New Internationalist

First Steps

Issue 294

First steps
Despite the devastation of war,
the people of Afghanistan haven’t given up,
as Christine Aziz reports.

For the first time in two years Shimjan is standing up. She moves forward proudly and slowly, leaning heavily on a pair of crutches. She looks up with a mixture of pride and pain on her face. This is her first step since her leg was blown off by a landmine two years ago.

She sits down to show off her new false leg made of polypropylene, hidden beneath her long traditional trousers. ‘I was walking outside my house in the south of Kabul,’ she said. ‘There was some snow on the ground. Some mines had fallen from the sky, but I couldn’t see them. I trod on one.’

Not only did Shimjan – the mother of two sons and three daughters – lose her entire left leg, but the calf muscle in her right leg was badly damaged. Like many Afghan men, her husband did not see the need for his wife to have a prosthesis fitted. ‘He said that as I stayed in the home I didn’t need one.’

As a result Shimjan has spent the last two years confined to her home, hauling herself around on her bottom. ‘We live on a hillside and I couldn’t go down to get the water, so my daughter, Sarhone, fetched for me. She does everything for me. I was very lonely. I couldn’t visit my women friends and neighbours. I had to wait for them to come and see me. I have defied my husband to come here, but what can he do? I’ll tell him I can run away now if he complains!’ she says.

Sarhone has put on her best clothes – a long pink dress and matching scarf for this special occasion. She sits quietly watching her mother walk slowly and painfully across at the Wazir Khan orthopaedic clinic in Kabul. The clinic is one of three orthopaedic centres supported by the ICRC in Afghanistan and staffed mainly by amputees.

The personal cost of mine injuries to individuals like Shimjan living in Kabul is tragically evident. A walk through Kabul testifies to the number of people who have lost limbs. What is most striking is the number of young men walking around with crutches, stumps dangling from their bodies or shoulders. They prefer to be without false legs – it’s considered more macho. Many are mujahideen, once involved in the fighting, but most are civilians.

There are other ways in which the inhabitants of Afghanistan’s cities have been affected by landmines, reflecting the cost to the country in terms of economic and agricultural development. Extensive mine-laying combined with the disruption to the transportation system has resulted in local scarcities of produce and reduced exports. Inflation has risen and famine is a possibility. Approximately 90 per cent of the 4,235 minefields identified have been found in agricultural and grazing lands, or near irrigation systems. Without them food production could more than double.

Afghanistan is one of the most mined countries in the world with an estimated ten million mines – although some local agencies think this estimate is too high. There is a limit, they say, to how many mines could have been laid by the Soviets over their ten-year occupation in the 1980s and by the succeeding governments and rival warlords. Landmines, either antitank or antipersonnel, manufactured by Italy, China, the US, Pakistan, Egypt, Britain and former Czechoslovakia have been found in Afghanistan, but the bulk are Russian made.

Before the arrival of the Soviets, Afghanistan was self-sufficient in food, wheat being the chief staple. Afghan farmers have a reputation for efficient sustainable agriculture. But today, in the country’s central area, where main supply routes are often affected by the conflict, there are chronic shortages.

In a survey carried out by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), 80 per cent of the 4,990 village households questioned had found landmines in their fields. More than a third of the households reported the loss of at least one animal to landmines. Around 60 per cent of cattle and 40 per cent of all sheep and goats in Afghanistan have been lost or killed during the successive conflicts. The direct loss to the families in the VVAF research (not considering the lost productivity of the animals) was estimated at nearly $3.5 million.

Large numbers of people are forced to move from heavily mined areas. People are pushed onto marginal and fragile land, accelerating the rapid degradation of the environment and its agricultural potential. Those who flee to the cities exacerbate urban problems of overcrowding and unemployment.

