Published on Sunday, February 22, 2004 b the New York Times
Risking Death, 2 Afghan Women Collected and Detonated U.S. Cluster Bombs in 2001
by Carlotta Gall
HAJI BAI NAZAR, Afghanistan — Two women in this poor farming village have emerged as heroines after they witnessed the horror of two small boys being killed as they played with little cluster bombs from an American jet. The two cleared dozens of the bombs with their bare hands and detonated them, protecting the village.
Mine removers learned of their feat when surveying the area for cluster bomb strikes a few weeks later. "We told them they were crazy, that they could have been killed," said Dr. Nasiri, who is with the the Halo Trust, a nonprofit British organization that specializes in removing mines.
The women, Khairulnisah, 50, and Nasreen, 40, started to gather the dangerously volatile yellow canisters after the bombing in 2001 and after they had witnessed the explosion that killed the two boys and badly injured another child. The children had been playing with the two-pound bombs that littered the village.
Over several days, the two women cleared 60 or 70 of these cluster bombs from the immediate area and detonated them in a hollow at night, according to the villagers' accounts, which the Halo Trust vouched for.
In a country where women are subservient to the men of the family and excluded from decision-making, the courage of these two quickly took a place in local legend.
"One man came and said, `With such a heart, your wife will become prime minister,' " said Muhammad Isa, the husband of Ms. Nasreen, with a laugh.
The women are practical and hard-working, with rough hands and calm voices. Both said they had decided to clear the bombs out of concern for their children. "I was afraid my sons would get injured," said Ms. Nasreen, who was the first to pick one up.
"They were all over the street, and there were 10 in our yard," said Ms. Khairulnisah, her neighbor. "We were stepping around the bombs for five days and we were not touching them. We knew they were dangerous. But after the children were killed I decided to do something."
She added: "The men could not go close. They were not brave enough to pick them up and they were running back into the house. I was not afraid, I was just trusting in God."
The cluster bombs were dropped during the American operation against Taliban forces who were occupying the village in October 2001. They are armor-piercing missiles that scatter in the air from a larger bomb and can shred both humans and tanks.
Up to a third of the bombs do not explode on impact, but lie on or just below the surface of the ground, and detonate with the slightest vibration or increase in heat, mine removers at the Halo Trust said.
Hundreds were dropped along the front line near the town of Khojar Ghar in northern Afghanistan, and The Halo Trust has spent two years clearing dozens of bomb strikes in the area. Last fall, they found five new sites on nearby hills. They are the most dangerous unexploded ordnance of all, and the agency lost two senior leaders clearing cluster bombs in 2002.
The women said they felt endangered by handling the bombs. "Sometimes they made a noise, sometimes something turned inside, and that would press on my heart, and I would carefully lie them back down," Ms. Khairulnisah said. "Those ones I would pick up with a shovel."
Ms. Khairulnisah has "always been like that," said Muhammad Jan, her husband. "When the bombing was going on, she would go up onto the roof, saying, `Only God can take my life.' " Ms. Nasreen said she sensed that the bombs were full of liquid explosive. "Most of the time when I was picking them up, they would vibrate and shake my whole arm," she said. "One was so hot it was burning my hand and I had to put it quickly in water."
She collected 34 over three days, putting straw around them each time and setting fire to small groups of them, causing a big explosion, as she hid behind a wall.
"I knew they were dangerous," she said. "I was risking my life for the life of others. I was sick for nine days after that. I don't know if it was the gas. It smells so bad it makes you want to vomit."
When she began collecting them, she did not tell anyone what she was doing. But the explosions frightened the villagers, so she owned up. Her husband and son tried to stop her. "I will not pick up your body and I will say you committed suicide," her husband told her. But she ignored them.
The men said the women just did not understand the dangers of the bombs. "We see the incidents and repercussions of warfare, but the women don't know," said Abdullah, 18, Ms. Nasreen's son.
But his mother dismissed that idea. "That's not true," she said. "I saw the dead bodies of those children. I knew exactly the consequences but I thought we should clean the village of them and protect our children."
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company