In September 2020, Safiullah, a father of six children living in Kabul, confronted a dangerous legacy of war when he unearthed buried explosives after digging a spot for a new septic tank. He feared that, if he meddled with the unexploded shells, they could destroy his home and possibly worse, kill and injure his family and neighbors. Safiullah quickly alerted the local police who called the Afghan government’s Directorate for Mine Action Coordination (DMAC) for assistance. DMAC turned to the HALO Trust (HALO) – an international non-governmental organization that conducts humanitarian demining operations all over the world – for their expertise and capabilities. HALO, which has conducted humanitarian demining work in Afghanistan and was founded and started in Afghanistan in 1988, directed three weapons and ammunition disposal teams to examine Safiullah’s neighborhood, with two of those teams funded by the United States and a third funded by Germany.
HALO quickly discerned that Safiullah’s house and others on the same street had been built upon an old ammunition depot. As HALO got to work, local investigations revealed that the ammunition depot had once belonged to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Later, after the fall of President Najibullah’s government in 1992 and the subsequent rise of the Mujahedeen in Kabul, a Mujahedeen commander acquired the land and then sold it to local property developers. Despite nearly 20 metrics tons of Soviet explosives located on the site, the explosives were buried and hidden from view to avoid potential difficulties with the land sale. Three decades later, the surrounding area has become an urbanized residential neighborhood of Kabul. The local mosque, used by around 150 people a day, is only 20 meters away from the site, while Safiullah’s children attend the nearby school with over l, 000 other students is only 300 meters away. If handled incorrectly, this degrading stockpile had the potential to cause mass casualties and significant infrastructure damage to an entire community.
Utilizing an armored mechanical excavator, the disposal teams began to methodically locate and remove the 20 tons of munitions from the neighborhood. The items were then moved to a controlled demolition site where they were safely destroyed. HALO soon found that the munitions cache extended beneath the street in front of Safiullah’s house, creating an entirely new challenge of controlling traffic and preserving infrastructure. After consulting with local and national authorities – DMAC, local police, and security services – the municipality agreed to repair the road as soon as HALO’s clearance was complete.
As the site was being cleared, Safiullah conveyed his appreciation for HALO’s work, saying: “I was extremely grateful for the help of HALO Trust. It was a great relief to see them doing their job so safely and professionally, and we can see that the danger will soon be gone.”
Sadly, stories like Safiullah’s are all too common for the people of Afghanistan. Prior to this emergency call, the largest amount of cached explosives that HALO discovered and cleared from a residential neighborhood had been three metric tons, excavated from a private compound in Bagram Village, only 800 meters from the front gate of a nearby U.S. Air Base. Deadly hazards such as landmines, unexploded ordnance (UXO), and improvised explosive devices continue to kill and maim civilians, as well as hamper economic development and prevent people reeling from decades of conflict from rebuilding their lives.
To improve the lives of the Afghan people, the United States provides conventional weapons destruction (CWD) funding and support to help clear legacy landmine and UXO contamination left by the 1979 Soviet invasion, internal armed conflict from 1992 to 2001, and contamination resulting from the current conflict.
From 1993 to 2020, the United States provided more than $537 million for CWD including demining assistance to Afghanistan. Since 1997, implementing partners of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) have cleared over 297.6 million square meters (73,538 acres) of land and removed or destroyed over 8.39 million mines, UXO, stockpiled munitions, and homemade explosives.
“I was extremely grateful for the help of HALO Trust. It was a great relief to see them doing their job so safely and professionally, and we can see that the danger will soon be gone.” – Mr. Safiullah
Today, PM/WRA continues to work with its implementing partners to reduce these threats both in Afghanistan and around the globe. The United States remains the world’s largest international donor to CWD, providing more than $4 billion to support humanitarian mine action, physical security, and stockpile management and associated activities in over 100 countries since 1993.
For more information on how the State Department is strengthening human security, facilitating economic development, and fostering stability through demining, risk education, and other conventional weapons destruction activities, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.
About the Author: William Gifford is a Frasure-Kruzel-Drew Memorial Fellow in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement at the U.S. Department of State.