens because of his work," said Alberto Cairo, head of the orthopedic project of the International Committee of the Red Cross for Afghanistan, working in a hospital crowded with people who have lost limbs and are seeking artificial feet and legs. About 40,000 Afghans have been disabled by mines, a number growing by about 2,800 a year.

Another 200 people are killed by mines, but the mines are designed to maim. An injured solider might lure his comrades into a minefield. And those wounds sap an army's resources for months or years, while the dead are buried.

Mine injuries can lead to hideous complications such as gangrene and tenacious bone infections. Those injuries can also doom victims to a life of poverty and severe, long-lasting depression. "There are those who come here who are psychologically destroyed," Cairo said.

Because of the fighting, no mine-clearing has taken place since a nongovernment group gave up six years ago. "Nothing, nothing, nothing," said Cairo.

Miraghksan, 16, a farmer and part-time solider, walked along a road near the front three months ago with his weapon on his shoulder when he heard an explosion. The next thing he recalls, he was crawling along the ground, dragging the remains of his left leg behind him. The mine had been planted by Northern Alliance forces, he says; officers had not told him of the danger.

Muhammed Hashem, 25, lost his right leg to what he believes was a Taliban mine as he fled across a battlefield five months ago in a village called Bashga. When he returned home weeks later from the hospital, he was met by his wife and two girls, aged 4 and 2. "My wife was screaming," he said, outside the busy Red Cross workshop in Chirkat where artificial limbs are made. `The whole family was crying."

Afghanistan's Kurchi nomads, who drive their cattle into the mountains each summer and back down to winter pastures, have been devastated by mines. This Pashtun-speaking group - considered such a distinct tribe that the Taliban have not required Kuchi women to wear the head-to-toe veil - are continually moving through front lines. Many Kuchi stop at the Chirkat hospital every few years to get replacements for their prosthetic legs. "We have many good customers among the Kuchi,"Cairo said.

Dr. Muhammed Qasem, assistant director of Charikar's Hospital, has seen hundreds of mine victims carried to his emergency first aid station on the Old Kabul Road, the main route between Kabul and opposition-controlled areas. He pointed to the farm fields along the slope of a mountain ridge a few miles to the west: `On this mountain, there are 20,000 mines." On Oct. 23, he treated a 20-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl who had walked together there. The man lost his right leg, the girl her left.

Northern Alliance officers say their army will quickly sweep the mines from the front. But thorough mine-clearing is a time-consuming, inch-by-inch process. Professionals use explosives-sniffing dogs and wooden dowels, probe every inch, and remove the devices as delicately as would a surgeon.

The Northern Alliance uses wooden pitchforks to dig in under the soil and pop the mines out.

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