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Help for survivors of Afghanistan's land mines

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 2002


Gul Afzal is making a banana milkshake, carefully. Balanced on his prosthetic leg, he is using his other to pedal a specially designed bicycle, which runs a system of pulleys and gears to power a blender.

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The system also spins a stone for sharpening knives and can even be used to make cotton candy. It's part of an innovative, portable business that has helped Mr. Afzal stay above the poverty line.

Afzal's is an unusually positive story in a country where de-miners and aid groups are working against time in their ongoing struggle with "the invisible enemy" of land mines. While hundreds of thousands of unexploded mines dating back to 1979 have been removed, US airstrikes have left new ones. And refugees now returning home may be coming into harm's way.

Nobody knows how many millions of land mines or unexploded ordnance still exist in Afghanistan, but despite the progress made by de-mining groups, the problem now appears to be getting worse.

Unexploded US bomblets

Since Oct. 7, American warplanes have dropped thousands of bombs on Taliban front lines, including "cluster bombs," in which nearly 10 percent of the scattered bomblets may not have exploded.

"We completely forgot about the Russian bombs and mines when we saw American cluster bombs," says Nazir Ahmad, a de-miner for the Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation (OMAR) here in Jalalabad.

"They are horrible things. Nobody knows how to detect them and nobody knows how to destroy them," he continues. "In Herat, when Americans dropped cluster bombs, there were little bomblets that were a yellow color. Children thought they might be food. Thirty have been killed and 25 wounded by cluster bombs."

More than 10 Afghans are killed or injured each day. And nearly 1 out of 10 families has a member who has been disabled by mines or unexploded ordnance left behind by the 1979-1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan.

At present, almost half of the 725 square kilometers of land identified as minefields is concentrated in the urban areas where Afghans live, or in the small percentage of Afghanistan's fertile land where Afghans raise crops or livestock.

Nearly 123 square kilometers of minefields have been cleared so far, but in the deadly civil-war years since 1995, many new minefields - more than 43 square kilometers - were laid by warring Afghan factions.

Among the most active mine-laying factions is America's new ally, the Northern Alliance.

De-miners work against time

For those involved in various aspects of de-mining - from clearing agricultural fields to building prosthetic limbs and teaching mine awareness - there is nothing else to do but to keep working.

To date, many of the more dangerous de-mining programs remain shut down by war, since many foreign and Afghan experts left the country because of hostilities.

One particularly successful program, the Mine Dog Center in Kabul, which uses trained dogs to sniff out explosive material as far as a meter underground, suffered from a stray bomb in the US air assault. Four dogs and a trainer died.