GHAFOR KHIL, Afghanistan — 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S.-led international forces have pledged to identify and help clean up ranges.
Coalition officials said they are committed to clearing every small-arms range on the 800 bases once occupied by coalition troops. They have also teamed with the U.N. 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 U.S. 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 fortress like bases, but some barriers have been torn down as bases are dismantled.
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 U.S. combat troops depart at the end of 2014. The U.S. has committed $62 million to mapping and beginning to clear these ranges.
American and Afghan contractors hired by the U.S. 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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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.