International military forces leave behind a country facing growing insecurity and levels of violence, a faltering economy and multiple humanitarian crises.
Buried amongst the dozens of pressing challenges in Afghanistan is an issue that rarely receives the international spotlight: the prevalence of landmines and other explosive remnants of war.
Often referred to as ‘hidden and indiscriminate killer[s]’, landmines threaten all segments of society, and are a fundamental barrier to long-term solutions to conflict. From June 2020 to May 2021 alone, Afghanistan witnessed 673 fatalities and 836 civilian injuries from landmines and explosive ordnance – a shocking number of lives ended or adversely impacted.
Since the outbreak of war in Afghanistan in 1979, antipersonnel mines have been used in the country by all parties to conflict. From Herat to Jalalabad and everywhere in between, landmines have been laid with the sole aim of maiming and killing.
Beginning in the late 1980s, humanitarian organisations have to date cleared more than 81 percent of the known minefields and battle areas. This represents over 3,300 square kilometres of land released for productive use to 3,189 communities. Despite this progress, it is estimated that close to 4,000 identified hazards remain across the nation.
As fighting and insecurity increase, this number will continue to rise, endangering lives, affecting livelihoods, and precluding access to long-term solutions.
The human cost of explosive remnants of war
Laleh (not her real name), a single mother from Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, is all too familiar with the risks presented by landmines, and the devastating toll they can take on families and communities.
In June of this year, Laleh and her family were forced to flee their home when armed opposition groups attacked their village. A few weeks later, after returning when it was deemed safe, her eldest son and breadwinner of the family stepped on a landmine hundreds of metres from their house. He died instantly. Laleh and her family were not told that the village had been mined.
With nowhere else to go, and with ongoing fighting in the area, Laleh and her remaining six children have sought refuge in one of Kandahar’s internal displacement camps. Now completely reliant on humanitarian assistance, they worry about what the future holds.
Today’s returnees are tomorrow’s IDPs
According to data from the International Organization for Migration, more than 860,000 Afghans returned from neighbouring countries in 2020. As of August 2021, a further 679,000 Afghans have returned, primarily from Pakistan and Iran.
For many returnees, it is not possible to return to their former places of residence due to security concerns or lack of livelihoods. Instead, they move to other areas in search of stability and access to employment.
Because they are likely less familiar with local conflict patterns or community safety practices, returnees are at greater risk of injury or death from explosive hazards than other civilian populations. To combat this risk, humanitarian organisations continue to dedicate significant resources to clearing land and providing mine risk education to newly arrived returnees. Such information is essential and saves countless lives each year.
What is needed from the international community?
In addition to immense personal costs — death, injury, anxiety and psychological trauma — the presence of landmines and other unexploded ordnance hinder Afghanistan’s ability to rebuild its society and economy.
Mines prevent the cultivation of arable land and block commercial and residential development. Moreover, landmine victims receive limited access to government social or economic support programmes. As such, their care falls to immediate or extended family members, stretching financial resources and straining relationships.
To mitigate these risks and achieve the Afghan government’s commitment under the Ottawa Treaty to rid the country of anti-personnel mines, increased financing from the international community is essential.
Over the past ten years, funding for demining operations has dropped dramatically, and Afghanistan is well behind its targets. It is critical that Afghanistan – especially in the context of the growing insecurity and turmoil – receives additional funding from international donors to clear landmines and educate at-risk populations of the dangers of explosive hazards. Only through a combination of humanitarian assistance and mine action programmes, will people like Laleh have an opportunity to move freely, and rebuild her life.
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