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Afghan mine victims brave the odds

13-11-2007 Feature

Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. While considerable progress has been made in recent years in mine clearance, and the number of victims recorded each year has steadily decreased, the scale of the problem remains enormous. Tens of thousands of landmine victims need care and assistance. The ICRC is helping to address the plight of victims in Afghanistan through its orthopaedic programme, which has assisted almost 80,000 disabled people over the past two decades.

  ©ICRC/M. Kokic    
Workshop at ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Kabul  
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic    
Rohafza Naderi, a physiotherapist at the centre    
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic    
Sayed Mohamed in front of his vegetable stall    
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic    
Mine risk education in Dako village    
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic    
Demining operation near Bagram air base    
  ©ICRC/M. Kokic    
Explosion during a demining operation    

The scene at the Ali Abad Orthopaedic Centre in Kabul – the biggest International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) rehabilitation facility in the world – is one of almost frenetic industry. Dozens of people in numerous workshops produce everything from leather seats for wheelchairs and stainless steel joints for leg braces, to elbow joints for crutches and custom-made prostheses. Nearby, amputees with newly fitted limbs are learning to walk again, step by painful step. Elsewhere in the centre, paraplegics are receiving physiotherapy.

What makes the centre all the more extraordinary is that the 250 locally employed staff are all disabled. Many are landmine victims, some are victims of car accidents, others are blind, and some have congenital deformities.

" We do practise discrimination here, but we like to call it a positive type of discrimination " , smiles Najmuddin Helal, head of the orthopaedic centre and himself a double amputee due to a landmine accident when he was 18 years old. " Hiring disabled people makes sense since they understand the particular problems and needs, and they help to give hope to the patients here. "

Of the approximately 40,000 patients registered at the centre since it opened in 1988, some 75 per cent are amputees, and the majority of them are mine victims – although the centre is open to people with all types of physical disability. There is also a big emphasis on social integration programmes, including vocational training and micro-credit schemes, which are as important as physical rehabilitation.

There are many people eager to attest to the centre's success. Noor Mohamed, who lost a leg in a mine accident 24 years ago when he was 14 years old, now supports his family by making parts for leg braces. Sayed Mohamed, whose right leg was blown off when his car drove over an anti-tank mine more than 20 years ago, set up a vegetable stall with the help of a loan from the ICRC's micro-credit programme. Rohafza Naderi, whose right leg was amputated at the age of 10 after she stepped on a mine by the gate of her school in Kabul, is a physiotherapist at the centre.

" It is so rewarding to help those who most need help, to see someone who was wheeled into the centre be able to walk out by themselves " , Rohafza says.

The Kabul centre is one of six ICRC orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan, which together have assisted almost 80,000 disabled Afghans over the past two decades – with limb amputees accounting for approximately half that number.

As one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, Afghanistan has undoubtedly seen measurable progress in recent years. Some 60 per cent of all the land estimated to be contaminated by landmines and explosive remnants of war has now been cleared, according to the UN Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan (UN MACA), with numbers of victims recorded per year falling to 796 in 2006, compared to 1,943 per year five years earlier.

Yet the scale of the problem remains enormous. No-one can be quite sure how many mines remain in the ground, although the UN MACA reports that there are still 4,000 areas suspected to be mine-contaminated, in all but one of the country's 34 provinces. To make matters worse, an unknown amount of explosive remnants of war – including everything from airdropped bombs and mortars to rockets and cluster munitions – also continues to contaminate vast areas of land.

With increasing insecurity and diminishing humanitarian access in many parts of the country, the real number of landmine vi ctims could well be higher than the official data suggests.

The area around Bagram air base, some 60 kilometres north of Kabul, illustrates the problem. Several generations of mines and other explosive devices – used during the Soviet invasion starting in 1979, through to the civil war in the 1990s, the Taliban era and finally the US-led air strikes in 2001 – have saturated the land around the strategic military facility itself as well as the surrounding villages.

The NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) is funding a local demining coalition to survey and clear the contaminated land. The work is painstaking. In the choking dust and heat, with the roar of fighter jets overhead, teams of deminers gently probe the earth and mark out danger zones with red flags. Piles of white stones as far as the eye can see signify areas already cleared.

However, as Abdul Wali Karimi of Afghanistan Technical Consultants explains, it has taken 10 months to clear just less than two square kilometres of land. Almost 9,000 anti-personnel mines and some 2,500 other explosive devices such as mortars and projectiles were unearthed during this time, and many more remain in the ground. ISAF reports that a minimum of 10 people from nearby villages have been killed or injured in the past six months. Many incidents are never reported.

" As the clearance progresses, more and more refugees are returning to their homes from Pakistan and Iran, and agricultural activity is slowly resuming " , says Mr Karimi. " But clearly we have a long way to go before life returns to anything like normal. "

In Afghanistan, ICRC data shows that more than 90 per cent of mines and other explosive devices are concentrated in agricultural and grazing lands, irrigation systems, residential areas and roads. This has had a disastrous impact on the civilian population of the country.

Dako village, 35 km north of Kabul, on the front line of fighting between rival armed groups throughout the 1990s, is just one example. It suffered heavy destruction and mine contamination. Bullet-scarred mud walls of compounds surround labyrinths of passageways and rooms, some destroyed; a disproportionate number of small cemeteries with tattered green flags commemorating the dead are scattered around the village; and numerous walls now bear white-painted signs marking mine clearance in the vicinity.

The Afghanistan Red Crescent Society carries out mine risk education in Dako's primary school, alerting the exclusively male students to the dangers of landmines and other explosive remnants of war. Yet still accidents happen: only recently, a 10-year-old boy in the village found a mine in his garden and lost his hand. " Life is very hard here " , says Rahmad Gul, a father of seven, who lost an arm during the conflict. " If you

have a disability, it's even worse. Those who are able try to find work in Kabul, or even further, in Pakistan or Iran. "

Yet even for those who manage to reach Kabul, life is often far from easy. With a population massively swollen by internally displaced people and economic migrants, many of the city's residents face unemployment, crushing poverty and a growing sense of frustration. Despite the billions of dollars promised in foreign aid, few people in the war-scarred city have seen any tangible improvement in their lives.


Back at Kabul's orthopaedic centre, Najmuddin remains sanguine. " Of course the economic situation in the country is catastrophic and many able-bodied people cannot get work, never mind those who are disabled " , he says. " So in many ways I feel lucky, not only to be able to support my family but also to give hope to even a few people who suffered the same fate as me. "

" And who knows? " he adds, wryly. " One day this war might end and we will have a country free of mines – even if it comes too late for all those who have already fallen victim to them. "