Asadullah Ahmadzai was just a few metres from his home in Logar province after buying notebooks for school when he stepped on the mound of dirt that blew off his left leg. He landed face-first. In his shock he tried to stand but immediately collapsed again into a bloody heap. Beneath the dirt had been a landmine.
Nearly 300 children have been killed or injured by landmines in Afghanistan in the past seven months alone. Those are the verified figures, but the real number is believed to be much higher.
As the anniversary of the fall of Kabul approaches, with an economy in crisis exacerbated by sanctions since the Taliban takeover and a paralysed banking system, those numbers are at risk of increasing.
Despite the relative peace across the country after one year of Taliban rule, decades of war continue to haunt the population.
“I remember hearing voices saying that there had been an explosion and brief flashes of being in a car. I saw that my leg was missing and I just passed out,” said 12-year-old Asadullah, recalling the events of the early afternoon of April 24.
His father, Hasan Khan Ahmadzai, was among those trying to help him. He used his scarf to stem the bleeding from his son’s leg as the boy passed in and out of consciousness. They bundled him into a car and to a nearby clinic before he was driven by ambulance to NGO Emergency hospital in Kabul, an hour’s drive north. He remained hospitalised for 42 days. “It’s been really tough,” Asadullah said as tears welled in his eyes.
Just two weeks later, while Asadullah was still recovering in hospital, the same thing happened to his younger brother Abdullah, ten, also blowing off his left leg. Again, he stepped on what the family believe was a landmine, just a few metres from their home.
“It’s just unfathomable. It felt like my mind stopped working when I saw Asadullah injured but to see another of my children so severely injured so soon after, it was hard to process,” said his father, who suspects they were planted by the Taliban.
The brothers are recovering well and are learning to walk on prosthetic legs. Both are keen cricketers and like to play football but the idea of playing in their neighbourhood again, when they are able to, fills them with fear.
“There are miles and miles of land that still need clearing. Around the time of 9/11 there were up to 3,000 casualties per year,” said the United Nations Mine Action Service (Unmas) programme manager, Paul Heslop. “That number was brought down to about 200 by 2010 but we were back up to around 2,000 again in 2021 and the percentage of child casualties is increasing.”
A lack of funding is a big factor behind the increase and since the Taliban took control this has only become more of a challenge.
The government’s Directorate of Mine Action Co-ordination (DMAC) has been a crucial information hub for de-mining NGOs since 2018. There are three international and seven national organisations which provide vital safety education as well as conducting mine clearance operations. However, DMAC was closed temporarily this year when donors became concerned about funds ending up in the hands of the Taliban.
After some negotiations, Unmas stepped in and launched an Emergency Humanitarian Co-ordination Centre in April. “It’s vital to have this kind of centre to know what’s going on, what areas have been cleared, which communities need risk education. It also acts as a vital bridge between the organisations on the ground and the donors,” Heslop said.
Since 1989, more than 18.9 million items of ERW (explosive remnants of war), some 750,518 anti-personnel mines, and 32,401 anti-vehicle (AV) mines have been cleared. But newer contamination from recent conflict, such as improvised mines and ERW, continue to pose a huge threat.
Although there has not been a national survey since 2012, teams have been able to identify more than 4,000 current hazards, threatening at least 1,500 communities. These threats greatly hamper development by delaying construction of new roads, airports and transmission lines. They also restrict access for vaccination teams, as well as to agricultural land, and prevent the return of people who have been displaced by the conflict.
This time last year there were approximately 6,000 Afghans employed in the sector, according to Heslop. Amid the panic of the takeover, organisations suspended their operations, but by September about 4,000 people had returned to work. “This demonstrates there is real commitment and resilience in the sector,” Heslop said.
However, the impact of the banking crisis began to take effect in January and 1,000 employees were laid off.
Despite this, Heslop believes the sector offers a lot of opportunity. “Mine clearance has been one of the most successful capacity building projects in Afghanistan. In 2012 there were 17,000 Afghans employed in the sector. There is easily a need for that kind of number again, there is no shortage of work — we just need the funding,” Heslop said.
“We have around $25 million in funding but that’s only about 10 to 15 percent of what the sector needs over the next two years.
“If we can employ more Afghans, that means more families have an income — this is crucial considering the economic crisis. That in turn increases market liquidity because those families will be spending money in their communities.”
He said engagement with the Taliban on the inclusion of women had been very positive. Although there are no longer female de-miners in Bamyan, Unmas has been able to negotiate the inclusion of female employees on educational teams. “We now have twice as many women working in vital community liaison roles compared to August last year,” Heslop said.