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Long after the air raids, bomblets bring more death

28 January 2002

They are tiny, silent killers, dropped from the bellies of the American bombs that pulverised the Taliban defences, and striking long after the air war on Afghanistan has ended.

At least 41 people have been killed and 46 injured in Herat and nearby villages by cluster bombs which did not immediately explode when they were unleashed by the US bombers, but nestled in the soil and bided their time.

The cheerful yellow-coloured devices - called bomblets - parachuted to earth from the mother bomb 202 at a time. They are a highly effective killer, deploying, in military parlance, three "kill mechanisms" to slice through the thick armour of tanks, and injure and burn humans.

In the area of Rabat village, half an hour west of Herat, the BLU-97 bomblets have killed 10 people since the bombing ended there in early November.

First, there were the three children from a neighbouring village who wandered over unfamiliar fields to attend a wedding, and thought the small yellow cylinders were toys. By December, the bomblets were killing local farmers frustrated because they could not sow their fields as planting time grew near.

For days, Abdul Rahim glared at his empty patch of land, sown with clusters instead of the customary wheat and grapes. After a seemingly auspicious rainfall on December 20 he decided to clear the field himself. "I told him many times, don't touch the cluster. Other villagers also told him not to touch cluster bombs, but he didn't listen," said his son, Abdul Naim, who watched his father embark on his deadly course.

"He began picking up the cluster bombs with a shovel," Abdul Naim said. Three arced through the air and exploded harmlessly in a nearby field. "The fourth one exploded and a piece of shrapnel caught him in the throat."

Slow work

De-miners co-ordinated by the UN and now working in the villages around Rabat say they have located and defused nearly 200 unexploded bomblets, imbedded in the walls of the domed mud and straw houses or from under the rose bushes in the gardens enclosed within every family's compound.

But their work is painstakingly slow, and about 30%of the fields remain off-limits to the farmers, said Mohammed Gul Siddiqi of the UN mine action centre.

Last last year, angry villagers rioted outside the de-mining centre in Herat, demanding they clear their fields. "We are very nervous, and very afraid of cluster bombs everywhere," said Gul Mohammed, an elderly villager. "We can't work freely on our land. When I leave my house in the morning, I can't be sure I will come back home at night."

Once the Taliban was routed, the US provided the UN with data on the areas where cluster bombs had been deployed. According to the figures, 1,722 bomblets were dropped on a single location in Herat.

However, the US drastically under-reported the extent of cluster bombing, de-miners say, and in some instances identified locations that were 4.5 miles from the site of the actual bombing.

Rabat did not feature on the US map of its cluster-bombing of Herat. It is an open area of farmland, with no trees to provide cover to fleeing Taliban troops or pick-up trucks, and it is at least a mile from the large military compound that was used by the Taliban.

The unexploded cluster bombs have proved far deadlier than the tens of thousands of mines laid in Afghanistan by occupying Soviet forces, and de-mining experts expect a similar picture to Herat to emerge in other parts of the country that were subjected to cluster bombing.

Sophisticated killers

The bomblets are exceedingly sensitive to heat and movement and can be detonated inadvertently by a radio signal within 25 metres, said Sean Moorhouse, a Durham-born de-miner from the Swiss Federation for Mine Action.

And the bomblets are a sophisticated killer: on explosion, they fragment into dozens of fiery metal fragments, slicing and burning into human flesh.

Heavy rains a fortnight ago buried the unexploded bomblets beneath the soil and swept some away to new locations. In the Qala Shaater, a neighbourhood near the centre of Herat, about 100 bomblets buried in the mud of a nearby canal were carried downstream.

The area suffered some of the worst civilian casualties during the bombing of Herat last October. In the months since, 12 more civilians have been killed by the bomblets left behind. Mr Moorhouse said his teams have cleared 225 bomblets from the neighbourhood so far.

At least six of the bomblets parachuted to earth in the narrow passageway linking the Farid family compound to the road, bursting through a mud wall and gouging out chunks of plaster from the main home. One family member died, two teenaged neighbours were killed, and two unexploded bomblets remained behind.

At first the family waited, and then they decided to try their luck. A friend of Ahmed Farid, 26, after trying defusing techniques, decided to hurl a bomblet into the courtyard of a an abandoned home next door. Unfortunately, Ahmed was crossing the courtyard.

Fiery bits of shrapnel burnt a series of almond-sized scars from right shoulder to calf, and put the iron worker in hospital for two days.

-"It was seriously painful," he said. "But I am lucky. I am still alive."

Susan Goldenberg
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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