DENAR KHEIL, Afghanistan - Despite the official declaration of peace, thousands of Afghans who fled during the war cannot go home because their houses, fields, and villages are littered with unexploded remnants of US cluster bombs - far more than the United States had predicted.
Demining specialists said last week that nearly 20 percent of the ''bomblets'' they've seen in Afghanistan had failed to explode on impact. The Pentagon puts the failure rate at about 10 percent.
What is not in dispute is that the small, bright yellow canisters with white parachutes attached are silent killers, particularly dangerous for children, who often take them for playthings.
Villagers walk past an unexploded American cluster bomb, which they said was dropped by U.S. warplanes in October, in the village of Mullah Abdullah Karez, Afghanistan, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2002. (AP Photo/John Moore)
''You step on this, you risk losing your life,'' Robert Gannon of the Halo Trust, a British-based nongovernmental demining organization, said as he pointed out unexploded ordnance jammed in the furrows of a field in this village north of Kabul, deemed one of the most heavily infested with live bomblets in the area.
In just the past three weeks, seven children have been killed while playing with bomblets in a village near Mazar-e-Sharif, according to the Halo Trust.
The US planes that bombarded Denar Kheil, a former front-line Taliban position, liberated it to the local villagers' joy from the control of the hard-line fundamentalists. But it has become a casualty of the US-led bombing campaign, deemed too dangerous for its inhabitants to safely return any time soon.
Ten cluster bombs hit the village last fall, scattering an estimated 2,020 bomblets - many still active - across winding alleys and amid the 300 mud-brick homes. ''It's one of the worst villages I've seen,'' said Ghulum Galari, head of the local demining team.
Each cluster bomb releases 202 BLU-97 bomblets, which look like yellow soda cans and spread shrapnel over a wide area when they explode. The bombs, used during US bombing campaigns in the Gulf War and Kosovo, have been widely criticized by human rights groups because so many fail to explode.
A report by Human Rights Watch in October noted that when bomblets fail to detonate on contact, they essentially act as land mines that can explode from a ''simple touch.''
New bombs had been used in this war, with the expectation that more would explode on impact. The 20 percent failure rate reported by Halo Trust, critics of the bombs say, is far higher than expected.
''That's stunning,'' said Mark Hiznay of Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C, which has called for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs until they become more reliable. ''Someone needs to get the message these bombs are not working.''
Halo Trust says it has brought the high failure rate to the attention of officials from the United States, which was the trust's largest donor last year, contributing $3.5 million.
The Pentagon contends that, on average, all of its air-dropped weapons have a 10 percent failure rate and that there is no clear evidence that cluster bombs fail to detonate more often than other munitions. Still, defense officials acknowledge that in certain cases failure rates for cluster bombs can be higher than the norm.
For example, cluster bombs can fail to detonate as intended if they are released below 5,000 feet, according to Army Lieutenant Colonel Rivers Johnson, a Pentagon spokesman. In addition, manufacturing flaws or environmental characteristics such as trees or soft soil can prevent them from exploding on impact.
Examples of failures are evident in Denar Kheil, one of 103 cluster-bomb sites in the country identified by the United Nations Mine Action Center in Afghanistan. The village lies on the Shomali Plain, hard by what was the contested front line between Taliban forces and the opposition Northern Alliance.
There was little danger to civilians here when the antipersonnel bombs were dropped, because residents had fled to refugee camps in Pakistan or Iran to escape the fighting. But now the bomb-infested areas bar thousands of displaced persons from returning home.
The UN Office of High Commissioner for Refugees is hard at work, resettling Afghans in areas clear of mines and bombs on the Shomali Plain. But many Afghans, unaware of the dangers that linger in fields and homes, have returned on their own.
Four families have come back to Denar Kheil. In one day last week, a demining team found 25 active bomblets in a patch of ground in front of the house where all the families are living for now. In a total of 11 days, they found 100 active bomblets in the area.
Since the discoveries, the families have kept their children locked inside, as parents know there is little use in warning them away from playing with bomb parts. Part of the bomb - a black metal cap with silver legs that resembles a spider - is sought as a toy by children lacking anything else to play with.
''We haven't had an accident yet,'' said Saifullah Karwan, a father of eight. ''But we worry.''
Accidents occur easily, warned Gannon of the Halo Trust. What makes cluster bombs so lethal is that they have two fusing systems that can easily be triggered. Picking them up - much less kicking, throwing, or standing on them - can set them off.
The bombs also can be triggered by rapid changes in temperature. In Afghanistan, temperatures drop sharply at night.
The US air campaign has left its mark on Denar Kheil. A huge bomb crater lies in what was the living room of Karwan's home. White bomblet parachutes are scattered across the road; yellow canisters are stuck in a wall.
Demining teams are at work, but it can take three weeks to clear just one cluster bomb.
Villagers insist that having to contend with the live bombs is still better than having the Taliban in charge. No one interviewed blamed the United States. Still, the bomblets are an obstacle for Afghans, now restless for their lives to return to normalcy after 23 years of war.
After five years of living hand-to-mouth as a refugee, Abdul Fatah had hoped to plant his field with wheat when he returned home to Denar Kheil a few weeks ago.
But to do so, he just discovered, could cost him his life.
''We are waiting for the bombs to be cleared from our homes,'' Fatah said with a sigh. ''We are waiting for the bombs to be cleared from the fields. We are waiting, waiting, waiting.''
Correspondent Bryan Bender contributed to this report from Washington.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company