February 2004 marked the 15th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Among the legacies of the Soviet invasion, and the factional conflicts that followed the defeat of Soviet forces, are the hundreds of thousands of land mines that still litter many parts of the countryside.
Prague, 13 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Guy Willoughby has vivid memories of visiting Afghanistan 15 years ago at the time of the Soviet pullout.
As founder of the nonprofit demining group The Halo Trust, he went to Kabul to assess how many mines would have to be removed after 10 years of Soviet occupation. He and other demining experts were well aware that until the mines were cleared, millions of Afghan refugees would be unable to return home.
Willoughby, speaking recently with RFE/RL from his group's headquarters in Thornhill, Scotland, said that in 1989, many people in Afghanistan believed there might be as many as 30 million mines scattered about the countryside.
"The rumors were that there were between 10 million and 30 million land mines left behind in Afghanistan, mainly laid by the Russians but also laid by some of the mujahedin factions. We didn't believe these rumors at all. We simply couldn't work out how that number could possibly have been laid in the previous 10 years," Willoughby said.
Willoughby said records kept at the time by the Soviet-supported government of Ahmadzai Najibullah showed instead that there were about 250,000 mines in the country.
"We worked very closely with the Afghan Ministry of Defense of the Najibullah government, who were extremely cooperative, and they had copies of the Russian minefield records. The Russian engineers handed over many of their minefield records to the Afghan government, and it was clear that the figure [when the Soviets left in 1989] was more like 260,000 or 270,000 land mines," Willoughby said. But while that number was considerably less than what the public imagined, it still posed an enormous challenge. So, too, did the fact that the laying of land mines did not end with the Soviet pullout but continued for more than a decade afterward.
Willoughby says the Najibullah government laid new mines to protect its main supply routes and garrison towns before its collapse in 1992. Subsequently, more mines were laid by factions trying to hold Kabul and other areas against the Taliban, which captured the capital in 1996.
The demining expert says that by the time peace finally came to Afghanistan with the U.S.-backed toppling of the Taliban in 2001, the total number of land mines had increased substantially.
The Afghan government and the United Nations last year embarked on a joint 10-year plan to rid the country of mines and buried explosives by 2012.