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Hidden enemies: Afghanistan combats landmines

There are landmines hidden in nearly all of Afghanistan's provinces. Playing children are especially at risk of detonating the devices, which have already cost thousands of lives in the country.

The 13-year-old Firoz Ali Alizada was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he decided to take a short cut on the way to school with a few friends. He stepped on a landmine that instantly went off and had to be rushed to hospital. Doctors said they would have to amputate his legs if there was any chance for him to survive. But before doctors would even see him, his parents had to bribe them with a handsome sum of money. In the end, the operation was carried out and young Firoz lost his legs.

He was one of very few who survive such blasts. "I was lucky. It is a miracle that I survived despite losing my legs and nearly all of my blood."

Each month, between 30 and 60 Afghans have an encounter with landmines. They are either killed or badly injured. "Compared to the 1990s, that number has gone down, but it is still the highest rate in the world," Alizada explains.

Unknown number of casualties

Today Firoz Ali Alizada works as a campaign manager at the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a network of over 1,200 NGOs all working towards an international ban on landmines.

Fateh Khan, right, who lost his leg in battle against the Soviet 15 years ago and Mohammad Ifzal, who lost his leg to a landmine 7 years ago practice walking with new prosthetics provided by the Guardian agency, Sunday Sept. 1, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. (AP Photo/Ed Wray)

Landmines still litter the country decades after the Soviet war in Afghanistan

Despite the ban on mines in Afghanistan, the country still has the highest number of hidden mines world wide, says Dr. Eva Maria Fischer of Handicap International, adding that exact figures for casualties were very difficult to assess.

"The exact numbers are not known because the statistics are not complete in Afghanistan," according to Fischer.

Children most at risk

According to Fischer, there are around 5,000 areas in Afghanistan that are considered risk zones for mines. And the people who live there could fall victim to them at any time.

Handicap International has been working with victims of landmines in Afghanistan since the end of the 1980s. The organization offers them support and rehabilitation programs. It also promotes child awareness programs.

According to figures provided by the UN Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan (MACCA), it is predominantly children who are at risk of falling victim to landmines. Over 50 percent of the victims are girls and boys under the age of 18. Most of them end up handicaped for the rest of their lives.

Life with a handicap

Over half of the handicaps in Afghanistan were caused by landmine explosions. "Our figures vary depending on the province. In some provinces, 70 percent of people with handicaps have them because of landmines. But if you take all provinces, between 50 and 60 percent of all physical handicaps can be traced back to mines," according to Mohammad al-Din Qani from the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled.

Despite rehabilitation programs, victims of landmine explosions have a very difficult time getting back into normal life. The Afghan government offers a retirement pension of between $5 and $10 (between 3.90 and 7.80 euros) per month. But that is not enough to feed a family. People with physical handicaps only rarely have a chance on the job market.

Widespread discrimination

An Afghan girl carries the ration of her mother, a victim of land mines and a war widow after receiving them from CARE's food distribution program for windows in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, April 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

Children are at the hightest risk of encountering hidden mines

Victims often face discrimination on a number of levels. Firoz Ali Alizada speaks from personal experience: "People cannot put themselves in disadvantaged people's shoes if they have never lived with a disability themselves in Afghanistan." Not only are these people faced with their physical handicaps and poverty, there is a real lack of compassion, he adds. "I was told very rudely that I would not be able to study at university because I am handicapped."

Being barred from studying was the last straw for Firoz Ali Alizada which finally made him decide to become a campaigner for the rights of handicapped people and for the ban of landmines. He says he has already been able to witness positive changes. Last year, Afghanistan signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and has also imlemented a law to protect the convention, though, Alizada adds, the laws could be better.

In order to reach long-term improvement, it is still of vital importance, that the country get rid of landmines. All of Afghanistan's provinces, with the exception of Daikundi in Central Afghanistan, face the problem of hidden landmines and unexploded ordnance devices. Up to now, only 121 districts have been cleared of landmines. And in the south of the country, there have not been many results at all. The ongoing war is the greatest obstacle, as the Taliban use landmines and IEDs as weapons.

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