TANGI VALLEY, Afghanistan – The father of six knew what he was digging could kill him. But winter was approaching, and selling a few pounds of scrap from a nearby abandoned military outpost could offset rising food and fuel prices as the Afghan economy collapsed around him.
So, Sayed Rahman and his 9-year-old son Javidullah set out to tear down some rotting fortifications scattered across the remnants of the country’s last three wars.
“We found a mortar round,” Javidullah recalled. The ammunition exploded, killing his father and injuring the boy in the head.
“Now I don’t come here to collect scrap metal,” he said during a recent visit to the explosion site in central Afghanistan’s Tangi Valley.
In this once strategically important arterial road connecting Wardak and Logar counties, the Soviet War of the 1980s is buried beneath the Civil War of the 1990s, which lies beneath the 20-Year American War that ended in August. The rolling hills, between jagged mountains, have turned into a solidified mass of discarded steel and hidden explosives.
The valley is a scrapper’s fever dream, a place where 15 pounds of discarded metal can be quickly harvested and sold for about a dollar. But in the nine months since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, more than 180 people have been killed by unexploded ordnance, according to the United Nations and Taliban officials, many of whom tried to collect and sell scrap metal.
The real number is likely much higher, those officials say, as casualty reporting was disrupted after the collapse of the western-backed government.
The scrap economy and the victims of buried munitions are inextricably linked, a long part of Afghanistan’s history as one of the poorest and most buried countries in the world.
Reporting from Afghanistan
But now there is an added urgency as the lack of foreign aid has disrupted mine clearance efforts and castrated the government agency responsible for coordinating them. Areas once off limits for being too dangerous — such as former military bases, front lines and old firing ranges — are now accessible to an increasingly desperate population.
In November, Rahman and his son were drawn to the abandoned Afghan military outpost in the Tangi Valley due to the supply of so-called Hesco barriers, sand-filled containers held together by metal cages.
When military bases were abandoned after the war, they became a windfall for scrap dealers like Mohammed Amin, 40, whose company buys scrap in Wardak province for about 11 cents a pound. But he worries that the scrap pickers have become less critical as the economy has slumped.
“The percentage of dangerous military equipment and explosives that we get is still very high,” he said, “especially from people and children who gather in the mountains and around their homes.”
Most of this scrap ends up in giant steel mills in cities like Kabul, the capital, where it is melted down and processed into construction material. The Taliban have cracked down on the smuggling of the steel to Pakistan, where it usually commands a higher price.
One of the largest factories in Kabul, the Khan Steel Mill, is discouraging its suppliers from buying discarded military equipment because of the danger.
Suppliers arrive at the plant with five to 10 truckloads of scrap a day, company officials said, but practically every handful seems to contain shell casings or a mortar round or other remnants of the past four decades of war.
“In the past six months, about 10 percent of the scrap we’ve bought has been military equipment and debris left behind,” said Mohammed Rahim Noori, the chief of security at Khan Steel Mill, which oversees much of the discarded explosives. that ended up on his scrap heap. “Which is a lot.”
The father-son duo in the Tangi Valley were tearing apart one of the Hesco barriers and had dug around the base when Mr. Rahman found a mortar shell, most likely left behind by the Soviet army or one of the militias using the base after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
Javidullah watched as his father tried to remove the fuse from the mortar when it exploded in his hands, killing him. The HALO Trust, a British demining charity, began clearing the area soon after and found bags of earth containing more than 60 tons of explosives.
HALO estimates that the area at the mouth of the valley, a small portion of the roughly hundreds of square miles still contaminated with explosives in Afghanistan, will be free of lethal munitions by 2024.
Over the past two decades, mine clearance efforts in Afghanistan have been coordinated by the government’s Mine Action Directorate. About a dozen countries donated millions of dollars to the directorate’s programs, accounting for 70 percent of its annual budget.
But after the Western-backed government collapsed, the flow of money also increased. The workforce dropped from more than 100 to about a dozen as the Taliban struggled to fund their ministries.
“Our seven field offices are closed and we are having serious difficulties moving forward with our operations,” said Abdul Habib Rahimi, who oversees mine clearance operations at the directorate.
Accident reporting was thrown into disarray and the number of deminers dropped to about 3,000 from 5,000. Donations to nonprofits like the HALO Trust for their work in Afghanistan have also become more challenging as donor countries have tried to circumvent the string of Western sanctions against the new Taliban government.
At the same time, the end of the war revealed more explosive-laden areas, such as those in the Tangi Valley and fields of improvised bombs left by the Taliban.
Now aid officials are concerned that the war in Ukraine could divert foreign donations from programs targeting explosive ordnance disposal in Afghanistan to similar efforts in Ukraine.
It has been 33 years since the last Soviet tank left Afghanistan, and their ammunition is still killing people, especially children.
“When the Russians left Afghanistan, one of them turned to me and said, ‘We are leaving now, but the country will fight you for another 30 years,’” recalls Muhammed Asif, 59, a village elder from the Tangi Valley.
American ammunition has also proved deadly, especially unexploded shells that children sometimes mistake for gold.
During two decades of war, Mr Asif said, 60 people from his village had been injured and killed as a result of the fighting, but since the Taliban took over, 10 more were killed from the ammunition scattered in the valley, many from them looking for scrap.
“This is all because of their bad economic situation,” he said. “These children are too young to work, but their families have no choice but to use them to find money for bread.”
In a week in March, according to reports from local officials, 10 children were injured or killed handling waste ammunition across Afghanistan. Four were killed in southern Afghanistan and two in the east. The rest were injured.
United Nations data from 2020, the last full accounting year, shows that 80 percent of the victims of explosive remnants of war in Afghanistan were children: 84 dead and 230 injured.
Ainullah, a shaggy little 5-year-old in a blue coat and green tunic, stood a dozen yards from where Javidullah watched his father die, holding a handful of steel he had collected with his siblings. In his hand he held what appeared to be the remains of a spent propellant charge once attached to a rocket-propelled grenade.
The rusted piece of metal had the year of manufacture: 1974. It was almost 10 times older than the boy wearing it.
Ainullah had learned to avoid areas known to contain explosives, part of nonprofits’ decades-long educational effort to discourage children from picking up deadly material.
But he didn’t care. His family needed money.
“I’m not afraid,” Ainullah announced before descending the hill, away from the defunct base and toward a nearby village where someone would buy his loot.
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, and John Ismay from Washington.