Millions of mines threaten Afghan returnees

Soon after news filtered back last May that Soviet troops had begun pulling out, ``civilian refugees started heading back,'' says Afghan surgeon Hasham Hisham. ``They wanted to go back ... to rebuild their houses and to farm,'' continues Dr. Hisham, who works at the American-run clinic of Fort Freedom in a broad desert valley near the Afghan border. ``But they left the roads or tried to work in their fields and they stepped on mines. And so they lost their legs, and sometimes their legs and hands.''

Many victims, sometimes one or two a day, were brought to the clinic, run by the Hawaii-based relief agency, Freedom Medicine, for treatment during the first few weeks. ``Twelve amputations in one month,'' Hisham said, gesturing toward a young boy lying mutely in bed: He had lost several fingers after picking up an anti-personnel mine. ``When the people saw what was happening because of the mines, they stopped going back.''

The threat of land mines is a principal factor preventing refugees from returning safely. Estimates for the number of mines vary from at least 3 million to several million higher.

For UN special coordinator for Afghanistan, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, de-mining is a priority, for which $9 million have been earmarked: ``Unless the mine problem is addressed forthwith, the human [and] economic losses for the rural population will be great.''

Most of the the mines have been planted or scattered by the Soviet occupation forces along border areas, along roads and military posts, or in and around villages. The guerrillas have tended to deploy Chinese anti-tank mines along roads used by Soviet and Kabul forces.

The Soviets claim to have cleared more than 2,000 minefields or to have passed on plans to Kabul government for mine removal since the signing of the April 14 UN accords in Geneva.

Several types of mines left by the Soviets, such as the grenade-like trip devices planted above ground, do not pose major problems for removal. But some, such as the small pressure devices buried in the ground are made completely of plastic and are difficult to remove.

``What is clear is that the mines will be one of our biggest problems for years, both for human beings and animals,'' says Dr. Juliette Fournot of Medecins Sans Fronti`eres (``doctors without borders''), a French relief organization. ``They must be removed before anything serious can be done.''

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