Demining Afghanistan – A short story
Source: Sohaib Ghyasi
I think I wrote this potentially just over a year ago? It was in memory of several Halo Trust deminers murdered in a surprise attack in 2021. Many aren’t aware Afghanistan is one of the most land-mine filled countries in the world, with 2/3rds of the victims being children. Stories like these make these facts more accessible and solidify those trying to make a change in history.
The sunbeams and I wonder when I will become used to being fully dressed in the depths of summer. A year on, and I am still not acclimatized to the heat. Nor am I able to comprehend what I do. I make the land safe, removing landmines placed by the Taliban, Soviets, and other militant groups in rural Afghanistan. Some minefields are plotted perfectly with corresponding maps; most are ad hoc. As time goes on, it seems more mines are placed. Most of my time is spent in the North East, the Baghlani district.
The geography differs so much from London’s busy cars and bustling streets. Instead of intersections, I am met by the view of the Hindu Kush mountain slopes, luscious and green. Stretching through Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Tajikistan. My group often ventures past the Red Temple, clearing minefields on that side.
It’s beautiful. This country could be one of the best tourist locations in the world. It used to be. Afghani tourism was at its height during the 1970s. I would hate to reverberate what the Baghlan locals, a mixture of Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, have told me but before the country’s unification. Afghan tribes were accepting tourists from all over the world, all seeking to explore the diverse cultures and terrains which consolidated in the early 18th century. It was possible then to go on a Buddhist pilgrimage to the old holy site of monks, Bamyan Valley. To see the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Salsai, and Shahmama, carved into the side of a cliff, and to see the country which Alexandra the Great, Genghis Khan, and in future years Bush & Blair, would hope to conquer.
Enough with history. My job is not glamourous. What beauty can you find in seeing the effects of nearly fifty years of conflict? The broken backs of farmers simply waiting for another occupation, diligently tending to their opium. The young women recently sold – I trip and jolt back to reality. I am working for the Halo Institute in Afghanistan, a humanitarian deminer, to work aimlessly could bring about my death. I raise my metal detector in front of me, silently praying it will detect an explosive remnant of war before the mine detects me and explodes. If the detector rings, then I must slow my palpitations. Raise my flag to alert the team. I am above an explosive before beginning the slow and steady excavation. With no mine plows in our compound, our manual detection method relies upon metal detectors, prodders, excavation tools, and no human errors on a perfect day.
Security fluctuates in this country. A group taking over a town impedes our way to work. A suicide attack puts the whole compound on high alert. A black body bag’s ominous arrival serves as a reminder; you never know how sensitive the mine you’re dealing with is. Does this mine kill via explosion or via throwing out fragments that maim and kill? Was the mine created for use against a vehicle or human? Many accidents have taken place.
It was late 2019 to 2020 when we began receiving reports the Taliban had started planting mines again. So again, I found myself in bed wondering why they would kill their own? And then I remembered, it was all too far gone for them to believe these were their people. The Haqqani network, currently our biggest operational threat, has become the basis for recruiting young people into the Taliban. We, deminers, are one of their constant targets, so avoiding kidnappings and ambushes has become a way of life.
The Taliban and Haqqani network received direct military support before the 1996 occupation of Afghanistan. Then, in a Jeffrey Sommers turn of events, ‘ both groups turned on their benefactor. The CIA had hoped to fall on the side of plausible deniability. Don’t provide these men with weapons but money. But, after long debates. Ronald Reagan finally decides it is time to give the mujahedeen stingers and anti-missile artillery. In the 1990s, the Americans approached the mujahedeen with a buy-back scheme. While the CIA created all plans, they were orchestrated via the Pakistani ISI. The deputy director of the CIA pushed for as little interaction with the men on the ground as possible.
On June 8th, gunfire rings through the compound. I know from the Islamic shouts, shells falling from the automatic that we have been ambushed again. I heard screams of please please before silence. I could hardly move; how close was that scream, I am not prepared for this. The door kicks in, and mujahedeen stand firm, confident, gun in hand; before I can react, the bullets ring out.
By Shaneka Knight