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Afghanistan: Mine awareness for nomads

02-05-2002 News Release 02/18

While travelling through his area of responsibility south of Kabul, an ICRC delegate noticed a large group of Kuchi nomads with their tents and sheep not far from the road. " They're camping in a mine field! " he exclaimed. The area around Arandai on the main road to Kandahar, which for years had been a main battleground between the various warring factions, is heavily contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance.

The ICRC mine action team in Kabul was immediately informed and contacted the mine-clearance agencies. Although anti-personnel mines had already been cleared from a large area on each side of the road and anti-tank mines had been marked with warning signs, the hills further away had not been cleared of mines at all. With hundreds of square kilometres in the country contaminated, the Mine Action Programme for Afghanistan (MAPA) has to choose priorities for clearance operations: inhabited areas and agricultural land are cleared first, mountains and grazing areas come later.

When the ICRC team arrived on the scene, it quickly realized that the nomads knew the area was dangerous. Indeed, 35 of their fellow tribesmen had been killed by mine explosions over the past seven years. But for generations several hundred of the Kuchi have been coming with their flocks from Jalalabad to this exact spot for summer pasture, and tradition is stronger than fear.

With the aid of posters and pictures, the ICRC staff spent over an hour talking to the group gathered on blankets near their tents. Their sheep grazed at the foot of the hills and debris from fighting lay scattered across the barren landscape. Curious children who try to pick up the strange pieces of metal often die as a result. In the hills, shepherds running after wandering animals sometimes step on one of the deadly devices.

By the time the talk was over, the nomads had learned how to recognize explosive devices, how unstable they can be, and how powerful a blast they can produce even after years of lying in the same spot. Children were impressed by the " teachers " from Kabul who insisted on strict rules to avoid danger. The posters are now hanging in the tents to remind everyone of the deadly risks, and the memory of the improvised class could prevent a child from picking up an unknown object.

In a country plagued by mines and unexploded ordnance, clearance operations can solve the problem only slowly. Mine awareness is the only way to limit the risks immediately.

The ICRC and the Afghan Red Crescent Society have six mine-awareness teams (including two emergency-response teams) working in coordination with the MAPA in the Kabul area and Bamyan. Four more should begin work in the coming weeks in Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif. Every month the teams organize more than 100 mine-awareness sessions attended by some 6,000 adults and children.