To survive, some Afghans scour the deadly remnants of old wars.


TANGI VALLEY, Afghanistan — The father of six knew that the place he sold could kill him. But winter was approaching, and selling a few pounds of scrap scrapped from a nearby abandoned military outpost could help offset skyrocketing food and fuel prices as the surrounding Afghan economy collapsed.

So Sayed Rahman and his 9-year-old son Javidullah set out to dismantle several rotting fortresses scattered among the remnants of the country’s last three wars.

“We found a mortar shell,” Javidulah recalled. The ammunition exploded, killing his father and injuring his boy’s head.

“Now I no longer come here to collect scrap metal,” he said during a recent visit to the site of an explosion in the Tangi Valley in central Afghanistan.

On this once strategically important road that connects Wardak and Logar provinces, the 1980s Soviet war is buried under the 1990s civil war beneath the 20-year American War that ended in August. The rolling hills between jagged mountains turned into condensed masses of abandoned steel and hidden explosives.

The Valley is a scrapper’s frenzied dream, where 15 pounds of discarded metal can be quickly harvested and sold for around $1. However, in the nine months following the Taliban’s occupation of Afghanistan, more than 180 people died from unexploded ordnance, according to UN and Taliban officials, many of whom tried to collect and sell scrap.

The actual number is likely much higher, officials say, as casualty reports have stopped after the collapse of the Western-backed government.

The scrap economy and casualties from buried ammunition are inextricably linked, and for a long time in Afghanistan’s history, it has been one of the poorest and most mined countries in the world.

Now, however, the situation is even more urgent as a lack of foreign aid has hindered and incapacitated the government agencies coordinating mine clearance. Areas that were once inaccessible because they were too dangerous, such as former military bases, front lines and old shooting ranges, are now accessible to an increasingly desperate population.

In November, Rahman and his son were taken to an abandoned Afghan military outpost in the Tangi Valley due to the supply of Hesco Barriers, sand-filled containers held together by metal cages.

The abandoned military base after the war was a windfall for scrap metal dealers like 40-year-old Mohammed Amin. Mohammed Amin’s company buys scrap metal from Wardak province for about 11 cents a pound. But he worries that scrap pickers have become less discerning as the economy slows.

“The proportion of dangerous military equipment and explosives is still very high,” he said, “especially in people and children who collect it in the mountains and around their homes.”

Most of this scrap is melted and turned into building materials in huge steel mills in cities like the capital, Kabul. The Taliban have cracked down on the smuggling of steel to Pakistan, where they usually demand higher prices.

One of the largest factories in Kabul, Khan Steel Mill, does not recommend that its suppliers purchase obsolete military equipment because of the risk.

A company official said suppliers arrive at the plant with as many as 5 to 10 trucks of scrap each day, but almost all contain shell cases, mortar shells or war remnants from the past 40 years.

“About 10 percent of the scrap metal we’ve purchased in the last six months is military materials and debris,” said Mohammed Rahim Noori, head of security at Khan Steel Mill, which oversees most of the abandoned explosives. It ended up in his junkyard. “A lot.”

Tangi Valley’s father-son duo dismantled one of the Hesco barriers and dug around the base until Mr. Rahman found a mortar shell. The mortar shells were probably left behind by the Soviet Army or one of the militia that used the base. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Javidullah watched his father explode from his hand as he tried to remove the mortar’s fuse, killing him. The HALO Trust, a British mine clearance charity, began cleaning the area shortly after it discovered a bag of dirt containing more than 60 tonnes of explosives.

HALO estimates that in Afghanistan the area at the mouth of the valley, a small chunk of about hundreds of square miles still contaminated with explosives, will be free of lethal ammunition by 2024.

Over the past two decades, mine clearing operations in Afghanistan have been coordinated by the government’s Mine Action Bureau. About a dozen countries donate millions of dollars to board programs, representing 70% of their annual budgets.

But after the collapse of the Western-backed government, the flow of money also collapsed. As the Taliban struggle to finance their ministry, their staff has shrunk from more than 100 to about a dozen.

“Our seven field offices have closed and we are experiencing serious difficulties moving forward with our work,” said Abdul Habib Rahimi, who oversees the demining operations on the Board of Directors.

Accident reports are messed up and the number of deminers has been reduced from 5,000 to 3,000. Giving donations to non-profit organizations like the HALO Trust for their work in Afghanistan has become more difficult as donor countries seek to explore a series of western sanctions imposed on the new Taliban government.

At the same time, the end of the war revealed more areas contaminated with explosives, such as Tangi Valley and the improvised bombing left by the Taliban.

Aid officials now fear that the Ukraine war could divert foreign donations from Ukraine’s similar efforts in a program focused on de-bombing in Afghanistan.

It’s been 33 years since the last Soviet tank left Afghanistan and their ammunition is still killing people, especially children.

Muhammed Asif, 59, an elder from the village of Tangi Valley, recalled: “When the Russians left Afghanistan, one of them looked at me and said, ‘We are leaving now, but the land will fight you for the next 30 years.’

U.S. munitions are also lethal, especially the unexploded ordnance grenades, which children sometimes mistake for gold.

Asif said 60 people were injured and killed in battles in the village during the 20-year war. But since the Taliban came to power, 10 more have been victims of ammunition scattered across the valley. for scrap.

“It’s all because their economy isn’t good,” he said. “These children are too young to work, but their families have no choice but to use it to find money to buy bread.”

Local officials report that during the week of March, 10 children were injured or killed while handling discarded ammunition across Afghanistan. Four people were killed in southern Afghanistan and two in eastern Afghanistan. The rest were injured.

UN data for the last fiscal year 2020, show Children were responsible for 80% of the casualties from the explosions of the wreckage of the war in Afghanistan. 84 people died and 230 were injured.

Twelve yards from where Javidullah had watched his father die, a rugged five-year-old Ainula, dressed in a blue jacket and green tunic, was clutching a handful of steel he had gathered with his brothers. In his hand he held what appeared to be an ashes. Filling of used propellant It was once attached to a rocket-propelled grenade.

The year of manufacture was stamped on a piece of rusty metal. It was almost ten times older than the boy holding it.

Ainullah was taught to avoid areas known to contain explosives. It’s part of a decades-long educational effort by a non-profit organization to keep children from picking up lethal substances.

But he didn’t care. His family needed money.

“I’m not afraid.” Ainula declared before going down the hill from the missing base to a nearby village where someone could buy his pack.

thai moor sha Contributed to Kandahar’s report, John Ismay in Washington.

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