International pull-out threatens Afghan de-mining
Haji Abdul Samad pictured in Sangaw village, on the outskirts of Kabul, on April 2, 2013. Since losing his leg in a minefield more than 20 years ago, he has unearthed at least 1,000 explosives and become one of Afghanistan's most experienced de-miners.
"After my accident, I told myself that I had to do work to save lives. I had to clean the rivers, hills, villages," Samad, who was fighting against the Soviets when he stepped on a mine in 1989, told AFP.
"But I'm not afraid of mines," he added, at a site being cleared outside the capital Kabul, ahead of the UN International Day for Mine Awareness on Thursday.
"I will continue to work as long as even just one remains in the country," he vowed.
Samad, a father of eight children originally from the southern city of Kandahar, is part of the huge de-mining effort taking place in Afghanistan, which is dotted with minefields after decades of conflict.
Since 1989, when the Soviets left, more than 4,000 people have been killed and 17,000 injured by mines, not including devices laid in the current conflict, according to an estimate by the UN's Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan (MACCA).
Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world and an average of 42 civilians -- most of them boys under 18 -- are killed or injured each month by mines and other leftover war explosives.
But as the NATO-led combat mission ends next year and international attention towards Afghanistan fades, donor funding for mine clearing is already drying up despite the huge amount of work still to be done.
"We are doing our best. We are appealing for more help," said Mohammad Sediq Rashid, the head of MACCA, which is $25 million short of its $84 million annual fundraising budget.
"Donors are aware of the situation. Now it is up to them to respond," he said, describing the countless remaining mines as a threat to the future development of the country.
"If the programme is continued the problem can be addressed, but now it's not solved. We have lost 1,000 de-miners because of very unstable funding."
De-mining of some description continued even through the civil war and the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, and huge progress has been made in recent years since the Islamic extremists were ousted by a US-led invasion.
Sangaw hill, where Haji Abdul Samad works for the Danish Demining Group (DDG), was a forward position for Soviet soldiers, who protected themselves with several belts of meticulously hidden mines.
After the Soviets retreated, the Taliban took control of the strategic position, located halfway between Kabul and Bagram airbase, and laid their own explosives in the rough, rocky landscape.
Over the last 30 years at least 13 people have died and 22 have been injured by mines on Sangaw hill alone, the latest casualty losing a leg while herding cattle six months ago.
Since last October, except for a break in the harshest weeks of winter, more than 40 DDG de-miners have been at work to make the slopes of Sangaw safe for farmers and livestock.
"So far, we found more than 600 mines and 1,000 UXO (unexploded ordnance)," said Megan Latimer, DDG Technical Advisor.
"There are a lot of items for a small area, but we hope to finish this section within three weeks."
The site, silent except for the beep of metal detectors, is now dotted with red and white stones indicating safe places to walk as teams of de-miners in helmets and blue armoured vests clear further ground.
A line of yellow painted stones higher up the mountain mark where explosives have been found, while nearby a de-miner scrapes the ground and finds another deadly device during a visit by AFP.
"This is very dangerous work," said Samad, in his late 50s. He says he knows of 20 to 30 de-miners killed or injured while on the job.
Samad, whose weather-beaten face reveals his years working outdoors, refuses to contemplate retirement and there appears to be no end in sight for the mammoth task.
About 1.2 million mines and 16 million pieces of unexploded ordnance have been destroyed since 1989, and 21,000 battlefields have been cleared, but at least 4,900 "risk areas" remain, according to MACCA.
As funding has fallen, DDG has had to release 450 local employees, mostly de-miners, over the last year.
Clearing mines, an industry than employs 12,000 people nationwide, is one of the major achievements of the international effort in Afghanistan since 2001.
And de-mining groups are desperate to keep pushing ahead with their work.
"When you start something, you must finish it," said Rashid.
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