WASHINGTON -- With food supplies in Afghanistan still irregular, the United States has continued its airdrops of food packets. Of special concern are the children of Afghanistan. An estimated 1.5 million of them are at risk of dying because they lack food and water. But even as humanitarian aid drops from the sky, there are many dangers below in retrieving it. Recently, two children were killed near Herat while they were running across a field to pick up food packets. They had stepped on a land mine.
The two children are members of a growing list of Afghans who are killed or maimed every day by land mines. Some are combatants, but the vast majority are civilians. International humanitarian workers and U.S. military personnel now operating in Afghanistan also face the danger of accidentally setting off a land mine. Last week, three Marines were wounded while attempting to clear Kandahar airport of mines and other unexploded ordnance. One lost his leg below the knee.
In 2000, there were an average of 90 mine-related casualties a month in Afghanistan. This number reflected only victims who were able to reach a hospital or doctor. Many never made it. Today, with tens of thousands of displaced Afghans on the move, the number of reported land-mine casualties has jumped to 15 a day. That would be more than 400 new victims a month. For Afghanistan's new interim government, land mines will be an urgent priority. Estimates of the number of them laid during the past two decades of war range from 1 million to 10 million. Kabul is the most heavily mined capital city in the world and, almost certainly, the one with the most amputees, as I witnessed when I traveled there with U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson in 1998.
Land mines have been planted in cities, villages, farming and grazing land, irrigation systems and along roads to prevent commerce from resuming or refugees from returning. Many of the nearly 4 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan, like those in the camps outside Peshawar, which I visited, are fearful of returning home because they know the border regions are among the most mine-infested in Afghanistan.
For many years, the international community has helped Afghanistan deal with its land mines. The United Nations Mine Action Program for Afghanistan, assisted by such international organizations as the HALO Trust and Save the Children, is the largest demining program in the world. The United States has contributed to it. But the program's hardest workers have been Afghans. Nearly 5,000 of them carry out the dangerous work of detecting and destroying land mines. Sixty have been killed, several hundred wounded.
Once the current military campaign ends, the United States, along with the United Nations, should mobilize another international coalition against terrorism, this one focused on the terror caused by land mines in Afghanistan. Much needs to be done, including mine-awareness programs, emergency medical assistance, accelerated mine clearance and survivor assistance, including prosthetics and rehabilitation. It is not unusual to see two generations of Afghans--parent or grandparent and child--being fitted for artificial limbs at the same time.
At a recent State Department dinner honoring those involved in the global demining effort, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell underscored the importance of ridding Afghanistan of land mines. This action, he said, "is not only critical to public safety, it is a key factor in the process of national reconstruction. Mine action is about healing the wounds of war, reaching out to its victims, and opening economic opportunities for shattered communities."
The personal tragedies caused by land mines in Afghanistan is one reason why 142 countries have agreed that these indiscriminate weapons should be banned. Neither the United State nor Afghanistan are among those nations. The interim Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and the Bush administration, which is currently reviewing U.S. land-mine policy, would strike a blow against terrorism if they joined the cause.
Karl F. Inderfurth was U.S. special representative for Global Humanitarian Demining from 1998-99 and is currently on the board of Landmine Survivors Network.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times