Why you should care
Because children are losing life and limb due to these buried bombs.
Ivan Flores is a multimedia journalist who’s working on a long-term visual project about Afghanistan.
I’m standing in a minefield on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan. In a few moments, a land mine will explode. Mirwais, the tall, broad-shouldered Afghan operations assistant for Mine Action Committee Center for Afghanistan (MACCA), hands me a cup of chai. The mine goes off. A controlled detonation. On the side of a mountain, in a remote part of Afghanistan, a team from MACCA is sweeping and digging for land mines. The Taliban frequently targets anyone who works with the government or the U.N.; deminers are therefore considered legitimate targets.
It looks like the rusted bottom of a tin can. But this tin can will take out your legs and leave you to die.
Following a narrow path up a steep cliff, I watch the deminers sweeping the ground with metal detectors. The only indicator of what’s safe and what’s contaminated land are stones painted in different colors: White is all right and red is dead. The path is about 1.5 meters wide and either side could be lined with mines. White is all right, I keep reminding myself. One of the workers calls out. He’s found something.
Using only hand signals, he gestures toward the ground. He kneels on the path and opens his tool kit. If it weren’t for his blast vest and face shield and the fact we’re standing in a mine field, he would look like a gardener. Carefully pulling out an assortment of metal rods and brushes and a small digging tool, he goes to work — slowly. He’s found a mine and radios in for a small explosive charge to clear it. It’s a Russian PM-2 mine but looks just like the rusted bottom of a tin can. But this tin can will take out your legs and leave you to die.
At EMERGENCY’s surgery center in Kabul, I’m having coffee with the program director, Luca Radaelli. EMERGENCY is an Italian NGO that has operated in Afghanistan since the 1990s. Radaelli has piercing blue eyes, with salt and pepper hair that matches his beard. The hospital was built at the site of a former nursery school that was hit by a rocket, killing five children. The playground is still mostly intact. The hospital is free of charge for all victims of war, regardless of affiliation — Radaelli says they treat the person, not the politics. Over lunch, the staff quiz me about life outside the hospital; security protocols keep them within the confines of the hospital and a guest house. We watch an American helicopter fly by, bank sharply and fire off several flares. A radio crackles, “Falcon, Falcon, six people coming in. Possible mine explosion.”
I’m running toward the ER to meet the ambulance. The doors swing open and the first victim is wheeled in. He’s conscious but shaking violently, having suffered burns on more than 40 percent of his body, mostly on his head and back. There is shrapnel in his chest. The team surrounds him. Then the doors burst open again, and again, and again. A crowd has formed outside the ER, rubbernecking for a glimpse inside. The medical staff is cutting away what’s left of his clothes while trying to intubate him and prep him for surgery.
On my rounds, I met a boy, Ahmad Zia. He’s 8. One day, playing outside with his brother, he found something on the ground and decided to smash it with a rock. Ahmad lost his right arm, right eye and most of his hearing. His body was peppered with shrapnel, and even though his left eye was saved, it no longer works. At the hospital I met more children: a quadriplegic with bed sores from a remote village in the north, a boy who looks perfectly normal except he can’t stop screaming from the nerve damage. There are others, with missing limbs, missing eyes, a laundry list of atrocities inflicted on the most vulnerable population by ghosts of a history long forgotten. Children and goat herders are the most likely victims of land mines and other explosive remains.
I see pieces of burned flesh stuck to a gurney, bloody rags on the floor, and an orderly is mopping up. I walk to the children’s ward to say goodbye to some of the kids, making sure not to wake the boy who was screaming during rounds. Radaelli tells me that this year will be the worst year for civilian casualties. I ask him how he knows. “Because every year for the last five years has been worse than the one before it,” he replies. We’re both silent.
A helicopter flies overhead and I thank him for his time. With an estimated 534 square kilometers of known mines, an entrenched insurgency, an unstable government and funding cuts, making Afghanistan mine-free by 2023 feels further and further out of reach.