Mines Get Little Media Notice

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines issued its annual report a day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

In the 2001 report, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization called Afghanistan one of the world's most heavily mined countries.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reached that conclusion despite the destruction of 13,542 antipersonnel mines, 636 antitank mines and 298,828 unexploded ordnance by eight humanitarian groups during clearance operations in 2000.

American special forces might need to enter Afghanistan to grab Osama bin Laden if international diplomatic pressure, satellite surveillance and cruise missiles cannot smoke him out.

So far, however, there has been little reporting in the U.S. news media about the danger posed by mines planted throughout the Afghanistan countryside.

By one estimate, 10-million mines await detonation in Afghanistan. "There are land mines everywhere," said Robert C. Sanchez, a freelance photographer and Tampa resident, who spent about a month in Afghanistan during journalistic assignments in 1999 and 2000. "There's actually places where there are land mines on top of land mines, if you can believe that."

Most of the mines were laid between 1980 and 1992, during the former Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. After that, civil war has racked the country.

Soviet troops stormed into Afghanistan in 1979 and guerillas, including former defense minister Ahmed Shah Masoud, spent a decade repelling them. Civil war among the victorious mujahedin militias broke out shortly after the Soviet withdrawal. The Taliban, made up of radical Muslim clerics, seized power in 1996.

Since then, Masoud's northern alliance had waged a generally losing campaign against the Pakistani-trained army of the Muslim extremists until his murder by suicide bombers earlier this month.

The Taliban, which controls 95 percent of Afghanistan, and the northern alliance, which is recognized as the legitimate government by the United Nations, have accused each other of continuing to plant mines on the frontlines.

The Taliban's supreme leader imposed a national prohibition on antipersonnel mines in 1998.

But, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, that didn't stop the northern alliance from using mines. The Taliban sustained heavy landmine casualties in capturing the northern Afghan city of Taloqan last year. "The kind of destruction that we've seen in the United States, which has broken everyone's heart here, they've been seeing in Afghanistan for 21 years," said Sanchez. "It's a country that has suffered terribly, just terribly." Sanchez believes many Afghans would cheer the elimination of the Taliban and their guest, bin Laden. Afghans celebrated the rise of the Taliban at first. "That was a relief to people who had suffered under six years of this civil war, when the mujahedin fought each other, when it was just murderous, fratricidal blockades, checkpoints everywhere, bribery, terrible corruption," said Sanchez. "People thought: "Hey, they're going to put a stop to this.'" By the summer of 2000, when Sanchez was last in Afghanistan, it was apparent the Taliban wouldn't fulfill the promises of prosperity. "People were complaining and saying: "Hey, the Taliban are just as guilty. You have to bribe them.'"

Yet the mine problem is one reason Sanchez has doubts about a U.S. invasion. "If there is a perception by the Afghans that we are invading their country and we're not making any distinctions and it looks like we're just wholesale trying to take over and kill everyone, I don't see how that inures to a long-term success," said Sanchez. "Historically, it didn't work for Russia in the 19th century. It didn't work for Great Britain in the 19th century. And it certainly didn't work for the Soviets 10 or 15 years ago." Dispirited by the succession of bloody wars, the Afghans are still proud of never surrendering to outsiders. "The populace at large has become, sadly, very accustomed to dealing with bombs and war and death. That's not going to come as anything new," Sanchez said. "People have said: "Oh, we'll bomb them back to the Stone Age.' But they live in the Stone Age now. That's not going to change things any."

Contact Staff Writer Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected] weeklyplanet.com.

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