We cautiously approach the area where the explosion had just occurred. Minutes earlier a thunderous crack had ruptured the peace of the morning. A thin dirty black plume of smoke and dirt curled up into a clear blue sky. We knew what had happened because the explosion hadn’t been announced with the “Infegar! Infegar! Infegar!” (Explosion!) used to warn others of a planned detonation. A deminer had accidentally triggered a mine. Our task now was to determine what damage had been done.
We tread carefully down the pathway through the old Soviet minefield and locate one injured Afghan deminer. His hand is missing several fingers and his face was peppered with small cuts and grit embedded in his skin. His eyebrows and hair are singed. We stem the bleeding and evacuate him to the camp’s first aid station. He was one of the lucky ones. Without a hand he will get some insurance money and still be able to work at something other than demining. Losing a leg means a lifetime of misery. Three weeks earlier two other deminers had been killed by a trip-wired anti-tank mine. The tragic human cost of clearing landmines in Afghanistan.
Twenty years ago small groups of Australian soldiers grew beards and donned local design shalwar kameez to train Afghan civilians on how to rid their country of the scourge of land mines. We shared communal meals and learned words in Pashto and Dari. We identified potential Afghan leaders and worked hard to develop them to progressively take over the Demining Program. Senior Australian officers visiting the Australian contingents sometimes expressed shock at how ‘integrated’ we had become.
My opportunity to participate in the UNMCTT came in 1992. My tour of duty coincided with a major change in the way that Australians contributed to the Demining Program, but first it is worth reviewing how the mission came about.
The UNMCTT mission was a humanitarian activity mounted under the auspices of the Geneva based UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid to Afghanistan (UNOCHA) under the codename of Operation Salaam (a salutation meaning ‘peace’).
The mission was initiated in anticipation of the scheduled withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in December 1989 and the expected return of several million refugees to Afghanistan from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent fighting with the Afghan Mujahideen had resulted in several millions of mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance littering the country. This hazard was assessed to be a significant barrier to the repatriation of the displaced Afghan population.
In July 1989 Australia began providing Army Royal Australian Engineers, and later Royal Australian Infantry assault pioneers, on four month long tours with the UNMCTT. The UNMCTT originally consisted of contingents from nine countries. In addition to Australia, these were New Zealand, Turkey, France, Norway, Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom and the USA.
Throughout the mission the Australian contingents were based in Peshawar in the harsh North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Peshawar is the city at the eastern end of the famous Khyber Pass – one of the few passageways between Afghanistan and the Indian plains. The labyrinth of alleyways in the Peshawar’s old city provided a unique opportunity for a few fascinating hours of browsing and haggling. Many old British service medals and bayonets were for sale.
The original purpose of the Program was to train Pakistan-based Afghan refugees in mine and unexploded ordnance recognition and basic mine and unexploded ordnance clearance techniques. The plan was for these trained Afghans to voluntarily repatriate back to Afghanistan and undertake mine and unexploded ordnance clearance on their own initiative. The training was conducted in cooperation with Pakistan Army engineers at the Risalpur Training Camp – 40 km east of Peshawar.
Two major factors contributed, however, to a major change the UN’s approach to mine clearance operations in Afghanistan. The first was that the expectation that the Afghan refugees would return to Afghanistan en masse proved false – with the continuation of the fighting between the Soviet backed Afghan regime with the factious Afghan Mujahideen. The second was a realisation that the socio-economic impact of land mine contamination was simply too large and complex a problem to be left to individuals. As a consequence a decision was made that a large scale nationally coordinated approach was needed to assist the rehabilitation strategy for Afghanistan.
In November 1989 the Australian Army contingent to UNMCTT accepted responsibility for technical advice and training of Afghans in a trial of large scale and coordinated demining operations. The first organised 40 man Afghan demining teams deployed into Afghanistan in January 1990.
In another part of the Middle East, the pressures and demands of the 1990 Gulf War saw the contingents from all other countries other than Australia and New Zealand to withdraw from the UNMCTT mission.
By 1991 it became clear that a large-scale centrally coordinated approach to mine clearance was feasible and security conditions in Afghanistan were sufficiently stable for UNOCHA to expand on the trial of an organised demining effort. This was achieved with the formation of a number of non-government organizations whose activities were coordinated through regional demining offices in Peshawar, Quetta and later Kabul – the Afghan capital.
With the formal establishment of this Demining Program, Australia extended its tours of duty from four to six months, and also began providing additional officers on 12 month long tours as Technical Advisors with the various non-government organisations involved in the Demining Program. Training for the Afghans was broadened to include the surveying, planning, conduct and supervision of mine clearance activities.
The long-term aim for the Demining Programme was for it to become completely run by Afghans with no requirement for foreign military assistance. Consequently, Afghans also became demining instructors in their own right and progressively took over the conduct of training and administration.
On 8 June 1991 the first Australian UNMCTT member – Major Graeme Membrey – was given permission by the Australian Government to cross the border into Afghanistan and monitor demining operations. Subsequently, all members of the Australian contingents regularly undertook missions into Afghanistan. In addition to supervising refresher training and doing quality control surveys of the demining operations, the Australians also undertook investigations on all demining accidents.
These investigations served two purposes. The first was to try and improve our demining procedures. The second was to satisfy the needs of the Pakistani based insurance agent with whom we had arranged for all the Afghan deminers to have insurance policies. Our investigation reports, and our assessment of the victim’s negligence, made the difference between no payout and a figure that could sustain the deminer and his family for life.
The Australians too endured significant risks. While we were prevented to physically perform demining tasks ourselves, inspecting progress in Soviet minefields that had been developed over several years by bored and scared conscripts. And the civil war between the puppet Soviet regime of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the various Mujahideen factions continued to rage. When we travelled in Afghanistan we were provided with a Mujahideen escort – usually a pick up tuck with half a dozen heavily armed teenagers in the back. I distinctly recall being in Peshawar when the Mujahideen offensive finally recaptured Kabul on 25 April 1992. With several million Afghan refugees in and around Peshawar the celebrations were reminiscent of the scenes at the end of World War II. The regional tradition of shooting up in the air in celebration was marred by the news that several people had been killed as a result of the bullets returning to earth.
By 1993, the Afghan Demining Program had achieved a high degree of momentum and the Australian Government assessed that the support from military contingents was no longer necessary. Consequently, the last Australian contingent was withdrawn in June 1993. In all, just over 100 Australians participated in the UNMCTT between 1989 and 1993. Miraculously no Australians were injured by landmines, although we all suffered several bouts of severe diarrhoea.
The Afghan Demining Program continues to function nearly twenty years later – a testament to the skills imparted in those few short years. In that time, hundreds of thousands of mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance have been destroyed. While the longevity of the Program is commendable, the sad part is that the Program has made only minor inroads into eliminating Afghanistan’s land mine problem and hundreds of Afghans continue to be killed and injured by these insidious devices every year. And for the last nine years the mines have also posed a significant risk to the coalition forces of the International Security Assistance Force.
First published in Wartime Issue 53 – 2011
Contact Marcus Fielding about this article.