World Environment News

FEATURE - US cluster bombs add to Afghan landmine tragedy

Date: 05-Dec-01
Country: AFGHANISTAN
Author: Michael Steen

Behind a line of stones painted red for danger, a cloud of smoke and dust has erupted into the clear blue sky and someone is shouting. A stone ricochets off the rusting hulk of one of the old Soviet-built tanks that dot the landscape.

The blast was from a U.S. cluster bomblet, accidentally triggered by a shepherd who narrowly avoided being killed. Until recently the village of Qarah Bagh, north of the Afghan capital Kabul, was a front line position.

Like other mine clearance agencies, Haddi's team, from the British anti-landmine charity the Halo Trust, has not yet been trained to destroy cluster bomblets, and can only mark out patches of them as danger areas.

"It was a small yellow thing, I didn't know what it was," said the shepherd, Habib Ullahjan, 45. "I picked it up and threw it away, then it exploded."

Afghanistan is already one of the world's most heavily mined countries, littered with ordnance made by Russians, Iranians, Italians and Pakistanis.

But the U.S. bombing of former Taliban positions has added a new killing machine to the multitude of unexploded devices strewn across Afghanistan's expansive dusty plains, in orchards, rice fields, and villages.

DESIGNED TO SHRED FLESH

Campaign group Landmine Action says U.S. military figures show 600 cluster bombs have been dropped in Afghanistan.

Each cluster bomb contains 202 "BLU 97" bomblets which are designed to shred enemies' flesh and wreck their equipment on the ground.

But somewhere between seven and 30 percent of the devices fail to detonate on impact and either sink into the ground or lie on the surface. They effectively become landmines.

Now that the Taliban have retreated - bombed out of the north by Washington which accuses the hardline Islamic movement of harbouring Osama bin Laden - refugees from the fighting are returning to their homes.

"I only came back three days ago. We fled to Kabul from the fighting," said Ullahjan, the shepherd, leading his flock of sheep away from the field where he set off the cluster bomblet.

"I came back to check my house. It's been destroyed. I thought this place was clear of mines."

Ullahjan was luckier than 12-year-old Nickwalli or Samim Ahsanullah, who is eight. Both boys are recovering in Kabul's Karta Se hospital from cluster bomblet explosions.

Nickwalli lost one eye and has injuries to his arms and head. Samim's thin legs, arms and chest are badly injured.

BOMBLET LOOKED LIKE A BISCUIT

"There were three of us going to school. We saw small yellow things on the ground. I picked one up and it exploded. It looked like a big biscuit," said Samim.

The hospital's head nurse, Mohammed Zaman, said the surgeons had almost amputated Samim's leg but decided against it at the last minute. "I think it will be okay," he said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the United States has every right to use cluster bombs after the September 11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The United States, along with Russia and China, has refused to back an international ban on anti-personnel mines, signed in Ottawa in 1997. But the U.S. State Department pledged to increase its funding of landmine clearance in Afghanistan.

And once it was revealed that the yellow bomblets were the same size and colour as yellow U.S. food packets being air dropped for civilians in Afghanistan, Washington said it would in future colour food packets blue.

None of which immediately helps the Karta Se hospital, a rickety collection of buildings in the heart of west Kabul, a part of the city turned into a nightmare vision of pulverised buildings by the brutal civil war here in the early 1990s.

Zaman said the hospital receives up to five people every day who have stepped on a landmine, picked up unexploded ordnance, or stumbled across a cluster bomblet.

The U.N. estimates that 10 Afghans are killed or maimed every day by mines.

GATHERING FIREWOOD

No one has yet compiled

Reuters
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