Travelogue: Afghanistan

Oren Schlein shares his experiences first hand of Afghanistan, the Taliban and the Adopt-a-Minefield program.

by Oren Schlein, Executive Director, Adopt-A-Minefield®

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Although this compound near Herat is only 5,632m2 in size, the demining teams have had to deploy every type of clearance toll at their disposal - manual deminers, mechanical demining machines, mine detection dogs, and explosive ordnance disposal teams.

In early July 2001, I traveled to the Afghan cities of Kabul, Jalalabad, Herat, and Kandahar. The purpose of my trip was to assess the status of our Adopt-A-Minefield® program in the country. I was hosted by the Mine Action Program for Afghanistan (MAPA), which is a part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan (UNOCHA). This report was written after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001. Adopt-A-Minefield® is a program of the United Nations Association of the USA.

Initial Impressions

My field mission to Afghanistan was longer than most of my other visits to mine-affected countries. This was because of the difficulty in obtaining authorization to travel in-country and the rather vast distances between destinations. It took me over a month to obtain my visa to enter Afghanistan and even once I arrived in Kabul, I had to visit a Taliban office to obtain further internal visas to travel within the country. The process of obtaining these visas was a small example of the extremely bureaucratic nature of the Taliban regime.

Afghanistan has suffered such a complete and extreme level of structural collapse over the past two decades of conflict that Afghan society has been thrust back into a primordial age in which nobody takes their daily survival for granted. Essential services that we take for granted in our own societies, including health care and education, and basic infrastructure are virtually non-existent in Afghanistan. The country has also suffered a severe drought for the past four years. Even before the recent mass exodus of Afghans from most urban centers following the September 11th attacks on the United States and the subsequent military strikes on Afghanistan, there were nearly four million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran, and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons living throughout Afghanistan. As recently as this summer, the United Nations and other
Sheepherder from the village of Deza, near Herat. The white markings on the buildings (in background) indicate that the road has been cleared of mines. The red markings indicate that the building itself is still mined.
international aid agencies were providing food and basic humanitarian services to more than three million Afghans. The number of Afghans now in need of such assistance has risen to over seven million, out of a population of 20-21 million people.

In spite of the horrible human tragedy that has afflicted the Afghan people in recent years, they are a remarkably resilient, proud, and generous people. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with open arms and the heartfelt appreciation of those whose lives we have helped through Adopt-A-Minefield®.

Background to Adopt-A-Minefield® in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been one of the most popular and well managed Adopt-A-Minefield® programs at the country level. This is because MAPA’s mine clearance program in Afghanistan has been one of the best coordinated and implemented in the world. The model established by the UN in Afghanistan during the 1990s has served as an important example for developing and managing other national mine action centers. Adopt-A-Minefield®
This site near Herat was cleared with Adopt-A-Minefield® funds. Deminers found 13 anti-tank mines and 8 UXO.
joined the UN’s efforts to clear mines in Afghanistan in 1998. Since then, over $550,000 has been raised through the collective fundraising efforts of hundreds of individuals and groups in the United States and overseas for mine clearance operations in the country. The sites included in the Adopt-A-Minefield® portfolio represent a cross-section of the types of projects that MAPA undertakes, both geographically and in terms of the types of clearance tools used. We have funded the clearance of sites in the Central, Western, Eastern, and Southern Regions of Afghanistan, and we have plans to support clearance operations in the Northern Region. The diversity of land and topography in Afghanistan is truly remarkable. The skills required to clear all these areas is equally diverse.

MAPA uses four main types of demining resources, including manual clearance teams, mechanical clearance teams, mine detection dogs, and explosive ordnance disposal teams. Afghanistan has about 50 percent of the world’s mine detection dogs, and a majority of our Adopt-A-Minefield® sites are cleared with these dogs. MAPA incorporates a toolbox approach in its clearance operations, which means that it often uses two or more demining techniques in its work to improve the efficiency of its demining operations. Effective implementation of this approach also results in significant cost savings.

Kabul: 3-5 July 2001

Because of the United Nations sanctions on Afghanistan, all flights in and out of the country are run by the UN, which bases its operations out of Islamabad. The flight path over Kabul is over the Hindu Kush mountains, which are a stunning introduction to Afghanistan and no preparation for the devastation below. By air, one is welcomed to Kabul by the sight of derelict and abandoned buildings, and bombed out planes, tanks, and other remnants of war surrounding the rudimentary runway. No effort has been made to remove these obsolete planes and tanks from the airfield. The terminal itself is a dark, empty, and depressing structure with no electricity and dozens of broken windows. Although a handful of Taliban security don’t appear terribly interested in our arrival, I am rather nervous about the fact that I am carrying camera equipment with me, as the Taliban prohibit any photography of live beings, including people and animals. The penalty for being caught is imprisonment.

