Landscape of land mines: any step could be the last

Unexploded ordnance and hidden mines add to Afghanistan dangers

April 07, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - Capt. Jan-Erik Johansen, a mine-clearance expert with the Norwegian army, stood on top of a dirt mound a few hundred yards from the runway of this military base, staring numbly at the scene in front of him. He pointed out the highlights to a visitor.

"Welcome to hell," he said.

At his feet were tens of thousands of Soviet cluster bomblets, resembling ostrich eggs or microphones with fins, the explosives heaped in mounds. Thousands more were scattered nearby, outside what used to be a Soviet ammunition dump.

Sprinkled among the bomblets was a broad selection of rockets, artillery shells and mortar rounds. Land mines lay beneath the ground blooming with wildflowers.

"I have seen a lot of the world," said Johansen, who worked in Kosovo and Lebanon before arriving here last month. "I think this is the most ugly place I have ever seen."

Bagram is headquarters for 4,000 U.S. troops, and its 3,000 acres are sown with tons of lethal explosives left over the past two decades by a succession of armies - Soviet, competing bands of mujahedeen, the Taliban and now the Americans.

Mines have already injured two American servicemen here, and three Afghan men collecting scrap metal along the base perimeter died late last month when their wheelbarrow rolled over an anti-tank mine.

"I think there was not so much left of those guys," Johansen said.

And every week civilians with injuries caused by mines come to the main gate of the base, seeking treatment.

About 100 people are killed or injured by land mines each month, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross. In the past two decades, 200,000 Afghans have been permanently injured by the devices.

Sgt. Rick Gesell, 32, a U.S. Army explosives expert from Fort Meade, helped load mine victims missing feet and legs onto a military airplane, to send them for treatment. "I have children," he said, "and seeing how these children have to live - it's just heartbreaking."

None of the groups that planted mines at Bagram left maps of the minefields. It is, at best, difficult clearing the ground.

Explosive-sniffing dogs become confused because of the enormous amount of explosive residue. Given the amount of scrap metal strewn around the base, metal detectors are useless. "We just gave them up the first day," said Capt. Rob Mitchell, 30, an Army sapper from Fort Meade.

The living quarters of a U.S. unit was swept four times for ordnance. When specialists brought in explosive-sniffing dogs, they found a buried Katyusha rocket.

A crew repairing the main runway discovered that the Afghans had paved over an 1,100-pound bomb apparently dropped by the Soviets in 1989. Coalition planes had been landing there for weeks.

There is pressure to expand Bagram as the number of troops increases. But removing mines and bombs requires great care and patience. For every 20 mines taken out of the ground, one explodes.

Johansen said that twice on a recent day his hand slipped while removing a detonator. Luckily, the devices didn't explode. Last week, a member of Johansen's unit stepped on an anti-personnel mine, one that failed to detonate.

In their first 14 days at the base, Norwegian engineers removed 1,500 mines and unexploded bombs. No one seems to know how many have been removed since the Americans arrived in December.

U.S. and coalition military officers rely on Afghans who have worked at Bagram for years to say where the mines are. An Afghan known as "the Engineer" assured officers that there were no mines on a road leading to a gravel quarry.

The wary Norwegians decided to drive the road Friday in an armored mine-detonating vehicle that pulverizes the ground with spinning chains. The vehicle hit one anti-tank mine in the morning that exploded, shaking the ground and sending up a plume of smoke and dust. A few hours later, the Norweigans ran over a second mine.

Unexploded U.S. cluster bombs are scattered in some areas of the base, as a result of last autumn's bombing campaign against Taliban front lines here. Experts say the devices, which resemble yellow mailing tubes with little parachutes, are probably the most dangerous litter at Bagram.

Walking to the old Soviet ammo dump, Johansen and another mine-clearance engineer stepped among the Soviet cluster bombs. But they gave a wider berth to American cluster bombs, which can be set off by vibration of the ground.

The dump, about a mile from the end of the air base runway, was as quiet as a graveyard. But an explosion could send rockets flying in any direction.

As the munitions age, they detonate more easily. "An earthquake, the wind - an individual could trip," said Maj. Chris Lozano, a Marine Corps engineer. "The explosives could become unstable and set themselves off, creating a chain reaction. Nobody knows how to deal with it."

Some experts believe the dump will have to be cleared one cluster bomb at a time, requiring sappers to work among the piles of ordnance.

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