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The killing fields of Kandahar

Nang Durrani
Landmine explosions are on the rise as international forces close their military bases in Kandahar, with devastating effects on the rural areas used as hideouts by the Taliban.
20.11.2014  |  Kandahar
The number of civilians killed or injured by landmines planted by the Taliban in Kandahar is on the rise as international forces withdraw from the province. Cartoon: Uzra Shamal
The number of civilians killed or injured by landmines planted by the Taliban in Kandahar is on the rise as international forces withdraw from the province. Cartoon: Uzra Shamal

One month ago, 13-year-old Isanullah rode his bicycle into Sarband village in Kandahar province to forage for scrap metal at an abandoned military base left behind by international forces. When he stumbled across a mortar shell, the resulting explosion injured his eye and blew three fingers off his right hand. Each week, doctors at Kandahar's Mirwais hospital treat up to five patients like Isanullah--residents who suffer severe and often lethal injuries caused by mines, IEDs and other types of explosives that remain strewn across the province.

An average of 39 civilians each month were injured or killed by landmines in 2013, according to the United Nations’ Mine Action Programme in Afghanistan (MAPAS). Nearly one million Afghans, or 3 percent of the total population, live within 500 meters of landmine-contaminated areas.

In Kandahar province, Mirwais hospital director Dr. Mohammad Dawood Farhad records 514 cases of landmine-related injuries in Mianisheen, Ghorak, and Khrabak districts since last year, including 103 fatalities. While the thousands of landmines left behind by Soviet troops in Afghanistan remain a source of long-term concern, officials are now also calling attention to an increase in the number of explosives planted by insurgents and left behind by the exiting NATO contingent. In remote areas where the Taliban remain active, landmines obstruct roads and agricultural fields, with devastating effects of isolated communities.

"Every week, we witness the arrival of patients injured by the explosions in or near military bases that were once were used by the international forces in the fight against the Taliban," says Farhad.

Since 2008, some 53 people have been killed in explosions near NATO bases, according to Mohammad Sediq Rishad of MAPAS. Landmines buried during the Soviet occupation still account for a vast majority of mine-related fatalities in Afghanistan. Of the over 19,000 civilians killed by landmines in Afghanistan last year, 240 died during the detonation of Soviet-era equipment. In this context, the downsizing of foreign military bases in Afghanistan is creating new areas of concern in an already hazardous terrain.

"The victims of such incidents are usually nomads taking their herds to deserts and other places less frequented by people. We try to send minesweeping teams to these areas to clear them of any explosive devices left by the foreign forces," says Haji Shah Mohammad Ahmadi, the district governor of Arghandab.

While some of the international military bases lie completely abandoned, others have been taken over by Afghan security forces. At a former United States base near Sansiri village, 32-year-old soldier Mohammad Younis stands at his post on a surveillance tower. Since taking over, Afghan forces have cleared 183 mines, heavy artillery shells and other explosive devices, he said. "This is ammunition that American forces seized from the Taliban. They neither put them to use nor detonated them. We have tried to collect them to ensure people are not blown up."

Lethal fruit

Planting landmines in the remote areas occupied by its operatives is an established Taliban combat strategy. In Arghandab, Daand, Miawand, Panchwai, and Zhiraai districts of Kandahar, the roads, farms, and orchards are riddled with landmines. Many residents have left their homes and farms in search of safety in other provinces, claiming that the Taliban's objective here is not to target the foreign forces, but to destroy civilians‘ livelihoods.

Canadian troops patrol grape fields in Zhari district in 2008. Photo: Nick Allen

The districts lack proper roads to connect remote villages, making its pomegranate orchards, vineyards and fields attractive hideouts for the Taliban. By overtaking agricultural land, the Taliban has deprived farmers of this year's harvest, according to locals. A resident of Tulokan village of Panchwai district, Haji Gulp, says his vineyard—the only source of income for him and his family—is now full of landmines. He adds that many of his vines and trees have dried up, as he is no longer able to water them.

“The Taliban in our village have distributed night letters and asked us not to go near our orchards and vineyards,” says Haji Gulp. “Due to drought, we were irrigating our orchards with water pumps this year, but ever since this started no one can get close to there. We are afraid of stepping on mines, and our grapes are rotting on their vines.”

In the past month, land mine explosions killed 19 people and injured 11 others in Panchwai village and surrounding areas, according to doctors at Mirwais hospital.

Sakhidad, a resident of Pashmul village of Panchwai district, is being treated at Mirwais trying to get into his vineyard to harvest his grapes. “I wanted to take the grapes to the market to sell them, but once I was walked into the vineyard, I heard a blast,” he says. “I didn’t know I'd lost my leg until I regained consciousness in the hospital.”

Doctors in Mirwais note that landmine casualties increase each year around harvest time. Usually, orchard owners and agricultural laborers among the main victims, Farhad says.  

By forcing residents to avoid the main road to access medical care, the landmines have also increased the province's infant mortality rate. Pregnant women must traverse difficult terrains to get to the hospital, often resulting in severe birth complications. “In the last three months, 240 infants and 24 mothers have died," says Farhad. "One of the major factors that led to their premature death was the long journey they had to embark on because of the fear of the landmines on the main roads. Some of these people either die on the way or come here with critical conditions that can be difficult to treat.”

Roads less travelled

The governors of Panchwai and Maiwand districts also confirm an increase in the number of casualties caused by landmines. Ongoing counterinsurgency operations have resulted in the deaths of 18 insurgents and around 7,000 mines have been cleared from the area, said Haji Fazul Mohammad, the district governor for Panchwai. "We asked the local people not to go to their orchards until we have cleared them of mines," he added. "It’s not only the mines that threaten people’s lives. The Taliban also pose great danger as they use these places for their hideouts."

As fighting continues, the agriculture sector in the province has deteriorated, said Ahmad Shah Roshan, director of the agriculture and livestock department of Kandahar.

“Previously, international forces cut down trees and built temporary roads on agricultural land. After they cleared the areas, they provided compensation for the losses they caused people during the operations. We are yet to receive a response for the request we made to the security officials and minesweeping organizations in Kandahar about clearing these areas of mines. No one has taken action.”

The Taliban remains unwilling to allow minesweepers in to clear the area, adding any such efforts should concentrate on mines left behind by the Soviets, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousif Ahmadi told Afghanistan Today. “These orchards and fields can be used by the Afghan government and international forces to ambush us. Therefore, our fighters, in order to protect themselves against such attacks, planted landmines.”

Landmines have also severely impeded residents' ability to travel in Mianishen, Ghorak, and Khorabak districts, where residents traveling to Kandahar city experience roadblocks due to the frequency of roadside bombs. In Shorabak district, residents travel across the border to Pakistan to seek medical care and buy household supplies.

In Mianishen, a mountainous district 75 kilometers of north of Kandahar city, locals travel 6 to 8 hours to get to neighboring Uruzgan province to buy supplies and avoid hazardous roads. If the roads were cleared of mines, the journey to Kandahar city would take only two hours, says district governor Rozi Khan. “The residents of 15 villages cannot travel to the district capital due to mines buried on the roadsides," he added. "For a long time, they lack connection to the district capital.”

The government's presence is almost entirely missing from Ghorak, some 100 kilometers of north of Kandahar city. The district was entirely under the control of Taliban until international and Afghan forces took over in 2013. But Ghorak residents say that apart from the district capital, almost all of the villages and the roads connecting them remain under Taliban control. Asadullah, a Ghorak resident, says that the road from their district to Kandahar city is “unsafe for the public, the government, as well as the military.”