Letter from Afghanistan -- "Don't Step on Anything Pointy"

“Here’s where we say those immortal words—‘don’t step on anything pointy.’” Mark’s cheerful words were not the comprehensive advice I had expected as I stepped into my first unmarked UXO (unexploded ordinance) field. But I did not question them, and I stepped lightly and carefully in the footsteps of Mark Holyrod, a de-mining expert contracted to remove landmines, rockets, bombs and other explosives from the grounds of the Afghan 17th Corps base in Herat, Afghanistan. We crossed from the edge of the path with the white stones (cleared area) to the line of blue stones (unexploded ordinance) running right next to it.

Mark works for RONCO, a private American firm, contracted by the US Agency for International Development and other international donors. Their work in Herat started in February of this year, clearing tens of thousands of UXO’s per month, 85,000 in March alone. Mark estimates that at this rate it will take two years to clear this site. There are dozens of other military sites spread over a country the size of Texas. “Herat is the 4th most mined area in Afghanistan and the number of known fields is not known. They keep appearing. It’s estimated that there are 10 million landmines in Afghanistan. This figure seems a bit on the large side but 50% of that figure may be close.”

I had walked across the sand and dust of Afghanistan’s western steppe for 10 months, but I had never studied the ground so carefully as during those first few minutes. I was reassured to see that Mark’s footsteps followed a ribbon of previously-trodden dirt through the dry shrubs and desert grasses of the military base on the outskirts of Herat City.

There was much to see. Every couple feet an unexploded mortar shell would lie partly submerged in the ground—perhaps 20 inches long, 5 broad, tapering to a narrow neck right above the fins that mark the bases of these lethal projectiles. Thousands of boxes of ammunition lay in every direction. Some were intact but battered, others protruding bullets through their torn, metal skin. There were piles of OG9 rocket-propelled grenades, stacks of hundreds of 82mm recoilless rockets, larger 240mm rockets, each with 100kg of explosive inside.

Mark stands amongst thousands of boxes of cartridges, live mortars, and rockets in one of the arms storehouses at the Afghan 17th Corps military base.
The mortars, rockets, grenades, ammunition and other explosives scattered around the grounds of the 17th Corps base were not placed there by any of its occupants. They had been blown there in 2001 by in-coming American missiles, probably guided by the lasers of US Special Forces troops on nearby hills. The site had been used as a military base to store weapons for decades. The Russians ran the base during the Soviet occupation until they were evicted by the Mujahideen resistance fighters who took over the site. Civil War between resistance factions ended with the conquest of the country by the Taliban who set up their own garrison and weapons depot at the Herat military base.

The Americans were not trying to destroy the weapons stored here so much as to render them useless to the Taliban army. Munitions that were not already destroyed by rust or age were burned, twisted, and bent by the force of one thousand pound bombs tearing 10 foot deep craters in the ground and smashing the small, mud buildings used for storage. Cluster bombs, euphemistically called “area denial weapons,” exploded a few feet off the ground, each one casting a broad net of 250 explosives the size of 35mm film canisters that would, in turn, explode over a smaller area.

I find a safe place to pose next to a rocket-propelled grenade and cases of large caliber bullets.

The strategy worked and the shattered Taliban army was not able to reach their weapons or sort through to find the few remaining useful ones. But the work of the de-miners was made far more difficult. The explosives were now spread over a broader area, hidden in mounds of collapsed earth, and even less stable. The Taliban slept and stored many of their weapons in small mosques, hoping that the Americans would not bomb houses of worship. Whether or not the Americans were able to distinguish a one-room mud-brick mosque from a one-room mud-brick storehouse, the mosques were also hit. Now Mark occasionally came upon decaying bodies amongst the rubble that needed to be removed and buried (however unceremoniously).

And there were also landmines. Mark drew our attention to a partly shredded boot a few meters from a guard post. It looked like it had been melted in a fire and hacked at with a knife. They used to belong to a guard living in a guard hut a few meters away. “He walked out of the back of that building to relieve himself and stepped on a mine. It took off his legs at the thighs. He lost both his hands and his face. Somehow he lived,” Mark chips in, demonstrating the level of the blast on his leg and making a peeling motion from his chin over the back of his head. Getting to the wounded man was equally risky, made worse by the stupidity of the other guards: “We brought an ambulance and started working through the minefield to reach him. The other guards started throwing stones into the minefield to show us where he lay,” risking setting off other landmines in the area.

Mines are often laid near military posts or bases—generally to protect them but sometimes also to prevent others from gaining use of the site if it had to be abandoned to the enemy. As one of the few countries not to sign the landmines treaty, America does this around overseas military installations. However, America is party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons that requires its signatories to declare and mark their minefields. Few of the warring factions in Afghanistan bothered to declare their minefields or even to keep track of them. Just such an undeclared mine field ran around the perimeter of the 17th Corps base. “We still haven’t surveyed over there,” Mark explains gesturing towards the far side of the base where a family is sitting over a picnic.

