Landmines take growing toll in Afghanistan conflict

UNMAS program manager in Kabul said they are facing difficulty handling the amount of landmines in the country. (AFP/File)
Updated 02 April 2019
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Landmines take growing toll in Afghanistan conflict

  • UN organization said landmine deaths in Afghanistan multiplied 5 times from 2012 to 2017
  • Landmines and explosive remnants increased as the war between the local government and Taliban intensified

KABUL: At a rehabilitation center in Afghanistan, Imran Gul clasped two parallel bars, cautiously easing his weight onto his new leg.
The 25-year-old nomad had been driving a tractor on hilly farmland when a land mine exploded, making him the latest victim of a scourge that has worsened in recent years as fighting intensifies between the government and the Taliban.
“I did not hear the sound of the bomb,” Gul told AFP as he tried out his prosthetic limb.
“I touched my leg and saw there was no leg, and there were pieces of shrapnel in my eyes. My hands were soaked in blood,” he added.
The blast in the eastern province of Ghazni also took two of Gul’s fingers.
According to the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), casualties from land mines and so-called “explosive remnants of war” have soared five-fold between 2012 and 2017, the last year full data was available.
Casualties have increased as a result of the intensifying fight between the Afghan government and the Taliban, especially since 2014.
Battlefields have been left strewn with land mines, unexploded mortars, rockets and homemade bombs — many of them picked up by curious children.
“We are struggling to handle significant increases in the number of minefields in Afghanistan,” said Patrick Fruchet, the UNMAS program manager in Kabul.
The Afghanistan government has signed an international anti-landmine treaty, but the Taliban and other militants are bound by no such rules.
The UN hopes to raise attention to the issue Thursday, the annual International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action.
“In 2012, we were down to about 36 casualties (killed and wounded) per month in Afghanistan — which is still enormous,” said Fruchet.
But those numbers have jumped. In 2017, there were more than 150 casualties a month.
In addition to the new explosive detritus, Afghanistan is still grappling with the legacy of mines from the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s and the civil war in the 1990s.
Mohammad Jamshidi, UNMAS deputy program manager, told AFP that a lack of funds means the country will probably miss the UN goal of being mine-free by 2023.
The “deadline seems to be difficult to achieve because all these new contaminations and the lack of sufficient funding for the mine action,” he said.
In an effort to prevent further tragedies, various organizations hold information sessions to warn civilians, including children.
Hashmatullah Yadgari, who works for the Danish Refugee Council, said many Afghans — particularly returning former refugees — have no idea what land mines and other explosives even look like.
People “do not have any information about it,” Yadgari said.
In a tent inside a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul, a family was recently shown the various types of explosive device they may well encounter.
“We had no knowledge and awareness about the land mines,” said Sakina Habibi, a mother of three who has just returned to Afghanistan after nearly 30 years in Pakistan and Iran.
Many survivors of blasts go to one of seven orthopaedic rehabilitation hospitals funded by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
At the same rehab center where Gul, the nomad who lost a leg, was being treated, other patients tried out their new prosthetics.
Abdul, an Afghan mine clearer who only gave his first name, stood unsupported for the first time since getting fitted with two legs.
He was disarming mines hidden in a house recaptured from the Taliban five months ago when the blast happened.
“I de-activated five pressure mines. The sixth was designed to explode when exposed to light. When I moved my lamp closer — boom,” Abdul said.
“I did my job, I prevented people from being killed by these mines. Even though I lost my legs, I’m lucky to still be alive,” he added.
The resilient father of two wants to keep his job, “to again save lives,” he said, mimicking holding a mine detector in one hand and a walking stick in the other.
Of the 12,000 new patients received annually by the ICRC, between 1,500 and 2,000 are casualties of war, some four-fifths of whom are wounded by land mines, said Najmudin Helal, head of the Kabul center.
Aside from physical rehab, the center works with patients to help them find a new place in society. Nearly half of the 300 staff at the Kabul hospital are disabled.
“They learn easily and they can teach the new disabled easily. It’s a hope (for new patients) to see that life carries on,” Helal said.


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

Updated 22 July 2019
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Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

COLOS, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters battled a major wildfire Monday amid scorching temperatures in Portugal, where forest blazes wreak destruction every summer.
About 90% of the fire area in the Castelo Branco district, 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, was brought under control during cooler overnight temperatures, according to local Civil Protection Agency commander Pedro Nunes.
But authorities said they expected heat in and winds to increase again in the afternoon, so all firefighting assets remained in place. Forests in the region are tinder-dry after weeks with little rain.
The Portuguese Civil Protection Agency said 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze, which has raced through thick woodlands.
Nunes told reporters that the fire, in its third day, has injured 32 people, one seriously.
Police said they were investigating what caused the fire amid suspicions it may have been started deliberately.
Temperatures were forecast to reach almost 40 C (104 F) Monday — prolonging a spell of blistering weather that is due to hit northern Europe late this week.
Recent weeks have also seen major wildfires in Spain, Greece and Germany. European Union authorities have warned that wildfires are “a growing menace” across the continent.
In May, forest fires also plagued Mexico and Russia.
Huge wildfires have long been a summer fixture in Portugal.
Residents of villages and hamlets in central Portugal have grown accustomed to the summer blazes, which destroy fruit trees, olive trees and crops in the fields.
In the hamlet of Colos, 50-year-old beekeeper Antonio Pires said he had lost half of his beehives in the current wildfire. Pires sells to mainly Portuguese and German clients, but also to Brazil and China.
“(I lost) 100 out of 230 (hives), so almost half,” Pires said. “A lot of damage.”
The country’s deadliest fire season came in 2017, when at least 106 people were killed.
The average annual area charred by wildfires in Portugal between 2010 and 2016 was just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres). That was more than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece — countries which are significantly bigger than Portugal.
Almost 11,500 firefighters are on standby this year, most of them volunteers. Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe, especially in Germany where more than 90% are volunteers.
Experts and authorities have identified several factors that make Portugal so particularly vulnerable to forest blazes. Addressing some of them is a long-term challenge.
The population of the Portuguese countryside has thinned as people have moved to cities in search of a better life. That means woodland has become neglected, especially as many of those left behind are elderly, and the forest debris is fuel for wildfires.
Large areas of central and northern Portugal are covered in dense, unbroken stretches of forest on hilly terrain. A lot of forest is pine and eucalyptus trees, both of which burn fiercely.
Environmentalists have urged the government to limit the area of eucalyptus, which burns like a torch. But it is a very valuable crop for Portugal’s important paper pulp industry, which last year posted sales worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion). The government says it is introducing restrictions gradually.
Experts say Portugal needs to develop a diversified patchwork of different tree species, some of them more fire-resistant and offering damper, shaded.
Climate change has become another challenge, bringing hotter, drier and longer summers. The peak fire season used to run from July 1 to Sept. 30. Now, it starts in June and ends in October.
After the 2017 deaths, the government introduced a raft of measures. They included using goats and bulldozers to clear woodland 10 meters (33 feet) either side of country roads. Property owners also have to clear a 50-meter (164-feet) radius around an isolated house, and 100 meters (328 feet) around a hamlet.
Emergency shelters and evacuation routes have been established at villages and hamlets. Their church bells aim to toll when a wildfire is approaching.
With 98% of blazes caused by human hand, either by accident or on purpose, officials have also been teaching people how to safely burn stubble and forest waste. Police, army and forest service patrols are also increased during the summer.