Death in Hiding

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Even as Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan, they are leaving behind deadly remindersof their nine-year occupation. Scattered across the rugged Afghan countryside, like candy sprinkles on a cake, are millions of land mines, anti-personnel devices and booby-traps.

In June U.S. military sources estimated that there were 3 million to 5 million mines in the war-torn country, but this month the State Department revised the estimate to 10 million to 30 million. Some of the anti-tank mines were buried by the U.S.-backed Afghan rebels, but the majority of the mines were planted by the Soviet and Afghan government forces. These mines are the main impediments to the return of 6 million Afghan refugees to their villages and homes.

Robert Brenner, field director of Freedom Medicine, a relief agency that trains Afghan moujahedeen as paramedics, said, “I can’t even begin to estimate the thousands of people who are going to be killed by those mines.” According to Brenner, many of the smaller devices are only meant for maiming--not to kill. “If you maim a child, the whole family has to leave the village and go to the refugee camps in Pakistan, and there goes the support system for the moujahedeen .”

The United States is calling for an international effort to provide the refugees with training to recognize the mines and with equipment to destroy them. The mine-clearing process will be long and dangerous. Many of the Soviet mines are plastic, and cannot be located by metal detectors. And many of the Soviet devices have been scattered indiscriminately from helicopters into fields and villages occupied by the moujahedeen guerrillas and their supporters. Some of the air-dropped devices look like shiny toy butterflies--irresistible to curious children.


Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze says the mines do not pose a major problem because most were designed to self-destruct, but the State Department disputes this claim. What the Soviets must do is provide Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, a former U.N. high commissioner for refugees who is coordinating international assistance for the Afghan refugees, with maps detailing where mines were laid or dropped, technical details about the different varieties of mines used, and sample models. In return, the Soviets could expect assistance in locating the 313 Soviet soldiers missing in action in Afghanistan.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Afghan children may be maimed or killed if they accidentally trigger these insidious devices. The Afghans have suffered enough, and they will suffer more as the war for control of Afghanistan probably continues after the Soviet army pulls out. The United States should generously contribute to the international effort to resettle the Afghan refugees, and it should pressure the Soviets to assist in clearing away the seeds of death that they have planted in the hills and valleys of Afghanistan.