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In Afghanistan, clearing landmines to save lives

Afghanistan is home to the world’s largest landmine removal program, but as special correspondent Jennifer Glasse reports, mine agencies have done little to clear the explosives -- and casualties are mounting.

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  • William Brangham:

    Twenty years ago, the Ottawa Treaty banned the production and use of anti-personnel land mines, but those deadly explosives still litter the landscape of many war-torn nations like Afghanistan.

    But Afghanistan is also home to the world's largest land mine removal program, which has cleared nearly 80 percent of mines from that country's fight with the Soviets and its own civil war.

    As special correspondent Jennifer Glasse reports, there are still many mines left behind by the renewed fighting from the U.S.-led war on terror, and casualties are mounting.

  • Jennifer Glasse:

    For some, the scars of war will last a lifetime. Three months ago, 13 year old Noorzia stepped on a land mine while collecting firewood. Today, she's walking on new artificial legs.

  • Mahpikay Siddiqi:

    When she came here first, she just crying. Even she afraid from her residual limb. She hide her face to not look at residual limb.

  • Jennifer Glasse:

    But now Noorzia is learning to put her legs on herself. And she couldn't have a better teacher. Mahpikay Siddiqi lost her legs 20 years ago, also to a mine, also while collecting firewood.

    Noorzia's father brought her here to Kabul from Nangarhar Province in the east to get legs, so she can go to school.

  • Rahmatullah (through interpreter):

    She is disabled now. We need to make sure she can get an education, so she can become a doctor or an engineer or a teacher.

  • Jennifer Glasse:

    Mines contaminate 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. At least 30,000 Afghans civilians have been injured or killed by mines or other explosives since 1989, when mine clearing began after the Soviet Union left.

    Just five years ago, casualties caused from mines and other explosive devices looked to become a thing of the past here, but this year, those numbers are expected to be the highest since 2001 because of improvised explosive devices set by the Taliban and other government groups and increased fighting around the country.

    This is the Tangi Saidan Valley just outside Kabul. The Soviets laid mines here in the '80s, then through the '90s, then the Afghan government, the Taliban and other groups, all fighting for control, laid additional mines.

    Until now, it's these old sites that have been the focus of de-mining. But it's new mines that are causing recent casualties.

    Patrick Fruchet runs the U.N.'s Mine Action Service.

  • Patrick Fruchet:

    Back in 2012, there were only about 35 recorded casualties per month. And those numbers have jumped right back up. We're at 181 recorded casualties per month here in 2017. And that's the highest number in the world.

  • Jennifer Glasse:

    And that's because America's war continues in Afghanistan, now into its 17th year. There are more than 15,000 U.S. troops here, some fighting alongside Afghan forces.

    The United States has carried out three times as many airstrikes this year compared to last year. Some of that ordnance won't explode and will become a hazard. And the Taliban, Islamic State and other anti-government militants regularly use using IEDs, improvised explosive devices, many triggered by pressure plates, on roads, in fields and villages.

    Rahmatullah Rahmat is with the HALO Trust, a de-mining organization.

  • Rahmatullah Rahmat:

    So far, the de-mining organizations or Mine Action program in Afghanistan didn't decide to touch with the new mines.

  • Jennifer Glasse:

    For political and practical reasons, mine organizations have primarily focused on what they call legacy mine and battlefields, from the Soviet period through to the Taliban.

    Clearing explosives is a slow and dangerous business. This area has been mined since the 1980s. Mine clearance organizations have been able to get rid of about 80 percent of the old ordnance left in Afghanistan. But new fighting means they still have a lot of work ahead of them.

    New mines means pretty much anything laid after 2001, after the arrival of U.S. and NATO troops. Removing them will be complicated for a number of reasons. There aren't any official negotiations with the Taliban or other insurgent groups, and fighting is ongoing, so access will be difficult.

    And the explosives used by insurgent groups are different from mines laid in the past.

  • Rahmatullah Rahmat:

    The new mine fields are mostly IEDs, different types of IEDs, which we, our teams are not trained to that.

  • Jennifer Glasse:

    The de-miners will need new training. And that will cost money. Already, recent cutbacks have forced mine organizations to lay off more than half the country's 15,000 trained de-miners, after having spent $1.3 billion here since 2001.

  • Patrick Fruchet:

    Afghanistan has a commitment to clear all of its in-place anti-personnel land mines by 2023. The bill for that is about $350 million.

  • Jennifer Glasse:

    To clear the recently laid mines, de-miners first need to be able to get to them. That is hard to do in places where there is active fighting.

    U.N. officials will need to negotiate safe access.

  • Patrick Fruchet:

    We are trying to speak to the parties to the conflict, so that we can agree with everyone that devices should be abandoned, can be abandoned, so that we can go in and clear, so that the civilian population, which bears the brunt of casualties in the conflict in Afghanistan now, the civilian population can be protected from these devices.

  • Jennifer Glasse:

    Afghanistan has had some success in clearing the country of mines.

    In 1995, six years after de-mining began, more than 60 percent of the capital was contaminated. Today, Kabul's sprawling expanse is a testament to how much has been cleared in nearly three decades.

    On one of the capital's busiest streets, artists paint a mural of a de-miner as a hero, raising awareness. Cities may be safe. The countryside isn't.

  • Farah Gulistani (through interpreter):

    Outside of Kabul, people have to worry about mines every day. They could get hurt any time. So, at the end of a day, when it doesn't happen, people count themselves lucky. For Afghans, dealing with the threat of mine blasts has become a normal part of life.

  • Jennifer Glasse:

    Mine agencies believe the only way to stop rising casualties is to start clearing the explosives left by the current conflict.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jennifer Glasse in Kabul.

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