Afghan firing ranges a deadly temptation

DAVID ZUCCHINO
Last updated 05:00 09/01/2014
Afghanistan bombs
CAROLYN COLE/ MCT

DESPERATION: Abdul Rahman, 19, lost both his arms when he picked up live ordnance on a firing range near a US military base in Afghanistan. Despite the dangers of live ordnance on ranges near US bases, Afghanis take the risk to go about daily life.

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In a country as poor as Afghanistan, even the detritus of war holds value - and often tragic consequences. Thousands of deadly unexploded artillery shells and mortar rounds littering military firing ranges fetch cash as scrap metal.

Abdul Rahman, 19, an illiterate shepherd, was on the East River firing range near the massive Bagram air base when he snatched up a piece of ordnance. The round detonated, shearing off Rahman's forearms and blinding his left eye.

Rahman knew that his foray involved grave risk. The range is marked with bold warning signs in Dari and Pashto. A painted logo depicts a man's foot being blown off, and mine-clearing groups had warned him about the range.

Rahman's ruinous gamble was all the more perplexing because his father, Zir Gol, had lost his right leg just a few months earlier in an explosion at the site. Gol says he was chasing runaway sheep.

"I tried to keep my son away from that place, but we don't know where the dangerous places are and neither do our sheep," Gol, 43, a kuchi, or pastoral nomad, said as he stood on an artificial leg beside his son a few miles from the range. "We have to go where our sheep go."

As the US military and its allies shut down bases and ranges, the number of civilian casualties has risen sharply, according to Abigail Hartley, program manager for the independent United Nations Mine Action Service in Kabul. She says 33 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded on US or coalition ranges last year, up from 23 in 2012 and just one in 2011.

When she first confronted military authorities, Hartley said, they disputed her data. But in recent months, she said, US-led international forces have pledged to identify and help clean up ranges.

Coalition officials say they are committed to clearing every small-arms range on the 800 bases once occupied by coalition troops. They have also teamed with the UN and civilian mine action groups on a long-term plan to map, register and identify unexploded shells on 257 dangerous "large ordnance" ranges, including the one at Bagram.

"I have to give them credit," Hartley said of the coalition. "They are now doing what they should be doing."

The efforts have been complicated by the desperation of itinerant Afghans who now have easier access to the ordnance because of the rapid drawdown of combat forces. Coalition troops remain on fewer than 100 bases. And Afghans, despite warning signs and education programs, continue to forage for metal on open and closed ranges.

"These are marked locations, but there are also civilians desperate for scrap who are losing limbs, and it's a sad, sad story," said US Army Brig. Gen. Michael Wehr, who helps coordinate range cleanups as deputy chief engineer for the coalition.

Small-arms ranges have proved relatively easy to clear, Wehr said, because they contain pistol and rifle bullets, which, unlike much larger artillery and bomb shells, don't produce potentially explosive duds. Small-arms ranges are typically secured inside fortresslike bases, but some barriers have been torn down as bases are dismantled.

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Larger, dud-producing ranges are typically outside security walls and are shared by several bases. Clearing them will take years because they are saturated with large shells - artillery and mortar rounds, rockets, aircraft missiles and bombs - that could explode.

That means large-range cleanup is likely to continue long after US combat troops depart at the end of 2014. The US has committed $62 million to mapping and beginning to clear these ranges.

American and Afghan contractors hired by the US have cleared only three of the 257 large ranges. "We're talking years down the road" before the job is completed, Wehr said.

Contractors use GPS data mapping to identify range locations and boundaries. They also identify the amounts and types of ordnance on a site. The information is logged into a database that will be consulted in coming years by the UN mine agency and other mine-clearing groups.

"Our obligation is to leave a good record ... to document what is where and acknowledge that the time required is beyond our tenure" in Afghanistan, Wehr said.

The scale of the job is enormous: 200 million square meters of large ranges, 85 percent of them encompassing US facilities and the remainder split among nine coalition nations.

"It's a phenomenal amount of stuff we're clearing," said Australian Squadron Leader Kelly Morris, who commands the Theater Mine Action Center, which coordinates mapping and cleanup. In his six months here, Morris said, teams under his supervision have disposed of 43,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance, with many more to go.

The centre was created several years ago to deal with unexploded ordnance and mines as the Bagram base was expanded after the 2001 US takeover of the former Soviet facility. The centre's mission was expanded a year ago to include cleanup for all coalition ranges.

In six more months, Morris said, the teams hope to data-map all 257 ranges and complete detailed surveys on 107. Ranges to be turned over to Afghan forces will not be cleared, but those ranges have not yet been identified.

Complicating matters for Pentagon planners is the delay in signing a 10-year US-Afghan security accord that would provide for US military trainers and counter-terrorism troops in Afghanistan beginning in 2015. The Bagram base, for example, is one of nine that would house US troops, leaving the question of what, if any, large ranges would remain in US hands.

"It's a very time-consuming and labor-intensive process," Morris said. "The key is accurate record-keeping, leaving that data trail."

Range cleanup is related to the 24-year-old mission of the Mine Action Program of Afghanistan supported by the UN. It has cleared 1.2 million land mines and 16 million pieces of ordnance from 21,000 minefields.

Since the UN and its partners began work here in 1989, they say, 4249 Afghan civilians have been killed and 17,950 wounded by explosives of all types. Many of the devices were left over from the 1980s Soviet invasion and Afghan militia battles of the 1990s.

About 40 civilians a month were killed or wounded by explosives last year, up from about 33 a month the previous two years, Hartley said.

The higher numbers for unexploded ordnance casualties suggest that as bases are closed or torn down, more civilians are entering the ranges, even though 20 million Afghans have received ordnance awareness education, Hartley said.

Next to the Bagram range, which borders a road and is accessible to anyone, an Afghan farmer named Afzal, 40, was collecting brush. Afzal, who like many Afghans uses one name, said he never strayed from paths beside the range that have been marked as safely cleared.

"I tell my children: 'Don't go over there. Don't touch anything,' " he said.

That is not true of kuchis, some of whom live in ragged tents near the range, Afzal said. "You can't find a healthy kuchi," he said. "They are missing their arms or legs, their eyes. They know this place is dangerous, but they run out there after every firing to grab the shells."

Hasadullah, 13, who was collecting dried cow dung for fuel next to the range, said he had been taught in school to stay off the range and not touch any metal objects.

"The kuchis have been warned, even by kids like me," the boy said. "But they need the money, and so they go pick up the metal."

Gol, the kuchi who lost his leg, said 11 people in his village had been killed and 80 had been wounded over the years by ordnance and mines. Most kuchis migrate with the seasons, but Gol said his neighbors had lived in the nearby village of Barikaab off and on for years.

Villagers see the warning signs and hear lectures from mine-clearing agencies, Gol said.

"We have to graze our sheep somewhere," he said. "We were here before this range was."

-MCT

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