Our First Security Briefing

The first thing we did upon our arrival at the guesthouse was receive a security briefing. It was perhaps the most important meeting we had in each city we visited because it alerted us to any security problems in the area — perhaps fighting among the Taliban and the Northern Alliance forces, or bandits operating outside the city centers — and what specific evacuation plans were in place in the event we needed to quickly leave the area.

The Taliban Ministry of Interior is the security focal point in Afghanistan. It is responsible for looking after the armed Taliban guards posted outside the UN compounds with their Kalashnikovs — ostensibly to ‘protect’ the UN staff. In Kabul alone, there are several UN compounds, each housing a different UN office. The Taliban were constantly threatening to evict the UN from these compounds, and negotiating with the Taliban had become a great source of frustration to all UN staff. It had become commonplace for high-level UN officials to spend a majority of their time dealing with administrative issues of this sort, taking them away from the humanitarian assistance work that they sought to provide to the Afghan population.

We were told to avoid the Taliban ‘guests’ Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens who came to Afghanistan for terrorist training. This includes not even driving anywhere near their compounds or in areas where they are known to be. Foreigners are told not to accept invitations to Afghan homes. On several occasions, we were invited to dine in their homes, but we did not accept any of these invitations, as the penalty for doing so is imprisonment for the Afghan hosts. Foreigners are also imprisoned, but usually released within hours. Afghans are frequently detained for several days and the detention has been described to me as an ‘unpleasant experience.’

The Vice and Virtue

In the weeks before our visit, there had been several incidents monitored by the UN security officer in Kabul, some of which had made it into the international press. Most of these involved the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue the Vice and Virtue, or religious police, as they are more commonly known. They are a constant source of fear to the local Afghan population.

The Vice and Virtue had been particularly active in Kabul in the two months prior to our visit. A couple of foreign workers from the Comprehensive Disabled Afghans’ Program, a landmine survivor assistance clinic, had been detained for three days because they had been caught with music tapes in their cars — a ‘vice’ prohibited by the Taliban. Other vices include owning televisions, video players and satellite dishes, clapping, and singing. Foreigners can be jailed up to 14 days, and Afghans can be detained up to six months and have the power to their homes cut off for any of these offenses.

One of my lasting impressions of Afghanistan is that although the country is beleaguered and the situation often grim, the Afghan people display great fortitude in the face of all their difficulties. Theirs is a very proud can-do attitude and they are unfailingly grateful for any help they receive. I met a number of committed UN employees and brave and resolute deminers during my visit. Afghans are very fond of proverbs and seem to have one for every situation. While we were in Jalalabad, the head of the Mine Detection and Dog Centre shared a poignant proverb with the graduates of the Monitoring, Evaluation and Training Agency, which summed up the efforts of all deminers, aid workers, and donors: ‘A person who saves one life saves a society.’

A few days before my arrival in Kabul, the Taliban had scaled the walls of one of the UN compounds, with their Kalashnikovs in hand. They spent 15 minutes rifling through the premises, having a good look at all the rooms, equipment, and fixtures. Shortly after their departure, the head of the UN regional office received a call from a senior Taliban official informing her that the UN had 15 days to vacate the premises. This bullish attitude is very typical of the Taliban’s treatment of the UN and other
Children from the village of Surkhab, Logar Province, which suffers from severe mine contamination and a four-year-old drought.
foreign aid agencies. This particular story had a better ending than most — UN staff engaged in several late night discussions with their Taliban counterparts, explaining their legal rights of abode and that it was in the best interests of the Afghan people that the UN be permitted to remain in the compound so that they could continue their work. The sense of exasperation that I heard from many UN workers related to the fact that the Taliban had a habit of making impulsive decisions without considering all the facts and consequences of their actions beforehand.

In spite of the widespread fear, anxiety, and repression that they engender, the Vice and Virtue can also be a source of bemusement to the local population. On our way back to the UN guesthouse, we passed a contingent of Vice and Virtue in their archetypal black Toyota pickup truck — the vehicle of choice among the religious police. They were driving through the streets of Kabul shouting at the locals through speakers mounted on the top of their truck. As we passed them, I noticed that my Afghan host was not wearing his turban. This is an essential requirement for every Afghan male. He turned to our driver with a big grin on his face and told him to drive faster. I asked him whether or not he was concerned about being stopped and he proceeded to laugh out loud and tell me that the Vice and Virtue were essentially a ‘bunch of clowns.’

