In Afghani “Devil’s Garden,” landmines kill and mutilate thousands

While US President Obama is going to send more troops to Afghanistan, for many people living there the deadly legacy of war is all around. The country is littered with landmines that caused half of all American deaths.

When Rakhimulla Qasem, an Afghani teenager from Bagram village outside Kabul, was 6, he stepped on a landmine and lost both his hands and foot. He now can’t remember a different life. It’s difficult for him to work in a roadside shop, but what he lacks in profits, he makes up for in optimism.

“What has happened has happened,” Rakhimulla said. “All I dream of now is for my village to be cleared of mines so that no more children get hurt like me and don’t have to suffer as I did when I lost my hands and foot.”

According to international estimates, as many as 70,000 Afghan civilians have, over the past 20 years, been killed or maimed by landmines. Despite the work of international clearing companies, an area the size of New York City is still littered with the deadly devices. This year alone, more than 600 civilians lost their limbs.

The village is close to Bagram airbase, from where the Soviets ran their military operations and where today the US forces have their headquarters. The road leading to the base has minefields to the right and civilians to the left.

“This district was very important because of Bagram military base,” said Hadji Nasyr, a member of mine-clearing group. “This strategic base went from the Taliban to the Northern Alliance. After the coalition forces took it under control, they have put more than 1,000 mines in this area.”

And it’s these homemade roadside bombs that have come to replace the more traditional antipersonnel mines used over the years by different warring factions. For the Taliban they’re their weapon of choice against NATO and Afghan military and civilian vehicles. While on the decrease in Iraq, their effectiveness has steadily increased in Afghanistan.

“Every day a dozen mine explosions will be something normal,” said Amin Mudaqiq, Kabul bureau chief at Radio Azadi. “Even if I check my computer today, there are four which have been reported and there might be many that have not been reported; most of the time they hit civilians.”

But they’re also hitting foreign forces – and with increasing accuracy. Nearly 1,500 soldiers died in the last eight years as the number of roadside bombs doubled. As Obama approves more troops in Afghanistan, he’d do well to remember that more than half of all American combat casualties were caused by these roadside bombs.

Locals here have long since given up hope that the minefields in their backyard will ever permanently disappear, and have dubbed the area the “Devil’s Garden.”