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Afghan De-Mining is Big Challenge - 2001-12-02

One of the tragic legacies of more than two decades of war in Afghanistan is the millions of people maimed or killed by landmines. Despite intensive international efforts to clear the mines, experts estimate that 11 percent of the country is still contaminated. VOA's Alisha Ryu recently visited one of the worst-effected areas, Bagram, north of the capital, Kabul, to observe de-mining teams at work.

The valley where Bagram is located is silent for the time being. The fighting that has raged here for over 20 years, first between Soviet occupiers and Afghan rebels and then between the Taleban and the opposition Northern Alliance, has finally stopped. But danger still lurks everywhere.

Forty-year-old farmer Abdul Khan knows that danger first hand. He lost his right leg in a mine accident several years ago. "A mine blew off my foot after I stepped on it," he said. "I was taken to the hospital where doctors amputated my leg below the knee. Then the leg became infected so they cut again a little bit higher. More infection set in, now I have no leg at all."

He points to the area where the accident occurred. It is just off the tarmac on one of the main roads that links Bagram to the capital, Kabul. Here some 50, two-man Afghan teams, working for the international mine-clearance group the Halo Trust, are identifying and marking possible land mine sites with stones painted in red. The lines of stones stretch five kilometers down both sides of the road. Most are just a few meters apart from one another and, more ominously, they sit just centimeters away from the edge of the tarmac.

"The Taleban and the Northern Alliance are responsible for laying down most of the mines here," said Asudullah, the area supervisor of the de-mining operation. "No one knows exactly how many there are," but because heavy fighting took place in Bagram for the past four years, he figures the number could be in the thousands.

Even before the Taleban and the Northern Alliance began fighting, there were already plenty of mines in the area. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s the Soviet military sowed hundreds of thousands of mines throughout the country. Afghan rebels battling the Soviets also scattered mines. Both sides planted anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in and around Bagram, where the Soviets had built a strategic air base. The Soviet military wanted to protect the base, the Afghan rebels wanted to destroy it.

The devastation these old as well as recently-planted mines has caused to the local people can not be overstated. Five days ago, a mini-bus carrying 25 people lost control on the Bagram-Kabul road and hit an anti-tank mine, killing everyone aboard. On Friday anti-personnel mines killed two children walking home from school. U.S. bombings of Taleban positions in Bagram have little effect on anti-personnel mines, because they are designed not to respond to shock wave pressure. Instead, they are calibrated to explode only when stepped on.

Halo Trust supervisor Asadullah says he fears that most of the mines in Bagram will not be found by his de-mining teams, but by innocent men, women and children.