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.
A land mine that can be produced for as little as $3 is much more costly to remove. For example, the bulldozers used to clear Bagram Air Field, the largest American military base in Afghanistan, cost $500,000 each. Afghan de-miners are paid $200 to $300 per month but require expensive protective clothing and high-tech metal detectors to do their work. The per mine cost of removal runs as high as $1,000, according to some expert estimates.
What this means is that no matter what country de-miners are working in, whether it is Afghanistan or Angola, decisions have to be made about which areas are high priority and which areas can wait. The metric for making these decisions is complicated, but according to Mohammed Oriakhill, a planning officer with the Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan in Kabul, urban areas tend to have priority and poor rural communities have to wait.
To lessen the burdens of waiting for de-miners, researchers and designers are trying to come up with cheaper, faster, more effective ways of clearing mine fields. Massoud Hassani is among these innovators.
In 1998, Hassani’s family left Afghanistan for the Netherlands when his father was killed, caught in the crossfire of a shootout between rebel groups. After finishing high school, he enrolled at a prestigious art and design academy.
Contemplating what to do for his graduation project, his mind kept returning to the toys of his childhood. His favorite had been a circular rolling toy made of paper. He recalls racing them with his friends across the dry dusty landscape, the Aghan version of a Pinewood Derby. “We’d try to make them so the wind would catch them just right and carry them the furthest across the desert,” he said.
However Hassani didn’t just want to make toys for his project, he wanted something useful. He recalls sarcastically asking his adviser, “What am I going to do, make a giant toy that explodes land mines?” His professor’s eyes lit up. “It’s perfect,” he responded.
Hassani set to work building a model for the mine-clearing toy he calls “Mine Kafon.” (Kafon means "exploder" in his native Dari.) Just like the toys of his childhood, Mine Kafon is circular, built from cheap materials and powered by the wind. The total cost of one is about $60.
Mine Kafon is about the height of a man. It has a solid core with many spokes made from bamboo poles. At the end of each pole is a disc. These discs catch the wind and propel the rolling object across the ground. “If it hits a land mine, there will be an explosion because (it) is about as heavy as a person and it mimics the feet of a human being,” he said. Each Mine Kafon can withstand blasts from up to four land mines before it is no longer functional. Hassani has started attaching GPS tracking devices to each Mine Kafon, which allows its location and path to be tracked in real time on the Internet.
Too random to work?
While experts in land-mine removal applaud Hasani's creative design, some suggest relying on a device powered by the wind is not a sufficiently systematic way to clear an area. “When you are clearing out an area for humanitarian purposes, you can’t miss anything. The area has to be cleared to the highest possible standard,” said one expert who asked to remain anonymous. “I wouldn’t send my kids out to play on a field where (Mine Kafon) has been used to clear the area,” he added.
Hassani acknowledges that his design isn’t perfect. Engineers from the Dutch Department of Defense agreed to collaborate with him on design improvements and to create prototypes for field testing if he can raise $60,000. To meet this goal, Hassani launched a kickstarter campaign and created a short documentary to explain his goals to the public. So far he has raised more than $100,000.
He’s hopeful that his design will be useful in remote poor areas that are considered low priority for mine clearance. “Mine Kafon is for villages where they are poor and that are of no strategic importance,” he said. “It may prove useful to the people who would otherwise have to wait decades for their farmlands to be cleared.”
While Hassani hopes his device can be used to make his homeland a safer place, his ultimate goal is to increase understanding about the devastation and destruction caused by land mines. If his project doesn’t solve the problem, he hopes others will see it and be inspired to find new solutions. In the Western world, “it’s a forgotten problem,” he said.
Hassani is correct that the will to solve the problem has been sagging. Heslop with the United Nations Mine Action Service worries about his organization's ability to continue its operations in the coming year. “We’ve only secured about 30 percent of the funding we need for 2013,” he said. “People have lost focus,” he said.
And focus may be the real value of something like the Mine Kafon.