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Millions of Mines : Afghans Hit by a Deadly Calling Card

June 22, 1988|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

THAL, Pakistan — For more than half his life, 12-year-old Shawar Gul could not play outside the family hut in Jaji, Afghanistan. War was an unkind playmate.

Soviet helicopters strafed his village every week for nearly nine years. Artillery pounded into the fields like clockwork. Time and again, resistance fighters clashed with Afghan government troops, spraying machine-gun fire through the village.

But after nine long years of war, Jaji was liberated a few weeks ago. Soviet troops, who have been withdrawing from Afghanistan since May 15, abandoned their garrisons in the village near this Pakistani border town, leaving them for the moujahedeen resistance fighters to reclaim.

It Wasn't a Butterfly

Shawar Gul finally went out to play last week, and it was only then that war took a direct part in the boy's life. He was in the family vegetable garden when he spotted a shiny new plastic toy on the ground. It looked like a butterfly, Shawar recalled this week with a smile.

It wasn't. It was a Soviet land mine disguised as a toy, and it blew off most of the boy's left hand.

Shawar Gul is hardly alone. In his bed at the men's ward of the American-financed Freedom Medicine Hospital here, he was surrounded by mine victims--limbless boys and moujahedeen fighters who are among the first in what doctors and military analysts here already say is an epidemic of newly war-wounded in Afghanistan: victims of land mines that are the latest brutal chapter in a war that has claimed 1.5 million lives.

Deadly Calling Cards

Like unwanted visitors leaving deadly calling cards, they report, withdrawing Soviet and Afghan government troops have been seeding the already devastated Afghan landscape with millions of land mines that will kill and maim an estimated 10,000 Afghan men, women and children in the months to come.

The mines are also the principal reason why few, if any, of the 3 million Afghan refugees who have been living for years in the squalor of Pakistani border camps are returning to their villages, despite the Soviet troop withdrawal.

"People are going to be blown up for the next 20 years in Afghanistan," said one diplomat in Pakistan. "People are going to be killed. People are going to be maimed, and the civilians are going to take the brunt of it. The effect is going to be disastrous on the refugees when they return."

U.S. military analysts have estimated that there are now between 3 million and 5 million land mines of various types scattered throughout Afghanistan. Many are old, planted many years ago by Soviet troops to form defense perimeters when they established outpost garrisons to fight the moujahedeen. Clearly, though, many more are recently planted and deliberately aimed at slowing the moujahedeen's efforts to retake territory abandoned by the Soviets.

Doctors and aid workers on the border say that the purpose of planting the mines also is to maim Afghan civilians trying to re-establish villages, which resistance fighters can use as safe havens as they move closer to the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Diplomatic observers and independent, international refugee workers on the Afghan border added that their greatest concern is the seeding of mines like the one that blew off Shawar Gul's left hand. Disguising mines as toys is not new; the numbers in which these and other mines are being dumped is, however.

"The biggest problem is that, in addition to mine-seeding around the abandoned garrisons, the mines are being found in vegetable gardens and fields, along village footpaths and in places where only civilians will go," said one United Nations relief worker who asked not to be identified. "The U.N. has asked the Soviets about this, and we are told only that they have no maps indicating just where these mines are located. As anyone will tell you, this is going to be an enormous problem for us in the future as we try to resettle and reconstruct the Afghan nation."

Border Hospitals

The absence of maps comes as no surprise to veteran aid workers like Robert Brenner, whose Honolulu-based Freedom Medicine Relief Agency for the past three years has been training Afghan moujahedeen as paramedics and operating the border surgical hospital in Thal where Shawar Gul and his fellow mine victims are being cared for.

"We know for a fact that the Soviets have been seeding all of these border villages and towns from helicopters for months," said Brenner, who gathers information about the war from moujahedeen commanders and injured fighters at his hospital and has also started collecting samples of the mines and booby-traps. "They just toss them out the side of the helicopter, and wherever they fall, they fall.

"There are some that are like butterfly- or toy-mine variety. Others are designed to look like ballpoint pens. When you pick it up and press the top, it explodes.

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