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Land Mines, Unexploded Ordnance Still a Danger in Afghanistan - 2002-01-13

Though the war against the Taleban and al-Qaida is winding down, Afghan citizens still face an unseen, lethal enemy - millions of land mines scattered around their country. Add to these the thousands of U.S. cluster bombs that have not exploded, and the danger to life and limb is extreme.

If you see something strange on the ground in Afghanistan, don't touch it, advises Pat Patierno, director of the U.S. State Department's demining program. It might be the last thing you touch.

Land mines, along with unexploded U.S. cluster bombs, litter Afghanistan. There may be ten million, maybe less, maybe more, said Mr. Patierno. Nobody knows for sure.

"What is important, he said, "is not necessarily the number of landmines, but the fact that those landmines are depriving people of agricultural land, depriving people of access to roads and bridges and highways, schools and buildings. That is the important thing."

And taking their lives, as many as 50 each week along with injuries. And the lives of their animals as well unheeding sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, camels, cows.

The danger is all the greater because so many people are on the move, said Paul Heflop of Halo Trust, a British demining agency. Returning refugees and displaced people do not know they have reached a dangerous area until something goes "bang!"

Mr. Heflop said poverty makes the problem worse. "People do not go into dangerous areas because they want to," he said. "They go into these dangerous areas because they have to. They are going out to collect firewood. They are going to reclaim their homes. They are trying to reclaim some land so they can feed their families. They were poor before they had an accident, and after they have had an accident, they become very poor."

Halo Trust tries to educate people about mines by showing pictures of what they should avoid, areas, for instance, with human skeletons or animal remains. If they suspect mines are around, they can contact Halo for their removal.

Under U.N., U.S. and British programs, some 4,000 deminers are now at work in Afghanistan. Despite the risk, there is no shortage of volunteers from all walks of life, including farmers, laborers, teachers and airline pilots. Since few jobs are available in Afghanistan, Halo Trust is one of the nation's largest employers.

Mr. Patierno cautions there is no silver bullet for clearing the mines, which have been laid at random without maps or markings.

All the current technologies for detecting them have limitations. "Not all of them work in all places, and some of them do not work in some places at all. What we are looking for is an integrated approach to technology, which uses the manual deminer, the dog and the machine, and quite frankly, no one has been more successful at that than the deminers in Afghanistan."

Because of them, says Mr. Patierno, the huge task will be accomplished.