The Afghanistan legacy
It remained unexploded until Mohammed stumbled upon the ordnance while looking for scrap metal this month. He had nearly gathered enough shrapnel and bullet shells to trade for an ice cream cone.
Then the 40mm grenade tore through the boy’s 87-pound body, breaking through bone and tendon and nerve. When Mohammed’s father, Shahzad Gul, found his son, he thought to himself: “All of his blood is gone.”
On the periphery of Bagram Airfield, farmers, scrap-metal collectors and sheep herders have been crippled, blinded and burned by US military ammunition on an unfenced and poorly marked training ground. Called the East River Range, the training ground is blanketed with unexploded US ordnance that was dropped from helicopters and fired from vehicles as part of battlefield rehearsals. There is no barrier between nearby villages and the range — it is unclear where the dusty townships end and the vast military training area begins. The only apparent warnings are scrawled in faded, barely decipherable English lettering on concrete blocks: “Small Arms Range” and “Weapon Range.” There is no translation in Dari or Pashto, the two most common languages in Afghanistan.
The US military has declined to construct a barrier around the East River Range or to relocate the training ground away from civilians, despite pleading by a United Nations-funded de-mining agency. In an e-mail to the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan (MACCA), a US military official argued that constructing a fence around the area would be prohibitively expensive, calling the proposal unrealistic.
“This country was almost destroyed by Russian mines,” said Mohammad Akbar Oriakhil, MACCA’s director for central Afghanistan. “Now we’re watching Americans re-contaminate it.” International organizations have spent several hundred million dollars trying to clear Russian mines leftover from the 1980s occupation, which still pepper roughly 700 square kilometers (270 square miles). The United States has attempted to distinguish itself from the Russian legacy, funding mine-removal efforts and claiming to properly discard its ammunition in secure locations.
But in recent months, MACCA reports that a growing number of boys have been maimed in Bagram — a new generation of Afghans injured by a new generation of explosives. In the villages around Bagram Airfield Qalai Ahmad Khan and Bini Warsak residents with amputated legs and arms are a common sight. Dozens of live US 40mm grenades designed to kill on impact are scattered on the ground a few hundred yards from residents’ mud-brick homes, in an expanse busy with life and industry. The same problem exists at several other NATO firing ranges across the country, which also lack fencing. But nowhere else is it as serious as Bagram, according to MACCA.
The villagers near Bagram are some of Afghanistan’s poorest residents. Most are recently returned refugees from Pakistan who were given free housing by the Afghan government’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. Some are former nomads who have settled after years of crisscrossing the country by donkey. Many have no source of income aside from collecting metal from the firing range and selling it as scrap, at a dollar for 15 pounds.
But in the past year, civilians have been maimed and killed on or near NATO firing ranges in provinces of Ghazni, Paktia and Kabul, according to MACCA. One of the agency’s incident reports, obtained by The Washington Post, includes graphic photos of a de-miner taken seconds after an American 40mm grenade tore off his arm and leg while he was clearing Russian anti-personnel mines near a range in Kabul. In bold letters, the report describes the ammunition: “Country of origin: United States.”
De-miners are not permitted to clear or inspect ordnance on NATO sites, so officials have been unable to assess how much live ammunition remains on the coalition’s firing ranges. As NATO troops withdraw, there is mounting concern among de-mining advocates that the foreign troops will leave behind poorly marked sites full of unexploded ordnance.
— Courtesy: The Washington Post