Adopt-A-Minefield Survivor Assistance Consultant Ed Pennington-Ridge visited Afghanistan from May 1 through May 20, 2005. Despite the challenging security environment and anti-Western riots that began while he was there, his trip reinforced the importance of the work that AAM and other mine action organizations are doing in this country.
Nobody knows exactly how many people fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and the inter-factional conflicts that followed. What is certain is that at least 2.5 million people have already returned to Afghanistan from Iraq and Pakistan, and many more return every day.
At border crossing points, brightly painted buses transporting the refugees roll by in an almost constant flow. The buses carry not just the people and their worldly possessions, but hope for the future of Afghanistan.
For many returnees, the journey home will mean a totally new beginning, rebuilding their mud-block houses left derelict from the effects of rain, snow and sun following years of conflict. For some, even this opportunity to begin from the ground up is denied; their homes are contaminated with landmines and unexploded ordnance, making any sort of new beginning in Afghanistan impossible.
Until recently, this was the reality for the inhabitants of New Bakhshi Khil, a small mud-brick village in Bagram district of Parwan province, just a few miles from Bagram Airbase. Mine and UXO contamination, the remnants of Soviet and inter-factional fighting from 25 years of unrest, made a return to their homes impossible.
On the outskirts of the village I meet up with Afghan Technical Consultants Team 7, the men who are clearing New Bakhshi of landmines. I am about to see exactly what Adopt-A-Minefield funding can achieve.
From a Western viewpoint, New Bakhshi Khil village is a desolate place. Crumbling mud buildings and the twisted remnants of war lie baking in the sun. After parking our off-road vehicles in carefully marked bays bordered with white painted stones, our briefing for the dayís events begins. We learn about safety on the site, why the area is mined, that clearance is a priority, and that ATC 7 is the chosen implementing agency.
A deminer with ATC 7 searches inside the mud-walled buildings of New Bakhshi Khil.
The task of ATC 7 in New Bakhshi is easy to describe: They must remove every metal fragment from the soil within and immediately surrounding the buildings. The reality, however, is difficult to comprehend—this village was a frontline battlefield and metal fragments are everywhere. There are no shortcuts—each and every time the metal detectors signal a fragment, it must be identified, excavated and removed. Barbed wire, bullet or landmine, the signals are indistinguishable until a visual check is made.
ATC Field Officer Mohammed Arif explains why mines laid by Mujahedeen forces are much more difficult to detect than mines laid by Soviet troops. "The Soviets were trained to lay mines in a zigzag pattern, but Mujahedeen forces laid mines at random," he says. "There is no pattern—and no clues as to where the next mine may be. The presence of a metal signal is the only indication we have that a mine may be in the ground."
The short walk from the ATC project base area is a surreal experience. We are dressed in flack jackets, helmets and plastic visors and must maintain a 5-metre (5.5-yard) distance between members of the party. We are an interesting spectacle for the local children as we tread gingerly towards the current demining task: the clearance of a large family compound and the surrounding communal areas.
White ticks on the walls of buildings show that the area has been checked for mines and is safe, although there is a far better indicator of the areas already cleared—they are full of people, with children playing, old men watching the world go by. Life is returning to this place just as fast as the deminers can clear the land. With 24 deminers, thatís about 206 square meters (one-half acre) per day.
Manual demining is a tortuous business, but it is quite simply the only way to be sure that an area like New Bakhshi is safe. Mira Jan, a team leader with ATC, describes the enormity of the task with great clarity: "The flat area has been cleared by hand, every inch of soil removed with the tip of a bayonet."
Demonstration of technique used to investigate a metal signal.
Deminers sweep a small area with their metal detectors, marking each metal signal with a small red disc. Another disc is placed eight inches from the centre of the signal and marks the point where the deminer will begin to scrape away the soil. The minimum possible amount of soil is removed, just enough to identify the signal, but even so, every signal is likely to take at least two minutes to identify in ideal conditions. In the summer, when the ground is baked to the consistency of concrete, it can take much longer.
Most of the mines laid in this region are of Soviet, Israeli and Iranian manufacture. When a mine is found, it is destroyed by a small, controlled explosion. The places where landmines have been found and destroyed are marked with green stones. A red stone shows the danger area; white signals safety. Although I am in the hands of experts, to be this close to contaminated land is terrifying. Weíre walking in a safe track 16 inches wide, a chasm of uncertainty on either side.
Before the arrival of ATC 7, there were nine landmine incidents in New Bakhshi: six involving people, three involving animals. Since clearance began, ATC has removed eight landmines, 679 items of assorted UXO and a staggering 31,310 metal fragments. There have been no accidents since clearance began. No horror, no agony, just a dedicated professional team and a stream of returnees following in their wake.
As we leave the village, I stop to speak to a group of the most recent returnees. Theyíve been back in the village for six months, most having spent at least six years away from their homes.
The men are all farmers, but as yet they are unable to farm their land; it is still contaminated with mines. They work on nearby farms, earning the equivalent of $3 (U.S.) per day, but for the 30 minutes Iím talking to them I donít hear a single complaint. They have returned to their Kashmir—their heaven—and the talk is of the future, not the past. The men talk of the day when New Bakhshi will rebuild its irrigation canals (mined by the Soviets to stop the Mujahedeen from using them as an attack route), open a health clinic and open a school. I ask the men (it is impossible for me to speak to women here) if they have a message that they would like me to send to the donors of AAM. They have a message, and it is simple: "We thank you with all our hearts."
*All photos by Ed Pennington-Ridge.
Ed Pennington-Ridge is a designer and problem-solver based in mid-Wales. He runs a design consultancy, Elegant Design and Solutions, specializing in the development of sustainable technologies for the humanitarian sector. Most recently, the company developed a range of techniques allowing the production of low-cost, high-definition silicone coverings for artificial limbs.
Adopt-A-Minefield Survivor Assistance Consultant
Elegant Design and Solutions
16 Russell Street
Knighton, Powys LD7 1EU
Tel: +44 776 898 0679
Web site: http://www.landmines.org.uk