Unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan poses hidden threat

Kabul (Afghanistan)AfghanistanUnrest, Conflicts and WarNational GovernmentMilitary EquipmentServices and ShoppingScience

The hulking old tanks, left to rust when Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, still packed a threat when Albert Whittington arrived.

Whittington, an ordnance and explosives specialist with the Baltimore district of the Army Corps of Engineers, clambered through dozens of Red Army tanks, trench-digging vehicles, bridge-laying equipment and other derelict machinery at the Pul-e-Charki military base east of Kabul.

His mission: Find any unexploded ordnance, unused ammunition and other materials still capable of maiming or killing.

Whittington, 39, has spent the past year working to make Afghanistan safer from one of the deadly legacies of war.

More than three decades of conflict in Afghanistan — from the Soviet invasion of 1979 through the civil war of the 1990s to the U.S.-led invasion after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — have left the impoverished farming country one of the most heavily mined in the world.

"Basically, Afghanistan has been contaminated with unexploded ordnance by the full range of actors," said Elena Rice, a program officer with the United Nations Mine Action Service.

Whittington, an Army veteran who lives in La Plata in Southern Maryland, has seen material in Afghanistan from "most of the major countries" — Britain, Russia, China, the United States — and many smaller nations.

They have left the country with 6,000 known hazardous areas, danger zones that disrupt farming, housing, resettlement and development in 1,900 communities across Afghanistan, according to the U.N. agency.

Speaking by telephone from the capital, Kabul, Whittington described a typical explosion.

"Kids, they'll be out playing ball and they'll come across something neat and shiny," he said. "They go over to play with it, and the next thing you know, they drop it and it goes boom — and you have children that are injured, or worse."

The United States, which began working in the 1990s to clear Afghanistan of the explosive remnants of war, is the largest donor in the international effort to eliminate the threat within a decade.

The U.S., the United Nations and others have paid to train 14,000 Afghans to identify, safely handle and dispose of unexploded ordnance, Rice says. If there is continued funding, she says, the work is on schedule for completion in 10 years.

For now, the weapons continue to kill. An average of 33 people per month were injured or killed in Afghanistan last year by such munitions. More than half the victims were boys ages 7 to 14.

Afghans gather and sell munitions for scrap. Rice describes villagers using rocket shells in their homes, for roofing or as part of their stoves.

"Afghans have been living with land mines and unexploded bombs for 20, 30 years," she said. "They tend to know what the story is. A lot of accidents are driven by, 'OK, we know there's a risk, but we're also going to die of poverty, of starvation.' "

Firoz Ali Alizada called it "a devastating scenario, despite two decades of work to remove the threat."

Alizada was walking to his school in the central province of Parwan in 1996 when he stepped on a land mine. He lost both legs. Now 31, he manages the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

"With every new survivor also comes a new lifelong struggle against discrimination — an ongoing battle in my country," he wrote in an email from Geneva. "The government and international donors must do more to address survivors' needs for medical support, access to services, equality and employment."

Since 1993, the State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement has provided more than $303 million for de-mining Afghanistan, campaigns to mark hazardous areas and warn of their dangers, and assistance to victims.

For the United States, unexploded ordnance also poses a military risk: Insurgents use old mines and munitions as parts for improvised explosive devices, the roadside bombs that are the leading cause of death among U.S. service members in Afghanistan.

The Army Corps of Engineers — which works with the Afghan government on building military and police facilities, medical clinics, schools, dams and other reconstruction projects — examines building sites before the work begins for unexploded ordnance.

"It's all over the country," said Jerry Cummings, the Corps' safety manager for the northern half of Afghanistan. "We're concerned any time we go to break ground."

Whittington worked in explosives and ordnance disposal with the Army in the 1990s and as a private contractor in Iraq in the 2000s. He joined the Corps of Engineers in 2010, learned of its work in Afghanistan and volunteered for the yearlong deployment in Kabul.

He has overseen the contractors who do much of the actual examination and disposal work on Corps sites. But when the request came to examine the old Soviet vehicles so they could be removed safely, "it was much more economically feasible for me just to go out there, spend a few days and do it myself," he said.

As a contractor, Whittington has helped to search the Chesapeake Bay for unexploded ordnance. With the Corps of Engineers, he has performed similar work at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia.

At Pul-e-Charki, under the watchful eyes of private security guards, he spent a week in May climbing through the Cold War-era equipment, which included T-72 tanks, personnel carriers, cargo trucks, anti-aircraft guns and Scud missile launchers.

Through the years, the makeshift motor pool had been overgrown by thorny bushes. The collection also includes a few damaged U.S. and coalition vehicles.

Some burned-out Soviet vehicles, which still dot the Afghan countryside, have been rigged by insurgents to explode when explored. Whittington said booby traps were only "a small concern" at Pul-e-Charki, because the vehicles had been on the military base for years.

With no plans or manuals from which to work, he had to familiarize himself with the compartments and containers of each model.

"It's a huge responsibility to make sure that nobody was going to get hurt," he said. Working in triple-digit temperatures, he crawled through each tank "to make sure there wasn't anything that would harm anybody."

The equipment had been scavenged for "anything that they might have thought valuable," Whittington said. "Explosives not being one of them."

Inside the tanks, he found several unexploded fuses for projectiles. Each contained a booster charge that, if mishandled, would be capable of maiming.

Whittington gave the fuses to nearby U.S. forces who blew them up. The vehicles have been removed without incident.

Whittington returned to the United States this month after completing his deployment. Before leaving Afghanistan, he said he thought the country was doing "better than when I got here."

"The Afghans are slowly learning how to be somewhat self-sufficient as far as providing their own security, their own protection from outside forces, and that's what we have helped provide to them," he said.

"I do feel I have helped make Afghanistan a safer place for the people as far as removing ordnance, mines, explosives," he said. "Getting rid of that will eventually lower those casualties."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

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