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Unsettled city

  • 22 May 2006

Location is everything when trading on the bustling streets of Kabul. Seasonal fruits fly from roadside tables, towering woodpiles atop rickety carts are pulled through the traffic by diminutive couriers, and child spruikers ply the souvenir economy. A man, his bicycle festooned with balloons, pedals through the traffic, seeking to sell his stock before he himself takes flight.

There are many whose sales pitch is an open hand in a speculative market of money for nothing. Always, the maimed victims of conflict are found steadying themselves at slow points in the road, seeking a benign toll for their service and legacy.

Though the drought has decimated the once bountiful agricultural sector in Afghanistan, landmines remain an abundant and fertile crop. The much needed rains bring a treacherous consequence; the unearthing of mines buried below the ground. From the Soviet invasion, through periods of factional fighting among mujahadeen alliances, and the sweeping rise of the Taliban, landmines and their crude variations were employed as tools of aggression, deterrence and fear. The recent anti-terrorist operations by coalition forces has again seen the landscape replenished with an assortment of explosive ordinances and cluster munitions; an anathema to the concept of sophisticated warfare, and human life.

Too often, these devices find the hands of children and the tools of farmers in residential areas and on grazing lands. According to the Red Cross, nearly 5000 mine related casualties have been recorded since 1998 including more than 650 fatalities. Cruelly, of those killed and injured last year, 90 per cent were civilians, and more than half aged under 18 years. Across the rural and urban divide, the land harbours a continuing menace.

Efforts are being mounted across several fronts to reduce the level of danger and to address the devastating aftermath. Despite a ten-year best estimate for ridding the country of landmines, clearing operations continue in earnest, the combination of international expertise and local knowledge undoubtedly saving the lives of many. Work is slow and often imprecise as teams reclaim the land by inches. Although large tracts of the country remain off limits, courageous land clearance teams—the majority of them Afghans—assume responsibility for the perilous task.

Collaboration among mine action partners and renewed financial backing have given birth to a cautious optimism for a safe and habitable environment for Afghan communities. Nevertheless, landmines will remain a major cause of dislocation for Afghanistan’s predominantly rural population for years to come.

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