Help for survivors of Afghanistan's land mines

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

But other programs, particularly those run by Afghan nationals, continue to help Afghan mine victims get back on their feet and into productive lives.

Tucked away in a corner lot at Jalalabad's Public Hospital, Dr. Abdul Baseer and his staff of 11 employees help young victims regain their mobility.

His nonprofit group, the Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation and Recreation (AABRAR), has helped more than 2,500 children and young adults to receive prosthetic limbs, physical therapy, and literacy education.

Most children learn job skills - girls learn to sew, boys learn to fix bicycles - and an ethos of hard work.

Dr. Baseer, a gentle giant with mischievous green eyes, says the selling point for young amputees are the free bicycles.

"The main thing that keeps disabled people from getting jobs is transportation," he explains. "When you lose a leg, you lose mobility. At first, we thought of buying everyone cars, but who would pay for that. Now we give bicycles. And we tell our patients, 'you are not disabled.' You may have lost a leg, but you are able to do something with your lives."

In the courtyard of AABRAR, a group of young amputees are riding bicycles around the tattered net of a volleyball court.

One is Ajmal, a bushy-haired 17-year-old who lost his left leg while collecting firewood near his village in the Bisur district north of Jalalabad.

Ajmal was 9 years old at the time of the accident.

"It was very difficult for me to realize that I would be a person without a leg," says Ajmal, leaning against the handlebars of his sturdy red bike. "But if something happens, it happens. You can't ask why."

From another charity group, Ajmal learned how to become a trader, and this week, he has brought his sewing machine to Jalalabad to restart his business now that the fighting has stopped.

"Many people respect me, because I have a trade, but others call me 'cripple,' " he says. "I don't like that. My name is Ajmal."

It's an optimism shared by Afzal, the milkshake vendor, who lost his leg to a Russian land mine.

"I am independent now, and I'm not asked to beg," says Afzal with a smile. "People reward me and respect me. They say, 'Look, he lost his leg, but he's courageous. He's doing something with his

life.'"

Like a 'mad dog chasing you'

The military garrison in Jalalabad was once the base for Taliban troops. It is now held by the Afghan warlord and new provincial military chief, Haji Zaman Ghamsharik.

Here, young soldiers have begun clearing away the unexploded ordnance from cluster bombs left by American bombing raids.

Their methods are crude. They simply shoot at the bomblets with their Kalashnikov assault rifles.

"When they see a mine, they shoot it," says Nasir Ahmad, the de-miner for OMAR. "One of the bomblets will go off, and then it sets off the other ones around it. They shoot and then have to run away. It's like a mad dog chasing you."

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