Explosive remnants put Afghan lives at risk

Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi in Kabul

The withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan is a done deal, but what happens with the explosive remnants of war the troops are leaving behind? Victims hope that the NATO summit comes up with answers.

“I used to feel bad about my condition,” Rahmat Merzayee says. “Whenever I would see a girl on the street, I would wish I wasn’t there and hide myself.” He stops for a moment. Then his blue, pale eyes twinkle with joy again. “Today I have learned to live with my condition. My work has given me so much self-confidence.”

Rahmat was just nine years old when he lost both of his legs. He stepped on a mine while playing outside. Just for a brief moment, just for a second he didn’t look where he was going and his life changed forever. Since then Rahmat has had to wear prostheses and can only move with the help of his crutches. But giving up is not an option.

Rahmat is a program manager at the Afghan Landmines Survivors’ Organization (ALSO) in Kabul and an active member of the group “Ban Advocates,” which represents the demands of survivors of accidents involving land mines or other explosive remnants of war at international conferences. Here, he has the chance to stand together with other victims and speak up for them.

One issue is of particular importance to him: The withdrawal of the international troops from Afghanistan. NATO should not forget to systematically clear its explosive remnants while rushing out of the country, he tells DW. “When the Soviet troops left in 1989, they left the country in a heavily mined state.” That, he says, cost thousands of Afghans their arms and legs. “Does NATO want to repeat the same mistake now?” Rahmat asks.

man on crutchesClearing out

Afghanistan is not only the most contaminated country in the world, the war-torn country also has the highest number of mine casualties. This hasn’t changed since NATO invaded Afghanistan, instead further thousands of square kilometers of explosive remnants of the ISAF operations have made things worse.

According to a report by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the number of civilian victims affected by explosive remnants in the first half of 2014 rose by 14 percent compared to last year. In the more than 30 years of war, there is no sign that these numbers are falling. Another shocking fact: Most of the casualties were children. “A lot of kids search for metal to sell on the market. Sometimes they can’t distinguish between explosive materials and metals, but then it’s too late,” says Rahmat.

That’s why Rahmat and Handicap International (HI), who have been working in Afghanistan to help disabled and vulnerable people since 1996, are calling upon the NATO summit in Wales to recognize its responsibility.

Camille Gosselin, Humanitarian Advocacy Manager at HI, wants NATO to work on this issue and make sure that the focus is not only on the withdrawal but on how to systematically clear out their legacy. “We request that countries which are contributing to ISAF troops share all information in regards to any known contamination by explosive remnants of war of their military basis, fire ranges and known battle areas,” Gosselin told DW. “As we see the rise in the number of civilian casualties, they have an obligation to mark and clear all contaminated military bases and undertake urgent mine risk education programs in order to avoid any new civilian casualties.” Furthermore, Gosselin hopes that the NATO summit will be the occasion to announce further financial support for Afghanistan to assist victims, their families and communities.

A new chance

This is crucial for Afghanistan as more and more donors are pulling back from their projects. One of the main reasons is the withdrawal of troops but it’s also a result of the instable political situation, caused by the election chaos. Just a few days ago Rahmat received news that a big ALSO project would be canceled. “It’s very frustrating,” he says while his crutches lean against his chair. Then a smile appears on his lips. “However my work gives me a lot of strength.”

Rahmat enjoys helping people who share a similar life story, and giving them new hope. He himself was sent to Germany after his accident where he regained faith in life. “When I lost my legs, they gave me a chance to start anew,” he tells DW. He wants to give this chance to other victims too.

In less then four months, NATO will withdraw from Afghanistan. By then, say Rahmat and Handicap International, all explosive remnants and mines should have been cleared and maps should be drawn up to help mine clearance organizations do their work. “I don’t want another generation of mine victims to grow up in this country,” says Rahmat.

This piece was first published at:  DW.de