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US Bombs Still Killing Civilians

Tamim’s family live in Joee Sheer, which means “stream of milk”. But, outside his slum home, a stream of warm, reeking sewage flows. Never was there more reason to take off your shoes at a wooden door.

Inside, you climb a narrow staircase and step into an ante-chamber in which Tamim’s mother sits on the floor. She wears a purple scarf and the skin around her eyes, after four weeks of crying, has become heavy and blistered. Tamim is dead; which is why I am sitting in this tiny room opposite this quiet, solemn woman.

Her son’s killer was a small, round, yellow cylinder buried beneath the ground–a small fragment of an American cluster bomb–which was infinitely more sophisticated and more efficiently made than anything in this ramshackle home. Tamim worked for the Halo Trust, the mine-clearing operation to which Diana, Princess of Wales, gave so much publicity, and he was an experienced man, 25 years old, with four years of de-mining to his name.

“I know what I’m doing,” he used to tell his mother. “It was partly because of our poverty that he did the work,” she says. “I took him to the Halo office for this job. He got $130 (lbs98) a month. On the morning of his death, he had been taking a rest in the minefield. He had some yoghurt and sat in a corner and all of a sudden it exploded.”

This kind of story-telling has a certain ritual, the circular memory that recasts, again and again, the moment of terrible truth. “His uncle came home that day–it was a month ago–and he was crying. He said he had a headache. Then he said that Tamim had injured himself. The moment he said ‘injured’, I knew that it was over. But thank God at least my son died a dignified death, trying to save other people’s lives. He didn’t die robbing or torturing or killing.”

The family think they will receive about lbs12,000 in compensation, not much in comparison to the lbs53,000 that a dead American mine-clearer’s family might expect. But these are Afghan prices for Afghans dying in Afghanistan while trying to destroy America’s weapons.

The mines, of course, come from a host of countries, some from the old “evil empire”, others from the current “axis of evil” and, needless to say, many from the “civilised” countries which are fighting the war of “good against evil”: the old Soviet Union, Iran, Korea, the new Russia, Belgium, Italy, the United States and Britain.

But Tamim–like so many other Afghans–was killed by an American cluster bomb, 20 per cent of whose “bomblets” bury themselves in the ground, turning themselves in a millisecond into a mine. When the Americans dropped this ordnance on the Taliban, they must have known this; they must have known that each of their missions in their “war on terror” would later cost the lives of countless innocent Afghans.

Sitting on the table of Abdul Latif Matin, the cluster bomblet looks more like a toy than a killer. It is round and yellow with a canvas fan on the top. “BOMB. FRAG BLU 97A/B 809420-30 LOT ATB92G109-001,” is printed on the side. BLU stands for Bomb Live Unit and 202 of these little murderers are inside each 430kg CBU–Combined Effects Munition– dropped by American planes.

Mr Matin is a regional manager for the UN Mine Clearing and Planning Agency in Kabul which has 15 mine-action organisations–including Halo–co-ordinating 4,700 staff across Afghanistan.

Statistics, for Mr Matin, bear no emotions. His office covers seven provinces around Kabul in which 1.1 million unexploded bombs and mines have already been cleared. In these de-mining operations, about 100 Afghans have died. More than 500 have been injured, many of whom return to the minefields to work once their wounds are healed.

The thousands of other Afghan mine victims are a kind of limbless army. They queue at the Mirweis hospital in Kandahar for artificial legs. They watch another small army of prosthesis specialists carving and shaping the legs and arms of future victims. They stand in the darkened ruins of this grim, hot city. But it is the cluster bomb–the newest and deadliest of Afghanistan’s hidden mines–that absorbs the work of Abdul Latif.

“The coalition forces claimed that only 5 per cent fail to explode but we think the figure is nearer to 15 per cent,” he says. “Just a few days ago, three children were wounded. One of them threw this bomblet at another. She thought it was a toy. The trouble with the BLUs is that they go underground–they caused our two most recent fatalities among de-miners.

“I’ve seen very, very bad tragedies. I have taken the dead bodies of my own colleagues to their families. I’ve had to look at their wives and children. It’s totally unfair and that’s why the Afghans themselves have started a campaign to ban landmines.”

If Mr Latif is a bureaucrat, he also has a strong heart. “We Muslims think that de-mining is part of our Holy War–it’s a ‘jihad’ against the invisible enemies of Afghanistan. Yes, of course, we believe if we die de-mining, we will go to paradise.”

Which is hopefully where Tamim now resides. His solemn mother produces two photographs of him. In the first, he stands in his de-mining clothes, at home, in front of a net curtain, bearded and–you only have to look into his eyes– frightened. In the other photograph, he stands on a mountainside in dark clothes, every inch an Afghan waiting for martyrdom.

Mr Latif acknowledges that mine producers have helped his organisation with funds and equipment. But it is the Afghans themselves who have to do the dirty work. “The strongest support we need is for these people to stop producing the mines and cluster bombs,” he says.

Just for the record, two American companies made the vicious little munitions that killed Tamim and his colleague. One is Olin Ordnance of Downey, California. The other is Alliant Tech Systems Inc of Hopkins, Minnesota. They were awarded a contract in 1992 for 9,598 cluster bombs–a total of almost two million BLUs–to replace the same type of weapons that were used up in the Gulf War the year before. Cluster bombs not only kill, it seems. They are also profitable.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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