Cables From Kabul - Minesweeping Is More Than Just A Bar Game
While it may seem to readers that Henry and myself are having a whale of a time over in A'stan, our mission runs a little deeper than eating out, partying and drinking like it was the dawn of prohibition. In between romantic Chinese meals eaten under the protective watch of AK-47s and swigs of lukewarm beer, we're also here to investigate the humanitarian situation in the country.
This weekend we joined a demining team in the hills around Kabul. Back in the 80s when the Russians were running the show around here, they kept Mujahideen at bay by dropping a ring of mines around the outskirts of the city. Our crew were assigned the task of finding and removing them.
After Cambodia, Afghanistan is the most mine-polluted country in the world. The guts (ahem) of 550 people a year are injured by landmines and other unexploded treats left buried in the ground here. There are 7,000 danger areas in Afghanistan and the majority of them are marked with razor wire and signage.
The problem with that is that lumber – lumber like razor wire and signage – is one of the easiest things to trade in this country. And Afghan people are so poor that they sell their children. You can stick up as many protective barriers as you like – people won't see the warning, they'll see the money.
Demining is no glamour gig. We were wearing suits that weighed 30kgs and at 10am it was already 36 degrees. But the shifts are sweet. Every thirty minutes you get a fag break to de-stress. By the end of the day, I've smoked and sunned myself into a reality destroying state of light-headedness, but if you worked here full time, you'd need those breaks. Last year, one of the crew lost his eyes in an explosion.
So long as funding doesn't dry up, the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan estimate that the mine problem in this country will be "manageable" by 2013. The wording of that statement's not hugely reassuring, and when you throw in the fact that the Americans are leaving and the country will almost definitely collapse back into chaos when they do, you can be pretty sure farmers' kids will be burning their toes on landmines for many generations to come in Afghanistan.
In the meantime, they're busy training people to make artificial limbs for mine victims. We visited a factory and fitting centre in Kabul where they produce 4,000 ersatz body parts every year.
While we were there we met Nasir, an Afghan soldier who'd lost both his legs in a fight with the Taliban. Plastic legs or not, Nasir was confrontational. "What is you documentary going to do for me?" he asked. "This does nothing for Afghanistan."
On the way out of the hospital we ran into a bunch of kids who told us they hated foreigners.
"How would you feel if you country was taken over?" they said.
Ten years of Russians, five years of Pakistani Taliban and now another decade of Americans. We're getting the impression that a lot of people in Afghanistan wish the rest of us would all just go home.
WORDS: CONOR CREIGHTON
PHOTOS: HENRY LANGSTON