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Europe

Sniffing out Danger

Afghanistan's soil is contaminated by an around 10 million landmines. Mine-detection dogs are proving essential in the endless search for these deadly weapons.

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The area around Kabul is a giant minefield

Poppies are not the only deadly harvest in Afghanistan. The country’s soil is also riddled with landmines. According to the UN, 720 million square metres of land in Afghanistan are mine-affected, by an estimated 10 million mines.

Land-mines have a severe effect on the reconstruction and development of war-torn countries such as Afghanistan. The mining of agricultural land leads to malnutrition, famine and starvation. Mines laid along roads and tracks prevent the safe repatriation of refugees and impede the delivery of aid. And children are particularly vulnerable to these deadly objects.

A plastic mine decoy is only slightly larger than a hocky puck. Signs posted to warn children of the prescence of mines are often useless, as many of them are iliterate, or simply too young to read. Naturally curious, children are likely to pick up strange objects, such as the toy-like "butterfly" mines that Soviet forces spread by the millions when they were at war with Afghanistan.

But mine removal is a lengthy and expensive business. These deadly objects can cost as little as $3 each to manufacture and up to $1,000 to remove. Land-mines can be spread at rates of over 1,000 per minute, but it may take a skilled expert an entire day to clear 20-50 square metres of mine-contaminated ground by hand.

At current in Afghanistan, experts are depending on one particular essential to speed up the detection of hidden land-mines: dogs. Berlin-based Mario Boer, Technical director of the United Nation’s mine-clearing programme, trained dogs for mine detection in the Afghan capital until he left Kabul last September. After the first US-led air raid attacks on Afghanistan the former Army officer returned in November to take up his work with his team of dogs.

In Kabul, men with metal detectors work side by side with the mine detection dogs. The dogs’ sense of smell is often superior to the capabilities of current technology. In one day, a team of 15 men and 15 dogs manage to inspect an area the size of a football field.

The area around Kabul is one giant minefield. Boer is horrified by the way the Afghans still go on with with their daily chores on and around mine-affected ground. “Even when we are working here as minesweepers, shepheards lead their flocks through the area. They simply won’t allow themselves to be driven away”, he says.

The first organized UN de-mining operation began in Afghanistan in 1990 with a single 24-man local team, supported by expatriate advisers. Today, the programme employs some 3,000 Afghan de-miners on 48 clearance crews, along with 16 mine awareness teams.

Few war-torn nations are able to mount de-mining programmes alone. The UN has established a voluntary trust fund through which countries can share the burden of mine clearance. To date, countries have pledged $22 million towards the UN goal of $75 million.

Meanwhile, over 110 million land-mines of various types — plus millions of unexploded bombs, misiles and grenades — remain hidden all over the world - only waiting to be triggered by the innocent and unsuspecting.