FEATURE-Afghanistan's deminers surrounded by danger
By Simon Gardner
AHMAD KHAN VILLAGE, Afghanistan, Sept 17 (Reuters) - Standing on a parched plain flanked by rugged mountains near Kabul, you don't have to look far to see the dangers.
Landmines, cluster bombs and unspent shells left over from three decades of war litter the ground, exposed by scouring winds that have blown the top soil away.
Some of the bulky green and plastic anti-personnel mines laid during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s are now lying upside down, just as deadly as the day they were primed.
Others are still hidden below the surface, part of an estimated 100,000 landmines still in the ground in Afghanistan, home to the world's largest demining programme and one of the highest landmine injury rates.
Crouching in a blue blastproof apron and perspex visor, deminer Zafar Khan carefully scrapes away soil to reveal a mine.
"I'm not scared. This is easy. I am faced with this everyday," said Khan, a towering man who switched from tending wheat crops to demining two-and-a-half years ago.
"When I saw lots of people in my village lose their legs and feet and die from landmines, then I decided I should campaign against demining and I should be a deminer to rid all of the mines from Afghanistan."
He's also in it for the money. His salary of $280 a month from the Organisation for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation far exceeds what he made as a farmer.
But the dangers are many and extend beyond those lurking in the minefields. Deminers are being killed and kidnapped amid a bloody Taliban insurgency against Afghan and foreign troops, with near daily ambushes, roadside blasts and battles.
Thirteen Afghan deminers were kidnapped by gunmen in the southeastern province of Paktia a week ago. All were freed, but others have not been as lucky. More than 36 deminers have been killed or injured in attacks in Afghanistan since 2002.
"It is difficult to work in insecure areas," said Ahmad Jan Nawzadi of the United Nations Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan.
DESTROYED ON SITE
In the distance, clouds billow as fellow deminers place charges around detected mines and destroy them with controlled explosions. The deminers move delicately between yellow and green-painted rocks placed where mines were found.
Helicopters from nearby Bagram airbase, the U.S. military hub 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Kabul, circle overhead, a constant reminder of conflict that still rages in Afghanistan two decades after the Soviets left.
"The mines are made of tough plastic, so the weather cannot damage them -- neither water, nor hot nor cold. So they can stay for years and years as mines, even as much as 50 years," said the UN's Nawzadi.
"(Since 1989) we destroyed more than 300,000 antipersonnel mines, destroyed more than 18,000 anti-tank mines and destroyed more than 7 million pieces of UXO (unexploded ordnance). But still the problem exists."
A team that now numbers 8,500 deminers have cleared 1.0 billion square metres of terrain since 1989. That leaves around 700 million square metres still to be cleared.
Deminers armed with metal detectors and metal prods must clear heavily-mined sections manually, but when fewer devices are found, especially-trained dogs are used and can clear large areas fast.
Most of the mines were planted during the Soviet occupation, when they were used to protect convoys and military posts from attack by Mujahideen. Then more were planted during ensuing civil war and fighting between Islamist Taliban guerrillas and Afghanistan's Northern Alliance.
Adding to the problem, feuding villagers and farmers are even taking landmines in some areas and replanting them to wound their foes and competitors, the UN and U.S. military say.
MINE-FREE BY 2013?
Under the Ottawa convention landmine ban, the Afghan government committed to clear all minefields by 2013. Every month an average of 60 people are killed or wounded by mines across Afghanistan, according to the UN and Red Cross.
The UN estimates there are 60,000 surviving landmine victims, like 20-year-old Faizal Malik, a Kuchi or nomad, who lives in a tent near what was the heavily-mined front line along the road back to Kabul up until the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
Sometimes the victims are donkeys, goats and sheep.
"We do know that there are lots of mines everywhere, but what should we do?" said Malik as he led two camels across terrain next to the minefield.
"We have more than 500 sheep and they are going all over the place. We have to take care of our animals," he added, showing two fingers with stubs for tips.
"I was a child. I didn't know what a mine was. I picked it up and it exploded. A big explosion happened in my hand but I only lost a small part of my fingers!" he laughed.
Most landmine victims are civilians, many of them children. Some organisations suspect Afghanistan's real number of landmine accidents is far higher, with many going unreported in remote areas.
Afghanistan ranked third behind Colombia and Cambodia in 2005 in terms of landmine accidents, with 848 people wounded or killed, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines' 2006 Landmine Monitor report.
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