Since the early days of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, forces of the Soviet Army and the Soviet-backed Kabul regime have littered the countryside with land mines. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies, thousands of Afghan civilians and guerrillas have been killed or maimed. Thousands more, these groups fear, may succumb to mines left behind by the Soviets as they withdraw from Afghanistan this year, and as refugees make their way back to their home villages.
``We consider mines our No. 1 problem for the repatriation of refugees and the reconstruction of Afghanistan,'' says a United Nations representative in Peshawar, the Pakistani town that has been flooded with Afghan refugees since the Soviet invasion of December 1979. ``Many people will get killed and this problem could be with us for years, even decades, to come.''
No reliable figures exist for the number of land mines believed to have been placed by the communist security forces to hinder guerrilla movements or terrorize civilians. But current estimates stand at between 3 million and 5 million.
``Numbers don't matter. A million mines are enough,'' says American Charles Norchi, a Yale University international lawyer researching a report on land mines to be given to the UN this fall. ``The real tragedy is that we cannot speak of reconstruction until the mines have been cleared. After nine years of war with the Soviets, the Afghans have to deal with a new battle.''
The Soviets have deployed at least half a dozen types of land mines. The most common are plastic ``butterfly'' mines, trip mines, and underground mines.
The Soviets have also used seismic mines, triggered by vibrations created by passing horses or people, as well as devices that pop up and explode on approach, raining shrapnel over a radius of 10 yards.
Anti-personnel devices, such as the ``butterfly'' mines, are designed to maim rather than kill. Mines with similar effects, sources say, are the booby-trapped toys, cigarette packs, pens, and other objects scattered around farms and villages, or along caravan routes by helicopter.
Apart from having witnessed Afghans stepping on mines on two different occasions, this correspondent has seen hundreds of mine victims being treated in the field, or in clinics in Pakistan.
Most of the mines have been laid by the Soviets as part of security belts around towns, airports, garrisons and other positions, and also along the peripheries of main roads to prevent guerrilla infiltration. In addition, they have dispersed mines over fields, highland pastures, and trails used both by refugees and mujahideen guerrillas.
Under international humanitarian law, land mines are lawful if restricted to military targets. But they become illegal, notes Mr. Norchi, ``if the state fails to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants by deliberately placing mines in civilian areas.''
Following the fall of Barikot, a government garrison abandoned to the resistance in Kunar Province last month, more than 30 Afghans, some of them refugees seeking to return to their villages, were reportedly killed by mines and booby traps. ``We found brand-new mines laid in a field that would be cultivated by people when they come back,'' says Mr. Norchi, who added that any laying of mines since the April 14 Geneva accords on a Soviet pullout would be a violation.
To a limited extent the mujahideen are also responsible for laying mines, largely as part of specific operations against government vehicles along roads. Knowledgeable sources put the numbers of these mines in the hundreds rather than thousands of unexploded devices.
The principal dilemma now facing the Afghans is how to clear the mines.
According to one West European military specialist, ``There can be no systematic clearance of mines in Afghanistan. The terrain is too difficult for that.''
Impromptu mine removal has always been carried out by mujahideen, particularly along trails. The Soviets, who, arguably are legally responsible for clearing the mines they laid, have apparently promised the UN plans of their mine fields. Some diplomats question the accuracy of these plans and doubt that much of the mine placement was recorded in the first place.
Numerous mines, however, have been scattered indiscriminately by air, so it could take years to find them. Rain, hail, and other natural phenomena can destroy mines and move them to new locations, where, hidden beneath earth and rocks, they are barely visible.
Military specialists say fields and roads can be cleared using tanks or armored bulldozers with ``flail'' rollers to explode the devices. But much of the more-rugged country would have to be painstakingly cleared, using sniffer dogs. ``The dogs are very good, but they can only work effectively for four or five hours a day. It is also dangerous work,'' says a Swedish Army major on leave here to assist in cross-border relief.
Sweden has already promised cooperation in a multinational mine-removal force, which could also include specialists from the United States, Britain, Poland, France, and other countries. Some observers consider it vital that Afghans, too, should be trained so that at least one person in each village or district knows how to deal with mines.