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How long will children be hurt or killed by explosives in Afghanistan?

By Sana Atef* and Mahtab Safi*  

On April 29, 2023, Rahila* was walking to school with seven other children in Jawzjan province when they discovered an object on the ground. They began throwing stones at it, and in doing so, changed their lives forever. It was an unexploded mine, which detonated, killing two of Rahila’s friends and injuring her and the rest of her children.  

Rahila, 10, says still in pain. Her hands were severely injured in the explosion and there’s a small piece of shrapnel visible in her left arm. She has no memory of what happened to her and her friends, telling Zan Times, “We were playing and walking in the alley. Roya and Samana were ahead; they were the first to find the mine. A few minutes later, the fire came towards me and I fell to the ground.” 

The eight children were all between the ages of 8 and 10. Rahila’s father was about to go by bicycle to his teaching job by bicycle when he heard the explosion. Rahman* rushed to the scene and discovered that his daughter and three nieces were among the injured while another niece had been killed. He and other residents transported the injured to the nearest medical facility. “We took them to the provincial hospital and nobody was in good condition. Five other children, like my daughter, were also injured in their arms and legs,” he explains.  

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“I’m very scared. Even our agricultural land and alleys are not safe,” Rahman says, explaining that a year earlier, a child was killed and several others were injured in an explosion of a mine near their homes in an alley slightly above their house. 

Due to his financial problems, Rahman can’t afford a second surgery for Rahila to remove the shrapnel, which is hurting her. “For months we have seen that there’s a piece of iron in her arm, but there’s not enough money to treat her,” says Rahman. “I can’t do anything for her.” 

A month before Rahila was disabled due to a landmine, Qais* had his left leg amputated at the knee due to a similar explosion in the southern province of Kandahar. His mother had asked him to bring a midday meal to his father, who was farming about a kilometre away from their house. Qais took a shortcut, unaware that the area had not been cleared of unexploded ordnance left over from past wars. He stepped on a buried mine that exploded. “When I opened my eyes, I was in the hospital. I was in intense pain and didn’t know what had happened. My father was beside me, comforting me,” he recounts to Zan Times. 

Three hours later, Qais realized that one of his legs had been amputated. This was shocking and demoralizing because he had dreamed of becoming a national cricket team player. The 9-year-old used to play cricket every afternoon but now can no longer run. He still goes to the local cricket field but now watches the games with regret: “When my friends are playing cricket, I wish to go and play with them. I get excited, but when I try to stand up, I realize that my leg is missing and that I have to walk with a cane.” 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reports that at least 640 children were killed or injured by 541 mine and ordnance explosions in Afghanistan between June 2022 and June 2023. Children account for nearly 60 percent of the total number of 1,092 casualties due to interactions with unexploded materials in Afghanistan. 

The ICRC states that unexploded items remain a constant and real threat to civilians in Afghanistan, and efforts to clear mines and other explosive materials have not been successful. Despite fighting and warfare diminishing since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the number of casualties injured by mines and other explosive materials has been on the rise, according to the ICRC.  

Afghanistan is one of the most contaminated countries in terms of unexploded explosives, states the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). On August 23, 2023, it tweeted that children make up 85 percent of the victims of unexploded items in Afghanistan. Though UNICEF and the European Union used to educate children about the dangers of unexploded explosives, such initiatives have decreased following the Taliban’s return to power. 

In October 2022, three girls were killed in Badghis province when abandoned howitzer shells exploded near their homes. Mina, Rahela, and Halima hadn’t been told of the dangers posed by unexploded ordnance. While Mina and Rahela died on the way to the hospital, Halima died as soon as she reached the hospital. The girls were orphans between 9 and 11 years old who were living with their uncle, Kaka Omar*.  

He is still shocked by the scene of devastation at the explosion site, saying, “Pieces of their flesh were scattered all over, and we had trouble collecting them. We couldn’t even recognize which piece belonged to whom. They were completely torn apart and burned.” 

No matter where one travels in Afghanistan, similar stories are heard of injured or killed children, and their devastated families. In Ghor province, Zahir* lost his 10-year-old brother, Rajab, in a mine explosion near a cemetery in August 2022. “One of his arms was severed, and his face was completely destroyed,” says Zahir, explaining that Rajab died of his wounds.  

He says that they often hear news of children being killed or injured due to unexploded explosives in their area. Every now and again, however, those unexploded mine education programs pay off: “A while ago, children in our village had seen a mine and luckily had reported it, and a demining organization came and neutralized it.” 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and journalists.  

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