Although the roads into the base are guarded, the fields on the outskirts are not cordoned off. As in many unmarked mine-fields in Afghanistan, children enter to play; shepherds wander in with their sheep. Poor farmers gather UXO’s for their brass fittings, worth $4 per kilo as scrap. Years after the fighting has stopped, perhaps decades after the rockets were fired and mines were laid, these explosives continue to kill. There are no reliable statistics but there may be 10 landmine and UXO casualties every day in Afghanistan.

Most victims survive landmine explosions. The gruesome calculus of their designers wanted them to. A dead solider might be left or buried on the spot. A wounded solider would need at least two others to help him to safety, further weakening the enemy. So many anti-personnel mines were designed to maim. The popular butterfly mine jumps to waist height before releasing its small charge into the groin and limbs. Their small size and green color make them particular deadly for children who mistake them for toys.

To tackle this problem, Mark leads a team of 20 de-miners, supported by 2 medics. They work from 5am until 11am, trying to avoid the hottest part of the day when Herat’s hillsides can pass 45 degrees Celsius (110 degrees F). The Afghan staff earns roughly $450/month, a small reward for risking one’s life, but a fortune for unskilled workers who would otherwise be unemployed or earn one tenth as much. Other mine agencies pay $125/month, but removing UXO’s is considered more dangerous than de-mining so Mark’s team is paid more. RONCO’s Afghan staff who are promoted to manage a de-mining team can earn $800/month. Despite the risk, RONCO vacancy announcements are always heavily oversubscribed. So far, RONCO has not suffered any injuries or deaths, although another international agency lost 5 de-miners to two incidents with delicate Chinese recoilless rockets in an undeclared minefield in the southern city of Kandahar. Mark notes that Afghan de-mining agencies seem prepared to accept a 10% casualty rate among their workers.

We wander past a few members of his team, hats holding off the hot sun, cloths over their faces to keep out the dirt. They delicately prod and shift soil with shovels and small pick-axes.

RONCO employees excavate remains of UXO’s near a bombed out munitions storehouse.

Mark explains some of the simpler and more complicated challenges of their work. He lifts up a small aerosol can that I assume to be another lethal explosive, but it’s just hornet spray: “yesterday we disturbed a nest of wasps in an old section of wall.” Work stopped until the hornets could be ferreted out and the nest sprayed.

He points past his team to a stack of metal tubes fastened to a metal trailer: “those are 120mm rocket launchers. They’re loaded but the tube is bent and now [the rockets] are stuck inside.” Any trauma to the launcher to get at the rockets threatens to set off the rockets, yet it will be difficult to orchestrate a controlled explosion to destroy the munitions with the rockets still in the launcher.

A week before I left Afghanistan, de-miners exploded a mine recently found near the runways of Kabul airport. During the spring, a young girl lost her leg to a mine near the famous and frequently visited minarets of Herat—previously considered to be a safe area in the city center (or at least I thought so when I clambered around the area last fall). Mark is working on a similar site at the Herat airport, clearing UXO’s from the area surrounding the runway. Unfortunately the Herat provincial government routinely appears to tell Mark not to touch certain UXO’s.

“Arms are power,” Mark explains. “There is no way these weapons can be used, but the local government doesn’t want to give them up. I can make them sign a form accepting full liability, but I can’t prevent the local government from taking them.” The most likely result of reusing one of the old mortar shells is that it would explode upon launch, killing whoever tried to fire it. But the local military seems to ignore this danger. Once, Mark returned to the work site to find soldiers —clearly oblivious to the danger— tossing delicate, live bombs in the back of a large truck to be dragged away on Herat’s rough roads.

The stockpiling of useless but unstable munitions by local powers points to the broader problems the central government faces in Afghanistan. Although local warlords pay lip service to the Coalition-backed Karzai government, they clearly see the source of their power elsewhere. Some governors, like Herat’s Ismail Khan, might have a great deal of popular support (perhaps to the chagrin of the central government); others might be appointed by the central government (perhaps to the resentment of locals). All recognize the power derived from weapons (most keeping their own private irregular militias), and few have much faith in the power of popular mandates or the power of Central government support so far from Kabul.

President Karzai will never be able to rule, or even gain the peaceful acquiescence of, the Afghan nation without more local support. Afghans are a proud and fiercely independent people who will always resist any changes that are seen as imposed from outside the country, or even from outside their local communities. Afghanistan is a loose conglomerate of many ethnicities delineated by arbitrary borders laid down by imperial powers. Forging a nation from this fractious assemblage will take time. Without the backing of the local commanders, Karzai will need to convince Afghans that their country will be made safer from warlords and landmines alike. For Mark and his team, that means making Afghanistan safe to walk again, one square foot at a time.

From Salt Magazine


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