Two days into my new job based in Kabul as the Danish Refugee Council’s head of the department responsible for clearing landmines and unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan, a tragic accident occurred that made my arrival and future task all too relevant and clear. It was on 10 January 2022.
In a village located in Lal Por district of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province, a group of children found a piece of unexploded ordnance, suspected to be a rocket propelled grenade (RPG7), and brought it with them to a central location in the village. Around 10:45 AM the grenade detonated, likely as a result of the children interacting with the device without knowing the danger. Eight children lost their lives immediately and four were injured, three of them seriously enough to be evacuated to the nearest hospital. One injured child passed away during hospitalisation. The youngest child involved in the accident was three and the oldest was 11.
Risk education, Survey and Clearance
Learning of the accident, DRC immediately mobilised a response by sending a team into the area to deliver risk education, identify additional threats and dispose of them. Risk education is hugely important in a context like Afghanistan. It raises awareness amongst men, women and children in local communities who learn to identify and avoid threats. Furthermore, surveying on the ground in areas suspected to be contaminated allows us to locate other items of unexploded ordnance and eventually enables us to destroy the potentially lethal items found through explosive ordnance disposal.
I wish we had been there before to prevent the accident in the first place, and I know my talented and experienced Afghan colleagues, the backbone of our programme, wish the same.
DRC was not working alone in the response to the incident in Nangarhar. Through swift and efficient coordination organised by the Directorate of Mine Action Coordination (DMAC), a specialised branch of the Afghan civil administration placed under the State Ministry for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Affairs, and with the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), our efforts were aligned with two other organisations, local and international, working within the same sector. Because of this coordination, headed by experienced Afghan officials working in that branch of the ministry for many years, the accident response is implemented with the highest level of effectiveness possible.
Afghan capacity at risk
DMAC’s work, which in short entails overseeing the entire mine clearance programme of Afghanistan – one of the world’s most contaminated countries - underlines the importance of continued international support to specific Afghan institutions - regardless of who is in political control.
As a result of recent events and changing power dynamics in the country and subsequent pausing of especially Western bilateral support, authorities such as DMAC are at a risk of collapsing. This will be a painful setback for the people of Afghanistan and decades of knowledge, capacity and work can will be lost.
Sanctions in the way
There are specific areas of work in Afghanistan, particularly related to humanitarian mine action, which requires strong, well-capacitated, functioning government bodies to effectively manage and coordinate the work of partners in the country. Prior to the collapse of the previous government in August 2021, DMAC was among the true success stories of this country, having established itself as an experienced, qualified ministry capable of working with mine action agencies such as DRC in a way that was legitimate, collaborative and effective. That is why further sanctions exemptions are necessary for mine action work in the country.
There is still time for Western governments to act and to decide to again implement policies flexible enough to help sustain the efforts of the brave Afghans working to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance menaces. It is not an easy task for policy makers, but a critical one. Many nations have already committed to it by signing the international anti-personnel mine ban convention. The international community should remain accountable towards these commitments despite the change in regime.
At the same time, there is now a unique window of opportunity to rapidly and significantly expand clearance efforts. As fighting has ceased in most parts of the country, DRC now has greater access to communities and contaminated sites than ever before. Together with other partners of the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan, we are expanding operations into areas that has been left contaminated by deadly weapons for too long.
The international community should seek ways to engage with Afghanistan now for the sake of its extraordinary people and not turn a blind eye to the very real risk of destroying years of successful efforts to build a demining capacity in the country by withholding continued Western assistance.