The country’s infrastructure has been destroyed. In Kabul what has not been des-troyed by warfare – water and sanitation, telecommunications, transport systems, power lines – has been made inaccessible by landmines. For over a decade the largest dam in the country, Kajakali, did not produce electricity and service remains intermittent. Power pylons linking the dam to Kandahar, and the Sarobi dam to Kabul, have all been extensively mined.

In the face of this horrific situation, it is some comfort that the successful Afghan demining effort has garnered international praise. There are five major demining agencies working throughout the country, including the United Nations Mine Clearance program, which works with dogs, three Afghan agencies including Mine Clearance Planning Agency, and the British HALO Trust.

‘There are 55 minefields in Kabul alone and 90 per cent of the mines are Russian,’ says Dr Farid Homayoun, HALO Trust manager in Kabul. ‘It’s not unusual to find 45 mines in the garden of one house. Our priority is to get people back to their communities. But the story is always the same: two years ago when the fighting stopped, and we started to demine again people rushed back to their homes, and the ICRC mines casualty figures went up to 500 injured in one week. Now there is more awareness, and people know what are safe areas and what aren’t, but children can still be seen searching for firewood in areas that haven’t been cleared.’

The HALO Trust works with 31 teams of 28 men – all Afghans – and three mechanical units for clearing rubble. ‘When we start to clear an area, we survey it and often the local mullah comes, because he knows the area,’ Dr Homayoun says. ‘The main difficulty in the cities is that there is so much rubble over the mines which has to be cleared first. We give mine-awareness lectures on the spot and mark uncleared areas with red paint.’

Dr Homayoun is particularly proud of mine-clearance work carried out by HALO Trust deminers in the Shomali Valley between 1992 and 1993. ‘Thousands of families moved back as a result. They have grapevines in this area and began to rescue them immediately. Food production quickly increased.’

Up until five years ago, the HALO Trust included dogs in their demining teams. ‘We dropped them because we felt they were not efficient enough. You have to be 100-per-cent sure that a mined area has been cleared before you let people return,’ says HALO Trust director, Guy Willoughby.

Mohammed Shohab Hakimi disagrees. As director of the Mine Detection and Dog Center which works in Afghanistan under the United Nations with 100 dogs trained to sniff out the explosives in mines, he is keen to promote their value. ‘There is a shortfall of about five per cent if you use only one dog in a team,’ he admitted, ‘but each team has two dogs and four deminers, so another dog is always checking after the first dog so nothing is missed. We began in 1989 and supported all the demining agencies in Afghanistan, but since 1995 have started our own independent agency. We started with a target in the first year to clear four million square metres, but we cleared seven million.’

The agency is now training 50 young German Shepherds and Belgian Malonites at its kennels in Peshawar in Pakistan. The first 14 dogs who arrived in Afghanistan had been trained in the Netherlands and responded only to commands in Dutch. Afghan handlers still command their dogs in Dutch!

The courage of both dogs and men in the demining teams is apparent as they work together to find and defuse the mines. ‘I am doing this for my country,’ says one deminer, Sadhar Khan, as his German Shepherd dog, Rico, sits patiently beside him.

But in Afghanistan it seems that no sooner is one mine defused, than another is planted. The frontline around Kabul, demarcated by mines, has moved backwards and forwards so many times that the city is ringed by huge uninhabitable residential areas. In one that had been reduced to rubble, children ignore mine warning signs painted in red on collapsed walls. ‘I have to collect wood for my mother to keep us warm. Most of the trees in the streets have already been used up. We have to look elsewhere,’ says one small boy foraging at the side of the road while his sisters run over the rubble picking up twigs.

A man on a bicycle stops to tell the children to come back on the road. They ignore him. He rolls up a trouser leg to show the children his false leg as a warning. ‘Chinese mine,’ he says, and cycles off.

Christine Aziz reports on humanitarian issues, particularly those concerning women. She is one of the contributors to the forthcoming Afghan Handbook to be published by the International Centre for Humanitarian Reporting.

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Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997


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