Dogs go back to finding mines

In Afghanistan, half of ordnance location is done by canines

War On Terrorism

The World

November 23, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - In most Muslim countries, dogs aren't a warm and fuzzy part of the culture. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, for example, recently got himself in trouble by cuddling his pet poodles on television.

Unclean beasts, the fundamentalists tutted.

Yet dogs are doing some of the most important and humane work in Afghanistan. Trained to sniff out traces of TNT buried as deep as a meter, they're responsible for about half the mine-clearing that has been done nationwide.

Sultan Mohammad Raufi, operations manager of the Mine Detection and Dog Center, will proudly tell you all about it from his office in central Kabul.

"We have cleared airfields, battlefields and check posts," Raufi says, and his 190 dogs are straining at their leashes to go back into the field for the first time since Sept. 11.

It can be an odd experience to visit the program's sprawling training center on the outskirts of town. It is set on a dusty hillside that was once the battleground of rival mujahedeen forces (a site that first had to be cleared of unexploded artillery shells).

Mario Boer, a training supervisor, is a wiry German from eastern Berlin with a buzz cut and a military bearing.

The trainers shout commands in Dutch (using the native tongue would leave the dogs vulnerable to distracting cries from locals). Long concrete kennels get a daily hosing-down, leaving them cleaner than most Kabul hotel rooms. All the dogs are German or Belgian shepherds.

The resulting effect is that of a Prussian enclave of order on a landscape of utter chaos. The only blemish on the scene is a shallow bomb crater at one end, left by an American airstrike Oct. 25. The blast peeled some of the corrugated metal roof from one of the kennels, injuring two dogs.

It was probably an honest mistake, Boer says charitably, a former soldier himself. He then points to several of the likely intended targets, nearby sites that housed Taliban military installations.

Of all the international aid work done in Afghanistan, de-mining might be second in importance only to food distribution. After 22 years of war, Afghanistan is believed to be the world's most mine-ridden country per square foot.

Mine-awareness murals around town - colorful smorgasbords of the nasty ordnance to be found in fields, ditches and weeds - have been up long enough to fade like aging ads for cigarettes. Some have been chipped or destroyed by shell bursts.

Although mine accidents are way down from 1995, when there were about 50 per week just within the city of Kabul, millions of mines have yet to be removed.

But Sept. 11 interrupted all de-mining operations. Only in the past week have most supervisors returned to their posts, and they're busy rounding up their hired help.

The dogs, however, never left town.

As if to illustrate the urgency of resuming the mission, a crowded minibus drove just off a highway north of Kabul last week and struck an anti-tank mine. Fifteen people were killed, and most of the bodies couldn't be recovered right away.

Those kinds of episodes accentuate the chief advantage of using dogs.

"We can work very quickly, and our operation is very safe," Boer says.

Safe for people, he means. The handlers send their dogs forward on 8-meter leashes, keeping the humans mostly out of harm's way while the dogs sniff for mines.

Inevitably, the dogs take casualties. Seven have lost their lives. And they tend to do so in ways that show their few shortcomings.

"Their limitations? Weather, heat, mood," says Ross Chamberlain, the United Nations de-mining field coordinator for much of eastern Afghanistan. "I was told a story the other night where a fox ran through a minefield. The dog chased it, hit a mine and was killed."

The program began with a donation from the king of Thailand, who sent 14 trained dogs to support de-mining efforts in 1989. Now most of the dogs come from either Europe or the United States, some via Global Training Academy, a security firm in San Antonio.

In recent years, the program has also bred its own dogs, cutting its costs and taking the pick of every litter. By eight weeks, it's usually clear whether a dog has what it takes - first and foremost, a playful mood. If a dog doesn't enjoy fetching a ball, it won't like sniffing out mines.

Trainers usually stick with one dog throughout its career, which can last as long as 10 years. The dogs go by name. Betty, a bounding Belgian, practically knocked Boer down when released from her kennel the other day.

He'd been in Pakistan for months, waiting out the war, and she was happy to see him.

Lest anyone think these dogs have it rough, most probably live longer and eat better than their local kin. The usual specimen of hound here is low-slung and mottled, most often seen at garbage pits or trotting across remote highways. There isn't much, if anything, in the way of flying disc catching or long walks through the park for a dog in Afghanistan, and virtually none lives indoors.

The latest wrinkle in training for the mine dogs is unexploded ordnance from the recent U.S. airstrikes, especially the yellow tubular cluster bombs littering some parts of the landscape. Some of the nastier models can be set off simply by the drop in temperature created by casting a shadow.

But as soon as the dogs and their trainers have been instructed on how to deal with this hazard, they'll be back in the field to do their job, loved or not by the locals.

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