CreditPhotographs by Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
It was a warm October afternoon and I was in Noorzia and her father’s temporary house in Nangarhar Province, in eastern Afghanistan. Just three months earlier, she had been gathering firewood on a hill above her home villagewhen her life changed forever. The summer before, her village had been overrun by Islamic State militants; her family fled and then returned in the fall once government forces drove them out. But the Islamic State left behind some surprises.
“I climbed this little mound,” Noorzia said. “I couldn’t see the mine and I stepped on it.” The explosive device, planted by the militants, took both of her legs.
Noorzia is one of the more than 2,000 civilian victims of mines and exploded remnants of war, which include unexploded bombs, rockets, improvised explosive devices and grenades, in Afghanistan last year.
After decades of work and more than a billion dollars of support from the international community, great strides have been made to clear mines left over from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
But humanitarian demining groups face new challenges: Explosive remnants of war from the expanding conflict between Afghan security forces and the Taliban and other insurgent groups litter the countryside. Some are mortars and grenades launched by government forces; others are pressure-plate I.E.D.s left behind by the Taliban, the Islamic State and other insurgent groups.
The unintentional targets are civilians, often curious children, who pick up and step on these munitions. Demining groups, working with the support of donor countries, have long struggled to clear this contamination and keep up the continuing removal of legacy mines. These days, there’s less and less money to do so.
The rise in civilian casualties from mines and other explosive remnants, while a result of various factors, tracks with this diminished funding. In 2012, when funding by international donors hit its peak the year before at $113 million, the number of civilians killed or injured by these weapons was the lowest on record.
Since the accelerated withdrawal of American forces beginning in 2013, many international donors have scaled back their funding for demining operations. In 2016, when the funding was the lowest yet, civilian casualties hit their highest number recorded since the fall of the Taliban.
In 2017, the Afghan government requested around $110 million from the international community to keep pace with its demining commitments. It received only around $42 million. The United States, which has cut allocated funding for demining in Afghanistan by 50 percent over the past six years, provided two thirds of that.
The effect on the ground is stark. Four years ago, there were 15,000 deminers employed in Afghanistan. Now there are only 5,000. Atef Gharwal oversees operations in central Afghanistan for the Danish Demining Group. It’s dangerous work, but he’s deeply proud of it.
He has been working as a deminer for 17 years, but now there are fewer and fewer resources for demining. He has seen scores of teams disbanded, and trucks and equipment that could be used to clear dangerous munitions sit gathering dust.
In many ways, demining in Afghanistan is a victim of its own success. More than 18 million explosive remnants of war have been destroyed since 1989, cleared from more than 1,197 square miles. Once run by the United Nations, much of the work has been taken over by the Afghan government’s directorate of mine action coordination.
But the job isn’t done, and as the fighting has spread across the countryside following the formal end of American combat operations in 2014, more and more areas are contaminated with unexploded munitions and improvised mines.
After decades of war, Afghanistan is more dangerous for civilians than ever. Patrick Fruchet, the head of office for the United Nations Mine Action Service in Afghanistan, told me last December that “civilians are dying at twice the numbers that soldiers are dying in this conflict.” (Updated figures show that civilians and Afghan armed forces are dying or being injured at about the same rate.) Without renewed support from donor countries, more and more children will lose hands, arms, legs and lives to unexploded munitions.
There is little support for civilian victims of mines, but with help from a small American nongovernmental organization, Noorzia was fitted for prosthetic legs in a clinic north of Kabul. She wailed each time the new legs were fitted, and each time she had to stand on them, each time she took a step.
But on the last afternoon I saw her, things were going better. She smiled at jokes told by the staff, and laughed a bit with her father. A snazzy new pair of bright pink tennis shoes for the bottom of the prosthetics probably didn’t hurt either. The therapists worked with her through the morning, and by afternoon they had been at it for a while.
They got her to try to walk one more time. Without assistance, without anyone standing to catch her, she struggled to her feet and took one halting step after another, watching herself in a mirror. She was unsteady and the toes of her shoes dragged on the carpet; tears ran down her face. But she was walking.