Afghan Government to Take Over Mine Clearance

By Abdul Baseer Saeed

KABUL, Afghanistan, February 15, 2005 (ENS) - Sometime before the end of this year, the government will assume responsibility for removing the thousands of landmines that after years of fighting continue to litter this country.

The dangerous and time consuming work is currently being done by 15 separate organizations under the sponsorship of the United Nations Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan (UNMACA).

According to Masood Hamidzadah, external relations specialist with UNMACA, Afghanistan accepted responsibility for conducting de-mining operations when it acceded to the Ottawa Convention, calling for a total ban on landmines, in 2002.

Many of the explosives yet to be cleared are left over from the Soviet invasion of 1979. Substantial amounts were planted by Soviets and the mujahedin.

According to Hamidzadah, 2,650 people were killed and 12,225 injured by landmines between 1989, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, and the end of 2004.

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A deminer from the Demining Agency for Afghanistan begins removing anti-tank mines piled in one of many unsecured bunkers in this ammunition supply point in Kandahar Province. (Photos by Robert Gannon, RONCO Consulting Corporation courtesy U.S. State Department)
But he suspects the actual number of mine victims is much higher because the figures supplied by the Afghan Red Crescent and the International Red Cross do not include casualties in the more remote regions of the country.

So far, 850 square kilometres (328 square miles) of the country have been cleared of landmines, leaving 716 sq. km. (276 sq. miles) still to be covered, said Hamidzadah.

From 1989 until the end of last year, experts have defused 151,242 anti-personnel mines, 11,246 anti-tank mines and 3,674,419 miscellaneous devices.

But the work has come at a high cost. The 15 organizations involved in mine clearance report that 70 of their personnel have been killed and another 578 injured between 1990 and 2003.

In 2004, only two people were killed while clearing landmines - 21 were injured.

Hamidzadah credits improvements in protective clothing, the increased use of sniffer dogs to locate the explosives and the increased experience of those removing the devices for the dramatic drop in casualties.

Dr. Mohammad Haidar Reza, a deputy at the foreign ministry who will be in charge of the handover, said it is still unclear when the transfer would take place.

"The first step for handing over the de-mining process is to pass a law about de-mining activities," he said. "Until a law is passed, handing over responsibilities to the government would be premature.”

A draft law has been prepared by a consultative group including the ministries of foreign affairs, defense, justice and interior, along with the international donor organizations involved in de-mining. It is awaiting the president's signature to become law, in the absence of a parliament.

But Haidar Reza indicated that internationals would continue to be very much involved in removing landmines from Afghanistan.

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Workers with the Demining Agency for Afghanistan, an Afghan non-governmental organization headquartered in Kandahar, discover a cache of mines.
"These organizations can play an important role in the future,” he said. “We do not want to lose these experienced people."

Dr. Farid Hamyun, the local head of the Halo Trust, an international mine clearing organization, welcomes the transfer from the UN to the Afghan government.

"A de-mining program has three steps: the first is strategy, then coordination followed by implementation,” he said. “As far as I know, strategy and coordination belong to the government. Implementation is where we come in.”

Whoever is responsible for the de-mining efforts, it will continue to be a hugely expensive effort.

Since 1989, Hamidzada said, US$320 million have been spent on removing mines, adding, “It is thought a further US$500 million will be required."

De-mining efforts are funded through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which is administered by the World Bank.

The whole de-mining process is expected to be completed by 2012.

"We need to set a final date," said Hamidzada. "By then, most of the country should be cleared. We cannot say all devices will be removed, but after all bombs are still being discovered in Europe 60 years after the Second World War."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}