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'Bomblets' Threaten Afghans: cluster `duds' litter countryside
6 February 2002
A filthy creek in this dirt-poor town near the Iranian border has become a dangerous depository for the residue of U.S. air assaults. Almost every day, someone in Shahter finds and then dumps in the water a small but deadly American bomb.
"But sometimes they explode," said Sulaima, an elderly villager who like many Afghans goes by one name. "One blew up that wooden bridge over there after it hit the water. Another exploded in a well. We worry about our kids getting blown up. But what can we do? We keep finding these bombs."
Opponents of cluster bombs can find plenty of ammunition in Shahter. The giant weapons, which rip apart as they fall to earth and spread explosive projectiles over the landscape, have left thousands of unexploded "bomblets" across the Herat region, aid agencies say.
The continuing threat that cluster bombs pose to civilians even as peace starts to take hold in Afghanistan is a major reason that human-rights groups oppose their use. Critics say cluster bombs are far less precise and far less effective than their users claim.
"The use of cluster bombs results in a high number of civilian casualties both during the war and after the war," said Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch, which has called for a global moratorium on the weapons.
"During the war they are extremely difficult to target," Goose said. "The problem when the fighting stops is that they have a high dud rate. Combined with the very high numbers typically used, this results in a very high number of what are, in essence, very volatile anti-personnel landmines."
According to Goose, the Pentagon has told mine-clearance agencies in Geneva that U.S. warplanes dropped 1,150 cluster bombs on 188 locations in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon refused until late October to acknowledge using cluster bombs. It still has not said publicly how many were dropped.
Targets of the cluster bombs were mostly munitions depots, Taliban military bases and terrorist hideouts. But relief organizations in the Herat region contend that a troubling number of the bombs landed off the mark in civilian areas such as Shahter. The mud-hut village of about 5,000 people is on the western outskirts of Herat, between the city and a Taliban military base.
Four agencies combing the Herat region have disarmed 1,000 bomblets. But cluster bombs were dropped in at least 17 locations in the area, the agencies said, and an estimated 4,000 scattered pieces remain to be collected and destroyed.
"The problem is not the ones that worked. It's the ones that didn't," said Sean Moorhouse, 34, a bomb disposal expert working for the United Nations World Food Program. "They are still very dangerous to people and can explode at any moment."
38 deaths since October
Cluster bombs have killed at least 38 non-combatants in the Herat region since October, aid agencies said. Dozens more have been wounded. Many people became victims not when the bombs were dropped but by picking up the bomblets later.
Because of their bright yellow color, the bomblets often attract children. Some Afghans have mistaken the bombs for relief supplies because they are the same color as food packets dropped by American cargo planes.
Cluster bombs only compound the dangers of unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan. The country remains home to up to 10 million land mines laid by various parties since the Soviet Union began its doomed occupation in 1979.
Despite the increased efforts of de-miners funded by international organizations, it still could take three decades to comb the cities and countryside to rid Afghanistan of the threat from mines, experts say.
"It's one thing to bomb a military target, but it's another to spread the danger all around the area to civilians," said Esther Vigneau of Doctors Without Borders, which has treated some victims and is one of several groups mounting a worldwide campaign to stop the use of cluster bombs. "Their destruction is indiscriminate."
Like other groups, Doctors Without Borders argues that cluster bombs are indiscriminate weapons and as such should be prohibited.
U.S. military officials defend cluster bombs as the best weapon for certain tasks. Dropped on an airport tarmac, for example, a single cluster bomb can deliver damage over a wide area, enough to penetrate planes or helicopters. They also can be devastating to troops spread over a battlefield.
"It covers a football field," said Kevin Kavanaugh, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. "It can turn an apple orchard into apple sauce - or people into hamburger."
The Pentagon says the bright color of the bomblets aids in cleaning up the unexploded bombs after a battlefield attack. The U.S. military provides the locations of its targets after attacks to help de-miners locate the bomblets.
U.S. officials also say they are working to decrease the number of duds, which the Pentagon estimates at 5 percent to 7 percent.
Aid agencies and independent experts say cluster bombs fail at a far higher rate. This depends on the age of the bomb and the location where it is used.
`A de facto land mine'
From figures he has gathered in Herat, and from his experience in Kosovo where cluster bombs also were dropped, Moorhouse estimates that 14 percent to 19 percent of the bomb fragments fail to explode.
"When it fails to explode, it becomes a de facto land mine," said Moorhouse, a Briton who has worked on mine removal in Mozambique and Kosovo for the Swiss Federation for Mine Action. "So it is just as deadly on the ground as it is from the air."
What baffles international aid groups most in Herat is how the U.S. bombs apparently missed their targets. Moorhouse has identified more than 17 bombing sites, from residential areas in Herat to a mountain hamlet 7 miles from any population center.
De-miners found one 2,000-pound bomb not far from the center of Herat and miles away from any Afghan military installation. It took workers nearly two weeks to dig it up and haul it away to an open field, where it was destroyed.
"It's an unacceptable margin of error," Moorhouse said. "Either they missed very badly or they received wrong information as to what they were bombing."
In Shahter, many residents were heartened when U.S. warplanes first appeared overheard. They figured they were safe from attack because the nearest Taliban military base was more than a half-mile away and U.S. pilots would never mistake the residential area for a Taliban target. International aid workers say there was no indication of Taliban activity in Shahter.
But on the sunny afternoon of Oct. 22, the U.S. dropped several cluster bombs virtually on their neighborhood. Each bomb contained 202 explosive canisters that were released as residents looked skyward. Some of the devices were fiery projectiles. Others were made of steel fragments powerful enough to cut through armor plating.
Sudi Zalmi, 26, was taking a nap when he was awakened by the sound of U.S. warplanes. Zalmi climbed on the roof to get a better view of the action and was struck by fragments from the cluster bomb. His leg was wounded, and Zalmi died within half an hour as his five children huddled around him crying, "Father, we are alive, we are alive, are you?" relatives said.
Zalmi was among 11 residents who died that day in the bombing.
"We lost the main person of our family," his wife said, standing in a doorway of their house where Zalmi's picture hangs on the wall. "I don't know why the Americans would bomb us."
Since then, villagers have struggled with the fallout. Dozens of houses were severely damaged and need repair. Windows are still blown out and walls along the main walkways are pocked with holes caused by the bomb fragments.
Dozens of pieces of cluster bombs have been recovered and dumped haphazardly in a creek that runs through the neighborhood.
Remarkably, no Shahter residents have been seriously injured from exploding bomb remains, although the creek remains a danger.
"It's littered with bombs," Moorhouse said. "They will be finding devices there for years, hopefully before they explode."
E.A. Torriero, from Shahter, Afghanistan