Provided by Massoud Hassani
Growing up in the mid-1980s on the outskirts of Soviet occupied Kabul, Massoud Hassani’s playground was the vast, barren land that lay just beyond his family’s front door. Neighborhood kids spent their days exploring and making toys out of scraps they found. The desert appeared empty, but danger lurked just beneath the surface.
Only a few years earlier, their desert playground served as the base camp for an anti-Soviet rebel group. The rebels planted land mines around their camp to protect themselves. By the time Hassani was old enough to go out to play, the rebels had moved on, but their land mines remained, invisible mementos of a violent history.
Stories of children burned, blinded and maimed from land-mine explosions circulated the neighborhood. Mothers warned their children not to play in that area, but Hassani and his neighborhood friends took a cavalier attitude. “As kids we just wanted to play around and we didn’t really think about any of the dangers of land mines,” he said.
The gruesome stories became reality for Hassani when at age 6 he watched as a young playmate inadvertently triggered a mine. The image of his friend writhing on the ground in pain never left him. Years later, it inspired him to do something to make his former playground a safer place for a new generation of children.
Mines, mines everywhere
Since 1978, Afghanistan has been in a state of constant conflict, leaving the country one of the world’s most heavily mined regions. There are more than 10 million land mines in Afghanistan according to the United Nations. The consequences are devastating. Between 2002 and 2006, more than 5,000 individuals were injured or killed by land mines, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Forty-seven percent of the victims were children under the age of 18.
Land mines aren't just a problem in Afghanistan. Scattered across 78 developing war-torn nations, mines kill or injure anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 civilians a year, according to the United Nations. Physical harm is only one element of the havoc they bring on civilian populations.
By continuing to threaten the safety of the population, mines severely limit opportunities for economic growth. Grazing lands, irrigation channels, roads, residences and commercial areas are infested with mines. Fear of them limits the amount of land that can be safely put to use growing crops, raising animals or transporting consumer goods to new markets.
The presence of land mines also has a negative psychological effect. Paul Heslop, deputy director and chief of programs for the United Nations Mine Action Service, has been removing land mines in countries around the world since 1994. “The perception of the presence of a mine is just as effective as an actual mine,” he said. “When a mother knows that her kids are walking to school on a road that might have land mines, she is going to feel victimized every day.” This effect is harder to quantify, but its impact should not be dismissed, Heslop said.
There are several ways to de-mine an area. Armored bulldozers remove mines by plowing up the surface of the earth. Dogs can be trained to detect the presence of mines, which can then be deactivated and disposed of by human experts.
In Heslop’s years of experience, the best way to de-mine an area is to have “well trained, well equipped boots on the ground.” With highly sensitive metal detectors, de-miners typically hired from the local population sweep every inch of land three times. While this method is effective, it is also painfully slow and expensive.
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