A deminer provides a security briefing near the village of Jowkan, three hours south of Jalabad. Although deminer have not yet found any mines in this particular area local villagers will not use the land because two people were killed by an anti-tank mine in a nearby field several years ago.

Meeting the Taliban

We had a meeting scheduled with the Office of Disaster Preparedness, which includes the Department of Mine Clearance, the official Taliban entity responsible for setting demining priorities along with the UN Mine Action Center for Afghanistan. We were warmly greeted by eight Taliban officials. We removed our shoes, exchanged handshakes, hugs, and smiles, and were seated at a long rectangular table. I introduced myself and explained the Adopt-A-Minefield® program to my hosts. They were pleased that so many of our Adopt-A-Minefield® donors had supported mine clearance efforts in Afghanistan. With the money we had raised in 2000, we were among the top ten donors for mine clearance in Afghanistan, and the only non-governmental organization in this category. It was a point that was not lost on my Taliban hosts. It also didn’t appear to matter much whether the donors were American or European, so long as we were all helping the Afghan people.

At one point in the meeting, however, I heard the interpreter emphasize to the Taliban the fact that I was from New Zealand and not the United States. As a dual national, I chose to travel to Afghanistan on my New Zealand passport, given the sensitive political climate in the region. It turns out that in spite of my best efforts to talk cricket and rugby — the
The village of Lala Qala, near Jalabad, has witnessed 50 mine accidents. In 22,00m2 area of agricultural land, deminers recently found 26 anti-personnel landmines and three unexploded ordnance.
national sports in New Zealand — I never fooled them. I have it on good authority that the Taliban use their close connections with the ISI, the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence, to investigate foreign visitors and they knew before I even entered the country that I was American. At that moment, I reflected upon a conversation I had had with the former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan a few days earlier in Islamabad, in which he informed me that if anything happened to me while in Afghanistan, there was nothing the U.S. Government could do to protect me.

Regional Mine Action Center

After our meeting with the Taliban officials, we met with representatives from the Kabul Regional Mine Action Center (RMAC). The Kabul RMAC is the organization responsible for overseeing the survey and clearance of mined areas in the Central Region of Afghanistan. It works closely with the national Mine Action Center in Islamabad and with its implementing partners — those nongovernmental organizations that specialize in mine clearance, survey work, mine awareness, and survivor assistance.

Our first visit was a tour of the headquarters and kennels of the Mine Detection and Dog Center (MDC) in Kabul. This organization was established in 1989 and is recognized as one of the most advanced mine detection dog organizations in the world. It works under the auspices of UNOCHA and MAPA. Originally funded by the United States, MDC is now funded by Germany. MDC’s objectives are to clear priority mined areas and to survey suspected mined areas. It has its own breeding program with more than 100 dogs and operates in four of Afghanistan’s five regions.

The Village of Merza Khail

On the Fourth of July, we ventured into our first mine field, an area known as AFG-070 (a number designated by Adopt-A-Minefield®), which was being cleared by MDC. During the Soviet occupation, Russian forces used the main road near Merza Khail to travel between a nearby military base, which housed a rocket depot, and the Pakistan border. The road was heavily mined by the Mujahedeen to deter the Russians, and today all the villages in the area are suffering the consequences of this mine contamination.

During our visit, we met with seven village elders. They told us that many mine accidents still occur along the road and near the village. Several children have been maimed and killed by mines in recent years and, as a result, they are confined to specific areas in and around the village. Villagers have also found mines while ploughing the arid fields behind the village and many animals have been lost to mines. Even the village well was mined during the war, rendering the village’s main water source unusable.

When I asked how old the village was, I was told that it was ‘five or eight great-grandfathers old.’ Before the Soviet occupation, 80 families of five or six people each lived in the village. Now, only 20 families remain, with most having left the area and settled as refugees in Pakistan. With regard to the mine problem, Niamatuwllah, the village elder, explained that his village has a home-based school for boys, not girls, which incorporates mine awareness into its curriculum. He also mentioned that the school only teaches the Koran, and no secular subjects. In addition, the deminers working in the area provide mine awareness training sessions two times a week to the children and men. This effort to increase local awareness about the mine problem is part of a countrywide effort in Afghanistan to integrate mine awareness into the activities of demining organizations. Because of the Taliban prohibition on women receiving any form of education, and certainly any form of training by men, the mine action community in Afghanistan has established female mine awareness teams based in the cities that travel to the villages to instruct women on the dangers of mines. The reality is that women rarely venture out of their homes or villages, so the immediate threat of mine injuries is significantly less to them than it is to men and children.

