Clearing landmines that don’t distinguish between a soldier or a child

James Cowan
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Afghanistan is once again dominating the global news. Yet behind the headlines and the politicians’ hand wringing, the lives of ordinary Afghans are beset by multiple humanitarian crises, with severe hunger looming over the population.

Accessing the most vulnerable communities means transporting aid over routes littered with landmines and other explosive remnants of war.

The World Food Programme reports that 14 million people are acutely food insecure, including two million children. The UN’s food and farming agencies plan to distribute food aid and winter wheat seeds for millions.

In addition to this, the UN estimates that there are more than 3.5 million people who were displaced by conflict in Afghanistan.

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Now the fighting has ended, vast numbers of people will endeavor to return to their farms, villages and towns. When large groups of people get on the move, there are inevitable spikes in civilian injuries from unexploded munitions.

If you flee your home because of fighting, you do not know the exact location of the battles that took place in your absence. So you return to your village only to find it mined. Shepherds stray into unfamiliar pastures. Buses carrying young families meet roadside bombs. Schoolchildren wander off track and encounter improvised devices.

There have already been reports of increased civilian casualties from roadside bombs in Helmand and Kandahar.

The British landmine clearance charity I lead, The HALO Trust, was founded in Afghanistan over 30 years ago during the Soviet withdrawal.

Its founding mission was simple: to train local men in mine detection and clearance, simultaneously saving lives and providing much needed employment.

At the beginning of this year, roughly one third of our 10,000 global staff were Afghan, working across most of the country’s 34 provinces.

With the fighting ended, vast numbers of people will return to their farms, villages and towns, accompanied by inevitable spikes in civilian injuries from unexploded munitions. (AFP)
With the fighting ended, vast numbers of people will return to their farms, villages and towns, accompanied by inevitable spikes in civilian injuries from unexploded munitions. (AFP)

Over the last three decades, HALO has helped clear 80 percent of landmines in Afghanistan; including the entire province of Herat. It also spearheaded the reconstruction of West Kabul – the single largest urban clearance operation since the end of the Second World War.

Like the rest of the world, HALO did not foresee the fall of Kabul in August. Several charities left the country, but HALO resumed operations within two weeks of the Taliban coming to power.

The charity was able to mobilize quickly after the regime change because of our long-standing working relations with local and national Taliban leaders.

We have long operated in Taliban-controlled areas because we believe all Afghans deserve to live free from the dangers of mines, regardless of who controls the area where they live. This meant we were able to forge mutual trust between our staff and the Taliban: it was in all interests to clear mines, but we needed consent from all parties to do so.

Of course you may feel that aid organizations should not work with regimes such as the Taliban. But HALO believes children have the right to walk without fear of death or loss of limb no matter who is in charge. We apply this principle the world over, whether it be Libya, Somalia, Syria or Yemen. Mine clearance in the post-conflict environment is meeting acute humanitarian need, not state building.

Some commentators believe that the Taliban should clear up unexploded remnants of war they laid themselves. But given that the mine legacy in Afghanistan encompasses the Soviet occupation of the 1970s, the civil war of the 1990s and the conflict since 2001, this is far too simplistic.

Furthermore, apportioning blame and allocating responsibility has never been the job of the humanitarians like HALO. Concentrating on getting mines out of the ground, rather than pointing at those who laid them, enabled us to lead the mission to clear Mozambique of all known landmines, a colossal achievement we celebrated in 2015.

But aside from the obvious life-saving benefit of mine clearance, it can also be a key stabilization tool in post conflict landscapes. With the cessation of fighting, there are now hundreds of thousands of young Afghan men of fighting age.

Without employment and financial security, many could now drift toward more radical and internationally-focused groups such as ISIS-K.

We know from experience that providing dignified work clearing mines is a major incentive away from conflict.

With the Afghan economy in tatters, funding practical, measurable work such as HALO’s requires flexibility and commitment from governments, intra-regional agencies, philanthropists, and businesses worldwide, including those in the Gulf.

Afghans face a turbulent, uncertain future. The very least we can do is pave them the safest possible path, by clearing decades-old weapons that do not distinguish between a soldier or a child.

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