Dogs of Post-War
Locals clear landmines in Afghanistan with the help of canis familiaris.
Thursday, February 12, 2004
Two weeks ago Lakhdar Brahimi, until recently the United Nations’ top man in Afghanistan, stood before a crowd of US government functionaries and reporters at the National Press Club in Washington and gave an impromptu stump speech for the United Nations Association’s mine-clearing program.
Throughout most of his speech Brahimi had spoken so softly that his listeners had to strain to hear him. He spoke about the fledgling state’s vulnerability to warlords, Taliban insurgents and opium traffickers and about the fragility of Afghan democracy. But when United Nations Association (UNA) President and event co-host William Luers mentioned the de-mining program, Brahimi brightened.
“It is one of my favorite programs,” he said emphatically. “If we can clear places where kids play, where people go—there are lots of places people can’t go because they’re affected. There is lots of arable land that can’t be cultivated.”
Afghanistan has as many as 10 million landmines, scattered in every geographical region, a nasty record of the 1979 Soviet invasion and successive struggles for power between warlords and against the Taliban. The United States has contributed to the violent detritus, too, in the form of cluster bombs dropped in the 2001 campaign against the Taliban. (Cousins to the buried landmine, cluster bombs lie on the ground’s surface, more visible but no less deadly when detonated.)
Landmine victims, many of them kids, often lose a hand, a foot, a leg to an explosion.
“They’ve been subjected to enough over there, and there are Americans involved,” says UNA Monterey Bay Chapter President Larry Levine. That’s why the local chapter is funding a de-mining team in Afghanistan through UNA’s Adopt-A-Minefield program.
Last month it kicked off a drive to raise $23,320—enough to pay salaries and operating expenses for eight weeks of mine removal around the northeastern city of Kunduz.
UNA Monterey Bay, at 560 members, is the third-largest local chapter in the country, behind New York and Washington. In 1999, the local chapter adopted a minefield around the Bosnian village of Dropci, near the Croatian border. In three and a half months the chapter raised $33,500 from 500 local donors. Matching funds from an international trust enabled the whole area to be cleared. It was so satisfying, Levine said, they decided to do it again.
There are various techniques for finding landmines. In most places it’s a guy walking softly and wielding a metal detector, but in Mozambique de-miners are training rats to sniff out ordnance; in Morocco they set monkeys to the task; and in Afghanistan, increasingly, they use dogs.
Unlike metal detectors, the dogs are able to pick up the scent of explosives through plastic casings. “When they smell the explosives they stop and don’t move,” says Megan Burke, who works at UNA-USA’s New York headquarters as program manager for Adopt-a-Minefield. The de-miners then either mark the spot for detonation later or gingerly prod around for the device. “Most mines work based on pressure from on top,” Burke says, “so if you lift it from the bottom it won’t detonate.”
Mine removal employs more Afghans than any other industry: 7,000. The team UNA Monterey Bay is funding consists of four dogs, four handlers and 19 de-miners. The dogs have each trained for a year, starting as puppies, before being matched with a handler and training for another year toward certification. Once matched, dog and handler stay together for the dog’s five-year de-mining career.
“We understand it’s kind of a new experience in Afghanistan,” Levine says, “because, like in many places around the world, dogs aren’t treasured as pets like they are here.”
As of a year ago the center had lost seven dogs to accidents in 13 years.
Levine says UNA Monterey Bay would eventually like to fund two or three months’ worth of de-mining efforts. Two weeks ago the group had raised about $13,000 in the drive, which is dedicated to the memory of former Monterey County Supervisor Sam Karas and journalist True Boardman, both of whom passed away in 2003. Leon and Sylvia Panetta, retired MIIS President Bob Gard and a few other local luminaries are on the honorary committee.
“We’re all volunteers, no staff,” Levine says. “For the moment there’s no big fundraising event planned. We’re just asking people to help.”
Any donation, large or small, is welcome and may be sent to UNA-Landmines, PO Box 223379, Carmel, CA 93922. Contact UNA Monterey Bay at 625-9414 or email@example.com.
Former Weekly Associate Editor Traci Hukill is Managing Editor of UN Wire in Washington, DC.