To survive, some Afghans sift through deadly remnants of old wars
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Safiullah Padshah
The father of six knew that where he was digging could kill him. But winter was approaching, and selling a few pounds of scrap metal peeled from a nearby abandoned military outpost could offset the rising prices of food and fuel as Afghanistan’s economy collapsed around him.
So Sayed Rahman and his 9-year-old son, Javidullah, set out to disassemble a few decaying fortifications scattered among the remains of the country’s last three wars.
“We found a mortar shell,” Javidullah recalled. The munition exploded, killing his father and wounding the boy in the head.
“Now I don’t come here anymore to collect scrap,” he said on a recent visit to the blast site in the Tangi Valley in central Afghanistan.
In this once strategically important thoroughfare that connects Wardak and Logar provinces, the Soviet war of the 1980s is buried beneath the civil war of the 1990s, which lies beneath the 20-year American War that ended in August. The rolling hills, between jagged mountains, have turned into a congealed mass of discarded steel and hidden explosives.
The valley is a scrapper’s fever dream, a place where 15 pounds of discarded metal can be quickly harvested and sold for around a dollar. But in the nine months since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, more than 180 people have been killed by unexploded munitions, many of whom were trying to collect and sell scrap, according to United Nations and Taliban officials.
The actual number is most likely much higher, the officials say, because casualty reporting was disrupted after the collapse of the Western-backed government.
The scrap-metal economy and casualties from buried munitions are inextricably linked, long a part of Afghanistan’s history as one of the poorest and most heavily mined countries in the world.
But now there is an added urgency as the lack of foreign aid has disrupted demining efforts and neutered the government agency responsible for coordinating them. Areas that were once off limits because they were too dangerous — such as former military bases, front lines and old firing ranges — are now accessible to an increasingly desperate population.
In November, Rahman and his son were drawn to the abandoned Afghan military outpost in the Tangi Valley because of its supply of so-called Hesco barriers, sand-filled containers held together by metal caging.
As military bases were abandoned after the war, they became a windfall for scrap dealers like Mohammed Amin, 40, whose company buys scrap in Wardak province for about 11 cents a pound. But he is concerned that as the economy has tanked, scrap pickers have become less discerning.
“The percentage of dangerous military equipment and explosives we get is still very high,” he said, “especially from people and children collecting from the mountains and around their homes.”
Most of this scrap ends up in giant steel mills in cities like Kabul, the capital, where it is melted down and turned into construction material. The Taliban have clamped down on smuggling of the steel into Pakistan, where it usually commands a higher price.
One of the largest factories in Kabul, the Khan Steel Mill, discourages its suppliers from purchasing discarded military equipment because of the danger.
Suppliers arrive at the plant with five to 10 truckloads of scrap each day, company officials said, but practically every handful seems to contain shell casings or a mortar shell or other remnants from the past four decades of war.
“In the last six months, about 10% of the scrap we’ve bought is military material and debris that has been left behind,” said Mohammed Rahim Noori, head of Khan Steel Mill’s security department, who oversees much of the discarded explosives that have ended up in his scrapyards. “Which is a lot.”
The father-son duo in the Tangi Valley were taking apart one of the Hesco barriers and had dug around its base when Rahman found a mortar shell, most likely left behind by either the Soviet army or one of the militias that used the base after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
Javidullah watched as his father tried to remove the mortar’s fuse when it exploded in his hands, killing him. The HALO Trust, a British demining charity, started clearing the area soon after, finding pockets of earth that together contained more than 60 tons of explosives.
HALO estimates the area at the mouth of the valley, one small chunk of the hundreds of square miles still contaminated with explosives in Afghanistan, will be free of deadly munitions by 2024.
It has been 33 years since the last Soviet tank left Afghanistan, and their munitions are still killing people, especially children.
“When the Russians were leaving Afghanistan, one of them turned to me and said, ‘We’re leaving now but the land will fight you for another 30 years,’” recalled Muhammed Asif, 59, a Tangi Valley village elder.
In one week in March, 10 children were wounded or killed handling discarded munitions across Afghanistan, according to reports from local officials. Four were killed in southern Afghanistan and two in the east. The rest were wounded.
U.N. data from 2020, the last full year of accounting, shows that 80% of the casualties from explosive remnants of war in Afghanistan were children: 84 killed and 230 injured.
Standing a dozen yards from where Javidullah watched his father die, Ainullah, a rugged little 5-year-old in a blue jacket and green tunic, clutched a handful of steel he had collected with his siblings. In his hand, he held what looked to be the remains of a used propellant charge once attached to a rocket-propelled grenade.
The rusted piece of metal was stamped with its year of manufacture: 1974. It was nearly 10 times older than the boy carrying it.
Ainullah had been taught to avoid areas known to have explosives, part of the decadeslong educational efforts launched by nonprofit organizations to discourage children from picking up lethal material.
But he did not care. His family needed money.
“I’m not scared,” Ainullah announced before making his way down the hill, away from the defunct base and toward a nearby village where someone would buy his haul.