Afghanistan's landmines threaten starvation as well as life and limb

Halo Trust deminers working in the Taliban-ruled nation tackle a deadly menace

An IED unearthed by an armoured mechanical digger in Petwayi village, Afghanistan. Photo: Halo Trust
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As you drive along Afghanistan’s motorways, you have to deal with the culvert crater problem. In this mountainous country, prone to seasonal flash floods, most roads are undercut with drainage channels at 50-metre intervals.

For much of the past two decades the Taliban used these culverts to plant improvised explosive devices. Long stretches of Afghanistan’s motorways have chunks blown out of them every 50m, where the IEDs concealed in culverts targeted military vehicles.

In spring 2022 the roads are safe and in places local boys with wheelbarrows of sand collect small donations from passing drivers in return for filling in the worst of the craters. Yet an Afghan road trip is still an exercise involving hours of swerving and lurching around culvert craters.

The IEDs that did the road damage were usually detonated by a phone signal or a command wire. The ones that are still devastating Afghan villages eight months after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan are much less sophisticated devices. Like traditional landmines, these IEDs are set off by the victim standing on a pressure plate, a simple switch attached to a battery, a detonator and a main charge – usually several kilograms of ammonium nitrate in a yellow plastic cooking oil container.

These dumb yellow IEDs were planted in their tens of thousands in the fields and villages of Afghanistan. Wherever there was a front line or a strategic location, farmers are being driven off their land by IEDs in the middle of a famine.

The land should feed us but it is killing us
Agha Hamdullah, head of the village Shura council

Petwayi is a village of mud walls and gardens of grape vines near the Kandahar-Helmand motorway. Its population is only 340, but 15 people have been killed by IEDs in the past year, including three children. When The National visited in April, a line-up of six survivors aged 11 to 66 came forward to show us their wounds.

“These are poor people,” says Agha Hamdullah, the head of the village Shura council. “We cannot plant our wheat. We cannot feed our families. The land should feed us but it is killing us.”

Petwayi has the misfortune to sit between the motorway and a strategically important hill. At the base of the hill, ploughed and irrigated land with shoots of wheat runs right up to the dangerous area where red flags have been placed by teams from the landmine clearance charity, Halo Trust.

“We have not been able to irrigate the land and we are missing the planting season for another year. Farmers here have to sell their sheep and send their sons to seek work in the cities to survive.”

Epidemic of Afghan food insecurity

Land that is too dangerous to cultivate is a disaster for Afghanistan. After decades of conflict, an extended drought and lack of cash since the Taliban takeover in August led the UN to predict that 23 million Afghans will be food insecure this year. In all, 75 per cent of Afghans rely on agriculture. Safe land is crucial.

National casualty numbers from IEDs are hard to come by since the takeover, but the Halo Trust recorded 545 children killed or injured by IEDs between August 2021 and March 2022. But even these figures are likely to be low. In many places the dead are buried quickly and no reports are made to the local authorities. In the graveyards, flags mark the graves of those who died violently or unexpectedly.

Numbers fail to express the sheer horror of living daily under the threat of high explosives. In Hadira village, north-east of Kandahar city, The National first meets Ahmed Shah, who is asking Halo deminers to clear a path to a disabled tractor in a field.

His brother Mirwais was hired by the landowner to plough the field but was not told about the IEDs planted in what was a frontline of the local battle. Mirwais was killed by an explosion in January that blew the wheel off the tractor and left seven children without a father.

Just 200m from the explosion that killed Mirwais is Hadira Secondary School, where Halo removed dozens of IEDs from the playground in December.

Hadira’s village chief tells us that in May last year, 20-year old Mohammed was killed by an IED while crossing the playground. It was late and his body could not be reached in the dark. His mother, Sultana, sat at the edge of the minefield all night throwing stones to chase away the dogs that tried to take her son’s body.

IED contamination unprecedented

The Halo Trust, which has been operating in Afghanistan since 1988 and has cleared land there the size of Los Angeles, has better access and can reach more provinces since the change of government.

But the scale of IED contamination is unprecedented. “In one year the number of IEDs we’re destroying has increased by 1,000 per cent,” says Callum Peebles, Halo’s head of region. “But from January to March this year, we surveyed enough new IED contamination to equate to six years of work at current capacity levels.”

Even before the change in government, Halo was able to operate in Taliban-controlled areas. And its teams carried on working during the previous Taliban regime, from 1996 to 2001. The new authorities are, unsurprisingly, keen for Halo to expand its work; IED clearance brings land back into production, employs lots of breadwinners and saves lives.

Demining expansion under way

Halo currently employs 2,200 deminers, but with more funding could rapidly expand to 5,000 staff and broaden its clearance operations. ”We recently advertised for 93 jobs in Zabul and 1,800 people applied,” Peebles says. “That’s fairly standard.” Halo in Afghanistan is being supported by the US, German and other government donors who see it as a safe way to remain engaged in the country and bring much-needed stability.

Some have asked whether those who planted the IEDs should not be the ones to remove them.

“In the heat of battle, few armies keep detailed maps of their minefields,” Peebles says. “Not to the standard needed to make playgrounds safe for children to play in. In the case of Afghanistan, many of the fighters who planted IEDs have been killed themselves. Only we can do this work safely.”

And not all of the IEDs are buried. Families who fled the fighting near front lines across Afghanistan last year have come back to find to find their barns and outbuildings used as arms stores – filled with primed IEDs waiting to be planted.

In the past three months in one southern province, Halo's explosive ordnance disposal experts were called to seven such caches. In one location 34 powerful anti-vehicle IEDs had to be defused before Halo could take them to a demolition site in the desert to blow them up. Watching the demolition from almost a kilometre away, it’s clear the cache could have destroyed the entire village if it had exploded.

But there are smiles and pride among the Halo deminers as the cache disappears in a rib-rattling crack and a mushroom cloud. In one big bang, countless lives, limbs and a village have been saved.

Updated: April 29, 2022, 6:00 PM