The Devil in the Dirt
21 September 2007 | Esquire
There is a landmine museum in Kabul. It’s a single poorly lit room with portraits on the wall of kids suddenly made asymmetrical by munitions left behind. Armies withdraw, but they don’t pick up after themselves.
Here, on display, are all the devilish devices men have dreamt up to disassemble one another. Claymores, rocket propelled grenades, rounds the size of your forearm. The cases are open, so you can reach in and pick the things up.
They have mines from America, China, Italy, Pakistan, Russia, Egypt; everyone seems to have buried relics somewhere in Afghanistan. The tags on the unearthed weapons are simple: “Russia; trip wire; operational pressure 250kgs; 1000 pieces chopped steel rod.” “Pakistan; claymore; electrical initiation; 600 6-millimeter steel ball bearings.” They’re less “improvised” than buried propane tanks wrapped in nails on roadsides, but the idea is the same.
And just like IED’s, they’re assigned sterile-sounding acronyms. The agencies deal in ERW’s and UXO’s—Explosive Remnants of War and Unexploded Ordinance, respectively—so they might talk courteously about these things that keep refugees from repatriating, rob families of their breadwinner, and don’t know an advancing soldier from a child fetching water, so that the kid giving you the thumbs-up when your armored SUV rumbles by will one day take a wrong step and be ripped apart by a six hundred steel ball bearings. Something like that happens twice a day in Afghanistan.
And it was more or less the fate of a woman who stepped on an Iranian YM-1 antipersonnel mine in Bari Kab, just south of Bagram airbase. (The same place a suicide bomber tried to off Dick Cheney eight months ago.) This woman’s accident was three years ago though, and only in the last few months has a team been dispatched to clear the area. There are 8,500 people working on mine clearance here, five different international NGO’s, two national ones, and two commercial interests, all dedicated to mine work. Afghanistan has the largest mine clearing operation in the world, and still active sites lie unattended to for years, so riddled with unexploded ordinance is this country.
The mine the woman stepped on was intended for the Taliban. In 1995 the Northern Alliance packed explosives into the earth along a dried-out streambed, because Talib fighters would use it to seek cover when they advanced toward the Bagram airport. Then when the U.S. came in 2001, American warplanes dropped cluster bombs on the same position, and when the mine clearing team began their work, five hundred or so unexploded bomblets lay littering the earth. They’re cursed little things, small and shiny, intriguing toys for curious children.
I’ve been escorted to the site in a United Nations SUV; it’s now been surveyed, diagrammed and sections cordoned of with rope and painted rocks. I’m given a mine clearing helmet with full facemask, and a U.N.-blue flak jacket. I have the only vest without a crotch protector though; I feel immediately naked and my hands descend by themselves in futile protection. I’m the freshman in the locker room shower, looking around and sensing a critical inadequacy. But there’s nothing to do about it now. Before I can venture onto the minefield, I’m asked to give my blood type.
The team leader greets me with a rigid salute that he holds while reciting his rank and title, which he does with a military zeal I’m entirely unprepared for. Until that point the environment on the minefield had felt decidedly unmilitary, indeed, mine clearing is a cause whose most forceful advocates might accurately be described as anti-military. I return his salute with a meek one of my own, unsure of whether I’m supposed to hold it as long as he does.
He walks me along “cleared” paths marked with stones painted white, past workers who are slowly scanning the ground with metal detectors, or are on their knees moving earth with hand tools. There is a telling mutual indifference between the men working the earth, and the military aircraft roaring overhead on their way in and out of Bagram airbase.
Clearing mines is as tedious as it is perilous. There is thirty years worth of war scattered around the ground in this country, and not all of it is explosive. “We don’t have mine detectors,” I‘m told by a U.N. representative, “we have metal detectors.” When they beep, the guy gets down on his knees (with his feet tucked under him in the same position he will assume during prayer), and with two hand tools, painstakingly excavates the hot spot. It may be a shrapnel-packed explosive he discovers, or it may be a harmless shard of metal. After a few fruitless digs, he might be forgiven for being a little cavalier. But they have a saying in this line of work: “your first mistake is your last mistake.”
Today, one of the workers sweeping the creek bed has found a live mine against the bank. He digs just enough to uncover a few inches of olive-green metal, and exposes the explosive to the first light it’s seen since a soldier buried it seventeen years ago. There is undeniable history being uncovered here; the whole practice of mine clearing is a strange archeology.
But this mine will not make it back to the museum. It’s up against loose earth and there is some suspicion that it is rigged to other explosives. So they string a few feet of fuse to one hundred grams of TNT, and we all turn off our cell phones for fear of prematurely triggering the charge. From fifty meters, we watch the team leader yell “Infjer! Infjer!” to warn the scattered workers of an impending explosion.
The TNT detonates and triggers the mine. It explodes with a thunderous crack and a plume of black smoke, spitting rocks through the air; one flies just above our heads and crashes into the bank behind us. I had taken my helmet off to better photograph the explosion.
Another one down, some 700 million square meters of mined land left to clear.
Countless countries have shipped mines to Afghanistan, over the course of three different conflicts. First it was the Soviets defending roads and bases, then came the warring mujahideen tribes, finally the Northern Alliance staving off the Taliban. They don’t like talking about whose mines are where, primarily because most of the clearing is overseen by the UN and pointing fingers is undiplomatic. But Afghans, though gracious to a fault, speak strongly and conspiratorially of other nations meddling in their affairs. Iran wants to empower Shias, Pakistan wants to empower the Sunnis and keep Afghanistan unstable so they can have more control, America just wants to stay and lord over the region. Their methods are discrete; secretly funneling money to the Taliban, building a madrassa to train a generation of Shias loyal to Iran, buying influence in a ministry. But for Afghans, the Diaspora of leftover landmines littering the terrain is the physical hint of all the foreign powers who have vied for influence in their home. Appropriately, the mines are below the surface as well.
And so there are cities of amputees in this country. In the capital they are ubiquitous, leaning on canes, sliding next to traffic on improvised push-carts asking motorists for change. It’s the only place in the world, so the joke goes, where one shoe is as valuable as a pair.
And sometimes when the city winds down in the evening, when traffic thins and construction stops so that intermittent sounds of children become audible—flurries of laughter, the flutter of paper kites—you will hear a low rumble echo off the mountains. And you will know that somewhere, one thousand pieces of chopped steel have taken flight.
Found in: Afghanistan