Afghanistan's lethal legacy of war

Ordnance: An arms-disposal team is shattered when old artillery shells explode prematurely.

March 24, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GARDEZ, Afghanistan - They lay scattered on the hillside in twisted heaps yesterday, feet missing, legs spun at odd angles, faces blackened, torsos striped white with powder burns.

One of the soldiers was little more than a collection of charred cloth and jumbled parts, held together by frayed thread and sinew. Another stretched out on his side among a patch of dry grass, as though weary and napping. When they picked him up, he sagged in places where his bones should have been.

This was not the carnage of battle, but the lethal legacy of decades of other wars.

A U.S. Army Explosives and Ordnance Demolition team had been preparing to destroy a stack of what appeared to be old artillery shells. Some of the shells detonated prematurely, shortly after 3 p.m.

The blast killed four Afghans and badly wounded another. An American soldier was seriously injured in the blast.

"This is life in Afghanistan," said an Afghan translator for the U.S. military, whose name is being withheld at the request of military authorities here. Tears shone in his eyes as he stared at three of his countrymen lying dead, side by side, on olive-green American stretchers.

The explosives team was working in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, not far from the Pakistan border, when the blast occurred. The team is based in a military compound about a mile away, near the city of Gardez, southeast of Kabul.

The thump of explosives rolled into the nearby bases shortly after 3 p.m. At first no one paid attention: The area is frequently used by the demolition experts and as a gunnery range.

But within minutes, camp loudspeakers were summoning all personnel. When rescuers reached the demolition team, the dead and wounded littered the hillside, along with perhaps a dozen unexploded shells.

The wounded American soldier sat beside the team's equipment-laden truck, still conscious, as medics worked on his legs.

American medics, with the help of several Afghans, attended to a gravely injured Afghan soldier. He had multiple compound fractures in both legs and a wound above his left eye.

All the Afghans who died were soldiers in the new Afghan National Army. The 9,000-person force has been trained by Western governments to bolster the authority of the nation's central government and eventually replace the private armies of Afghanistan's warlords.

After treatment at a camp hospital here, the injured American and Afghan soldiers were evacuated from Gardez aboard two helicopters.

The exact cause of the explosion is, and always will be, a mystery.

"Somebody mishandled something, somebody dropped something," said Lt. Col. Daniel Breckel of Portland, Ore., commander of the Gardez Provincial Reconstruction Team, based nearby. "Who knows?"

Soviet-designed shells, bombs and rockets are particularly treacherous, Breckel said, because they were designed with few safeguards against accidental detonation.

Rescuers worked cautiously, because the stack of shells was still rigged with explosives placed by the Afghans and Americans. A search team formed. With yellow tape, the team marked the location of body parts, which were scattered over an area larger than a football field.

Explosives demolition is dangerous work, but it is routine here. The hills and fields of much of Afghanistan are littered with weapons and ordnance, some dating from the CIA-sponsored war of resistance against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s.

Other shells and mines were part of the arsenal of the Taliban, the militant Islamic militia that ruled Afghanistan until November 2001, when they were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces.

Last week, an American patrol about 10 miles from here found a live, Soviet-era tank shell being used as a spillway in a narrow irrigation ditch. When the Americans asked the farmer to remove it, he started hacking at it with a pickax. Fortunately, the device did not explode.

A weapons cache exploded accidentally Jan. 29 south of Kabul, killing at least seven U.S. soldiers. Three others were wounded, along with an Afghan interpreter. One U.S. soldier is missing.

Yesterday's deaths come in the midst of Operation Mountain Storm, the latest in the series of military operations focusing on rooting out Taliban and al-Qaida forces from Afghanistan's mountainous border region with Pakistan.

Gardez is about 40 miles from the border, where in the past week thousands of Pakistani government troops have clashed with hundreds of militants in fierce fighting.

Ask our reporter

Go to baltimoresun.com/afghanquestions and submit your questions about events in Afghanistan by 6 p.m. tomorrow to Sun foreign correspondent Douglas M. Birch. Answers will be posted on the site Saturday.

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