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Afghanistan: ICRC mine/UXO programmes adapting to the new threats

21-01-2002 News Release 02/03

The recent restoration of peace to Afghanistan does not change the fact that the country is one of the most heavily mine-infested in the world. In addition to old landmines laid during more than 20 years of war, newly dropped devices such as the unexploded bomblets scattered by cluster bombs now represent a further threat.

The importance of exchanging information about mine casualties with mine-clearance agencies was once again underlined when an old man from Puli Barak village, in Sholgar district south of Mazar-i-Sharif, reported a cluster-munition incident in which six children had been killed and another seriously injured. This report prompted the HALO Trust office manager to send a clearance team to survey the area and clear it of cluster bomblets.

The ICRC office in Jalalabad recorded 22 landmine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) incidents for December 2001, including 17 children maimed or killed, mainly by cluster munitions. These figures led the ICRC to strengthen its coordination with the Regional Mine Action Centre in order to ensure effective clearance, and also to adapt its mine-awareness approach to the new threat in the region represented by cluster munitions and other UXO.

In one place, although clear warnings had been given by the clearance team working about 100m away from the nearest village, five women were still gathering wood, picking their way among the remaining unexploded cluster bomblets that littered the ground.

" When you know that one of these highly unstable bomblets can explode any time and kill anyone within a radius of 200 m, the risk taken by the women can only be explained by the sheer need to surviv e " , said Laurence Desvignes, the ICRC mine-programme coordinator visiting Afghanistan from headquarters in Geneva.

In such a situation, mine awareness is not only a matter of alerting people to the danger, because they are usually already well-informed, but of actually changing behaviour and, hopefully, also providing economic solutions. The approach developed by the ICRC's mine-action programmes are therefore being incorporated in the organization's other relevant areas of activity such as agriculture, food relief, water and habitat. In the field, retraining of Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) mine-awareness staff in early February will stress the importance of ensuring that preventive action takes full account of the economic reality of the populations at risk.

There are 15 cluster-munition sites surrounding the town of Herat, within 5-10 km of the centre, posing a threat to nearby villages and the population of camps for the internally displaced. Clearance agencies under the umbrella of the Regional Mine Action Centre are now surveying and clearing some of those sites, while the ICRC is focusing on the collection of details of incidents so that clearance and awareness teams can target priority areas.

The ICRC is also gathering information on mine/UXO casualties at the national level. The process of reporting on deaths and injuries is now being improved through community-based information collection rather than just recording cases in health centres where the victims are brought. Last week three teenagers were seriously injured in the Kabul region by a cluster bomblet. One had attended a mine-awareness session and tried to warn his friends but they would not listen to him. Now, at age 15, he is lying in a hospital bed next to them. Changing attitudes and behaviour is an ongoing challenge for the ICRC/ARCS mine-action programme in Afghanistan.