The Clearance Process

MDC was halfway through clearing the road around Merza Khail when we visited. They had a five-week-long clearance plan, in which they expected to clear 117,523m2, a five-kilometer stretch of land about 25-30 meters wide. Mine Dog Group 7, or MDG7 as it is known, is led by Taj Mohammed, the group leader. His group is split into two sections of six deminers each, two dogs with handlers, and one section leader. In addition, MDG7 has one paramedic and two drivers to assist with medical emergencies, transportation of the deminers and their equipment, and other logistical requirements.

As with most mine clearance operations, this particular demining project was slow, tedious, and dangerous. The demining teams mark off a base line from which to operate and deploy the dogs along an eight-meter-long leash. They are trained to sit in place if and when they detect anything suspicious, at which point the dog handler calls the section leader to the area. The section leader marks a two-square-meter area, using the dog’s position as the center point. The dog is given a blue ball as a reward for his efforts and the manual deminers are then called in to clear the area.

A Glimpse into the Soviet Occupation—the Village of Surkhab

Following our visit to Merza Khail, we drove 15 minutes south to the village of Surkhab, along a shelled road with large, deep artillery craters. The sites that have been scheduled for clearance lie along both sides of the road. Before the drought, the entire region was fertile agricultural and grazing land. Now, it is a massive, dry lakebed. Most of the area is littered with landmines, particularly anti-tank mines laid by the Mujahedeen to protect their positions against advancing Russian troops. There have also been several accidents along the road, including children injured while playing with mines and unexploded ordnance. The net effect of the drought and mine problem on the village of Surkhab is that three-quarters of the 90 families in the village have left the area. Twenty families remain; the rest are refugees in Pakistan.

The village is ‘three fathers old’ about 100 years. It has suffered extensive hardship over the past 20 years. In 1980, the Russians attacked all the villages in the valley, but Surkhab suffered particularly badly. The Russians conducted repeated aerial bombings of the village because it was home to several Mujahedeen fighters. At one point, the Russians raided the village for five continuous hours, shooting a dozen men, women, and children, and taking all the animals.

Following this incident, most of the villagers abandoned their homes, heading for the hills above or fleeing the valley for Pakistan. Tragically, four villagers, all Mujahedeen, remained behind. They were captured by the Russian forces and locked in the village Mosque, a simple room, which was set afire. Three died and one was severely injured. Their fellow villagers witnessed the incident through binoculars. The three victims are martyrs to the Afghan jihad, or holy war, against the Russians. The Mosque in which they died is now a mausoleum to Tela Mohamed, Berget, and Lal Gul. The one survivor, Hazart Gul, now lives as a refugee in Iran.

Emergency, a landmine survivor assistance clinic

The Vice and Virtue had scaled the walls of Emergency, with their Kalashnikovs, on May 17, 2001. They were upset by reports of men and women eating together in the clinic’s cafeteria. Rather than approach the clinic’s administrators and investigate the alleged incidents, they beat up local staff and foreigners, arrested several workers, and shut down the clinic, which had only recently opened. Emergency had an annual budget of $1 million and had built a state-of-the-art facility in Kabul. They have similar clinics in other mine-affected countries and have provided medical services, including complex life-saving surgeries, to 200,000 people — about 20-25 percent of whom are mine survivors — worldwide over the past seven years. The Kabul clinic was to have been one of the better sources of medical care in Afghanistan, supported by several first aid posts around the country. Since the raid, it has sat idle and vacant.

Za Zai, the village elder who told me this story, said that village life was forever changed by this incident. Most of the villagers who lived in refugee camps during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan now have established lives in Afghan communities in Pakistan. Surkhab receives no food or other assistance from aid agencies. Most of the villagers work as laborers in Pakistan and Iran to support their families. The average laborer in Afghanistan earns $0.80 a day; in Pakistan, they can earn over $1 a day. This is still less than the $4 a day necessary to feed a family of 8-10 people, but with multiple family members working, most villagers just manage to survive.

RMAC has surveyed the area around Surkhab and identified 160,000m2 of land that will need to be cleared to accommodate the needs of the entire village. In the process of surveying the land, the deminers found one anti-tank mine by the side of the road. As a result, the villagers are more vigilant than ever, they welcome mine awareness teams to their village, and they carefully monitor the movements of their children.

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