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Min(d)ing Afghanistan

Did mining change the way wars are fought?

September 8, 2001

Did mining change the way wars are fought?

Mines have been called the perfect terrorists. They wait for their victim in silence, never give up, and require nothing to maintain them. Mines laid during the First World War still surface in northern Europe and occasionally explode beneath a tractor’s plough. Until recently, they were cumbersome things and took a certain skill and effort to place. The practice of scattering mines indiscriminately in large numbers was pioneered by American forces in Indochina in the 1950s.

Only a small proportion of mines contain self-destruct mechanisms. Once primed, a mine stays ready to explode until it is destroyed. Today, hundreds of different kinds are produced cheaply and in vast quantities, notably in countries where they are not used.

Large but uncertain numbers of mines — estimates range from one to 10 million — remain buried in Afghan soil. The majority were laid during the Soviet occupation, which lasted from 1979 to 1989, and left behind.

In theory, an army makes maps of its minefields, which for obvious reasons must be precise.

In the case of the Soviets in Afghanistan, only some of these minefields, mostly around military installations, were ever mapped. The belts of thousands of mines that were sown in defensive rings around cities such as Heart and Kabul, or scattered on mountain passes from the air, were not.

Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, huge numbers were laid by opposing mujaheddin groups without even an attempt to record their positions. And in southern Kabul, where the front lines had ranged back and forth across the city, the problem was most acute. Mines had been laid by retreating fighters in streets, abandoned homes and their gardens. And there they remained.

The de-miners had set up their field office at the epicenter of the problem, in southwest Kabul near the university. There, I joined a handful of other foreigners for an hour of sobering instruction.

Mines fall into two categories, explained the burly ex-demolitions expert with a British Midlands accent as he guided us over the array of odd shapes. There were anti-vehicular mines and anti-personnel mines: designed, in other words, to blow up either tanks or people. Anti-tank mines accounted for less than 10% of all unexploded mines in Afghanistan, and they were relatively easy to find.

We were shown heavy, metal mines of Second World War stock from England and Russia, and modern plastic bars filled with liquid explosive. The most common in Afghanistan, an old favorite of the mujaheddin I recognized at once, was the Italian-made TC-6. It had a shell of bright yellow plastic that looked a little like a salad shaker. Inside was a fifteen-pound charge of TNT, powerful enough to flip a tank the way a seagull flips a baby turtle.

The Soviets hated these particular mines because of their low metal content, which made them difficult to detect. But the worst culprits were further on, and we moved to a table strewn with a bewildering variety of smaller mines.

These, we were told, were designed to do their work in three ways: by direct blast, in the case of the smallest mines; by fragmentation of their metal casings, in a manner similar to hand grenades; and directionally, by means of concave blocks of explosive lined with a dense layer of metal pellets which, when detonated, tore at supersonic velocity into anything across a wide arc up to two hundred yards away.

Some of them were alarmingly simple in design: there was a Russian mine in the form of an innocent-looking wooden box the size of a bar of soap, with a mousetrap-like detonator inside that triggered a few ounces of explosive.

Others were the result of insidious genius: triggered by seismic sensors, the ‘bounding’ mine, when detonated, jumped into the air to the height of a man’s groin before exploding, increasing thereby the radius of its hail of metal fragments.

Laying mines was easy. Clearing them up was a different matter. The dangers, in all their obscenely calculated permutations, were truly nightmarish. There was seldom such a thing as a typical minefield. And it was not enough simply to find a mine in order to remove it. Another mine might have been placed underneath it, and be triggered by the removal of the first.

Mines could be booby-trapped in the shadows of passageways, connected by tripwires to doors or windows, and hidden in ceilings. Mines planted above ground, which looked easy to disarm, might be surrounded by other mines buried underground.

Mines could also be attached to an object of value or curiosity, detonated by the hand of a curious passerby. Disconnecting the wires between apparently small mines might set off a much larger mine, buried in the very spot that those observing the act had chosen for protection.

As if this were not enough, mines also got dislodged by rain or floods and became reburied, infecting areas previously cleared. During battles or in damaged buildings, they moved about and ended up at odd angles and uneven depths.

On a long table was spread what was described as a typical selection of the unexploded ordinance, or UXOs, found around Kabul. UXOs posed a different problem. They were easier to detect, not having been designed to be concealed, but huge numbers never exploded. Finding them in their living rooms or back yards, villagers impatient to rebuild their homes assumed these odd-looking bits of metal were no longer dangerous and threw them aside — with disastrous results.

Outside we were invited to see a team of de-miners at work. Cautioned to stay on the prescribed paths, we crossed the road and entered a broad square divided into sections by flags and fluttering tape. This was the university campus. Twenty local men wearing visors and protective aprons were inching their way forward in lanes a yard wide. From all around, we could hear the squeaking of their metal detectors.

In the countryside the detecting process went more quickly, we were told, but in the city it could take up to five hours to clear a path a few feet long. There were no short cuts. Every single tiny scrap of metal had to be carefully probed and removed. Old bullets and their casings, nuts, bolts, nails, coins, razor blades, batteries, bottle tops and even the metallic foil of cigarette packets all slowed down the process.

September 8, 2001

© 1999 by Jason Elliot.
Adapted from An Unexpected Light. Reprinted
with the permission of Picador USA.