Helmand police officer Abdul Ghafor Afghaniyar, 24, has defused over 6,000 mines in his four-year career. (Courtesy photos)
Handling explosives is child's play in Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand, an epicentre of Taliban activity and narcotics smuggling. Children from turbulent districts like Musu Qala, Nawzad or Sangeen have been taught to make IEDs from empty bottles and Pepsi cans, and possess a startling level of technical skill. Often, they can be spotted with shovels at roadsides, planting explosives while feigning to dig ditches.
Four years ago, a young Helmandi finished his 12th year of schooling in Gereshk district and embarked on a mission to rid his society of the thousands of unexploded land mines that continue to kill record numbers of civilians each year. Now 24 years old, Abdul Ghafor Afghaniyar has single-handedly defused over 6,000 mines, saving the lives of an estimated 24,000 people according to the Interior Ministry's calculations.
Despite the countless life-threatening scenarios he experiences on the job, Afghaniyar keeps a smile on his dry lips. He is a short man, the eldest of six brothers, with an innocent face and big eyes unafraid to lock with the gazes of others. Like most rank-and-file police officers, he has has been earning an annual salary of less than 13,000 afghani ($226). He wears a simple uniform and generally prefers to work without a bomb suit.
A member of the Helmand police force, Afghaniyar received mine defusing training from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) over two years ago. "I used to be an ordinary officer before," he says. "I saw my comrades killed by mines every day, and decided that to face this challenge, I would enroll in the ISAF trainings."
Afghaniyar defuses each mine manually, often without protective gear.
There were other Afghan policemen who started defusing mines alongside Afghaniyar. Many have since quit their jobs and some have lost their lives, but Afghaniyar says he is determined to keep working, despite pressure from his new wife and relatives to give up the job. “My moral is still high,” he says.
Though he initially worked alone, Afghaniyar eventually convinced his two friends, Mohammad Nabi and Gholam Farooq, to join him on the job. Though Afghaniyar is technically their superior, a sense of camaraderie allows the trio to retain a sense of humor during high-pressure missions. Of the three, only Gholam Farooq has so far evaded injury. Mohammad Nabi was twice seriously wounded, and Afghaniyar was once hit by an exploding mortar while clearing an area in Helmand’s Sangeen district. “It was the 13th day of Ramadan,” he recalls, “and I sustained injuries to my head and abdomen.”
There have been other close calls. Afghanyar says he will never forget a mine he once cleared in Nawai Bazar, in his home district of Gereshk. As he held the explosive in his hand, Afghaniyar felt the fuse ignite. A Taliban operative who was hiding nearby had tried to detonate it using a remote control. Afghaniyar let the mine drop out of his hand, feeling he was dead. "It was my luck that only the fuse sparked and burned, but the explosive did not detonate," he says.
The thousands of tense minutes Afghaniyar has spent detecting, manually defusing and photographing mines have affected his mannerisms in at least one way. When speaking about his work, he frequently interjects with “Barah!”— a made-up word he uses to mimic the sound of an explosion. He recalls a 2013 operation in the region of Mirmandaab, where the team had been sent to clear mines from a former Taliban compound that had been captured by police forces: “After the operation ended, I—barah!—started to clear the mines."
The trio defused 60 mines by the end of the day, and was working on the last of them when a Taliban operative fired a mortar in their direction. “I shouted to my friend, Mohammad Nabi to run, run because a mortar hit. I managed to run into the house, but Mohammad Nabi was still outside," Afghaniyar recalls. "Barah! When I went out he was seriously injured. He remained hospitalised a whole month.”
In his home community in Gereshk, Afghaniyar's former schoolmates remember him as "a quiet fellow, not too particular about attendance." But his high-risk job has since earned him celebrity status. One former classmate calls Afghaniyar "the real hero of Jab Tak Hain Jaan," a popular Bollywood film about a bomb disposal expert for the Indian Army.
Afghaniyar has also captured the attention of the Interior Ministry, which recently rewarded him with a rank promotion, a salary hike and a modest cash prize. The ministry has also agreed to provide him with special equipment, including a bomb suit and a device that disables remote controlled explosives. Asked why it took him four years to acquire the gear, Afghaniyar laughs. "My friend," he responds, "to tell the truth, I simply did not ask for more."