Afghanistan is one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world, and humanitarian groups have spent years trying to clean up these deadly reminders of the Soviet-Afghan war. But with the new war on terrorism, the painstaking process of removing the land mines has now ground to a halt.
Landmines were banned by the Ottawa Treaty of 1997. Although the United States did not sign the agreement, it contributes more to humanitarian de-mining efforts than all the signatories combined. Part of that assistance comes from U.S. troops, which help foreign governments set up de-mining programs. To prepare for the job, those soldiers undergo rigorous instruction at the U.S. Humanitarian De-mining Training Center at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Land mines are indiscriminate. They can't distinguish between a tank and a school bus, or a soldier and a child. And they don't have an "off" switch. Paul Arcangeli, who heads the training center, says that most mines remain live and functional for 30 years or more. "When you put a mine in the ground it doesn't go away. It stays active for a long, long time [and] it waits for somebody to come and get it. When you have a conflict like this it reminds everybody that mines are still a problem," he says.
Mines are still a problem in part because they're hard to spot. The U.S. Special Forces soldiers who come to this training center are introduced to the thousands of shapes and sizes of land mines. They learn everything from how to destroy them to how to orchestrate and manage minefield teams. They study the basics of effective mine awareness campaigns, and train to work with foreign governments. But a few times a year, instead of Navy SEALs or Green Berets, the center welcomes college students.
On this cool and rainy day, about two dozen students from Southwest Missouri State University are walking down a muddy road at Fort Leonard Wood. During their two days here, they're treated much like soldiers. For most, it's their first time staying on a military base, let alone eating field rations. They complain about the weight of their camouflage flak vests and Kevlar helmets as they hike through the woods. Their clean tennis shoes are covered with mud by the time they reach a large army demolition range. Behind a row of bunkers, an instructor shows the students two inert mines. The U.S. anti-personnel mine is a cylinder small enough to hold in your hand. The other, a green anti-tank mine, looks much like a paving stone. Before long, as they huddle in small groups in several small concrete shelters, the students are shown exactly how dangerous the seemingly tame containers can be.
Dirt falls like rain on the bunkers after the anti-tank mine detonates about 100 meters away. The students' professor, Ken Rutherford, says the explosions bring back some bad memories. Eight years ago, he was traveling in a truck through the Somali desert when he lost his legs in an anti-tank mine explosion. He now uses global land mine policy and a visit to the de-mining training center as a way to teach the intricacies of international politics. "This is a real, tangible issue that they can touch, feel and experience what is happening in more than 80 countries around the world. More than 26,000 victims are killed or maimed a year, and this is one issue for me to use as a vehicle to broaden an understanding for international relations," he says.
An Australian soldier stationed at the training center demonstrates how an anti-personnel mine works. He's part of an international staff of soldiers and civilian contractors who serve as instructors here. During a classroom lecture, the trainers show the students pictures of mines and of the horrible damage they can cause. Later in the day, the groggy students, not used to waking up at five in the morning, get a chance to try their hand at the tedious process of de-mining.
They learn that the process of clearing land mines proceeds one square meter at a time. Using hand-held detectors to locate potential mines, they then probe the ground with a metal rod to gently nudge the fake weapons. In an actual de-mining operation, markers would be placed near each mine so explosive teams could later blow them up.
Joni Andraed says she looks at this exercise differently now that U.S. troops are on the ground in Afghanistan: "This is definitely a threat to our country and our troops over there. So friends and family going over there that you know are going to have to deal with this every day, of trying to find land mines," she says.
A few of the instructors here have cleared mines in Afghanistan. They say the country's rocky and sandy terrain makes detecting mines there very difficult. But they agree it must be done. Any future U.S.-led humanitarian effort to rid Afghanistan of its 9-10 million land mines will likely begin with training here, half a world away in southwest Missouri.