Next to U.S. firing range in Afghanistan, a village of victims
By Kevin Sieff,
BAGRAM, AFGHANISTAN — The American grenade that nearly killed 10-year-old Shah Mohammed landed on an unmarked firing range in a scrubby desert, in the shadow of the largest U.S. military base in the country.
Like hundreds of other U.S. explosives fired here, it was supposed to detonate on impact. Like hundreds of others, it didn’t.
It remained unexploded until Mohammed stumbled upon the ordnance while looking for scrap metal this month. He had nearly gathered enough shrapnel and bullet shells to trade for an ice cream cone. Then the 40mm grenade tore through the boy’s 87-pound body, breaking through bone and tendon and nerve. When Mohammed’s father, Shahzad Gul, found his son, he thought to himself: “All of his blood is gone.”
On the periphery of Bagram Airfield, farmers, scrap-metal collectors and sheep herders have been crippled, blinded and burned by U.S. military ammunition on an unfenced and poorly marked training ground. Called the East River Range, the training ground is blanketed with unexploded U.S. ordnance that was dropped from helicopters and fired from vehicles as part of battlefield rehearsals.
There is no barrier between nearby villages and the range — it is unclear where the dusty townships end and the vast military training area begins. The only apparent warnings are scrawled in faded, barely decipherable English lettering on concrete blocks: “Small Arms Range” and “Weapon Range.” There is no translation in Dari or Pashto, the two most common languages in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials say they are aware that civilians spend time on the range but that they have worked hard to secure the area and prevent civilian casualties.
“We do everything that we can think of to minimize that risk. We do have a legal office that’s open once a week if there are any complaints or concerns,” said Michael Hartman, the base’s deputy garrison commander, who oversees the range. None of the eight injured civilians interviewed for this article said they were aware of the legal office.
According to the U.S. Army’s official range safety regulation, soldiers are instructed to “protect civilian and military populations who live and work near live-fire operational ranges.” Another list of Pentagon recommendations states that “physical controls, including fences, barriers, and signs should be constructed where necessary, and will require on-going maintenance.”
The U.S. military has declined to construct a barrier around the East River Range or to relocate the training ground away from civilians, despite pleading by a United Nations-funded de-mining agency. In an e-mail to the Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan (MACCA), a U.S. military official argued that constructing a fence around the area would be prohibitively expensive, calling the proposal unrealistic.
“This country was almost destroyed by Russian mines,” said Mohammad Akbar Oriakhil, MACCA’s director for central Afghanistan. “Now we’re watching Americans re-contaminate it.”
New generation of victims
International organizations have spent several hundred million dollars trying to clear Russian mines leftover from the 1980s occupation, which still pepper roughly 700 square kilometers (270 square miles). The United States has attempted to distinguish itself from the Russian legacy, funding mine-removal efforts and claiming to properly discard its ammunition in secure locations.
But in recent months, MACCA reports that a growing number of boys have been maimed in Bagram — a new generation of Afghans injured by a new generation of explosives.
In the villages around Bagram Airfield — Qalai Ahmad Khan and Bini Warsak — residents with amputated legs and arms are a common sight. Dozens of live U.S. 40mm grenades — designed to kill on impact — are scattered on the ground a few hundred yards from residents’ mud-brick homes, in an expanse busy with life and industry. The same problem exists at several other NATO firing ranges across the country, which also lack fencing. But nowhere else is it as serious as Bagram, according to MACCA.
Shah Mohammed’s father rushed him to Kabul’s Emergency Surgical Center for War Victims last week. Once there, doctors plucked pieces of shrapnel from his head and body.
In the neighboring room, Abdul Rahman, an 18-year-old from the same village, recovered after an American grenade exploded while he grazed a herd of sheep near his home this month. Part of his left arm was amputated. His face was speckled with shrapnel.
Four years earlier, Rahman lost part of his right arm much the same way — when a 40mm high-explosive dual-purpose American grenade exploded in his hand as he was collecting metal at the range.
Rahman held back tears when he spoke about the incident that took his remaining hand. Younger and unable to conceal his fear, Mohammed’s chest heaved as he wept into his father’s scarf.
The villagers near Bagram are some of Afghanistan’s poorest residents. Most are recently returned refugees from Pakistan who were given free housing by the Afghan government’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. Some are former nomads who have settled after years of crisscrossing the country by donkey. Many have no source of income aside from collecting metal from the firing range and selling it as scrap, at a dollar for 15 pounds.
“The Americans haunt us even after their training exercises are over. Some of their weapons explode and some of them don’t,” said Mohammed’s father. Before Mohammed was injured, the family had been saving money to move.
American officials say they attempt to prevent civilian casualties by placing firing ranges away from inhabited areas and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with local elders.
But in the past year, civilians have been maimed and killed on or near NATO firing ranges in provinces of Ghazni, Paktia and Kabul, according to MACCA. One of the agency’s incident reports, obtained by The Washington Post, includes graphic photos of a de-miner taken seconds after an American 40mm grenade tore off his arm and leg while he was clearing Russian anti-personnel mines near a range in Kabul.
In bold letters, the report describes the ammunition: “Country of origin: United States.”
De-miners are not permitted to clear or inspect ordnance on NATO sites, so officials have been unable to assess how much live ammunition remains on the coalition’s firing ranges. As NATO troops withdraw, there is mounting concern among de-mining advocates that the foreign troops will leave behind poorly marked sites full of unexploded ordnance.
U.S. officials said they were unaware that ammunition remained on the ground unexploded. “Generally, we don’t walk around and inspect the area full of ordnance,” Hartman said.
Within the firing range, a Washington Post reporter found seven unexploded 40mm grenades in a single 30-yard stretch. The grenades are designed to kill or injure anyone within a five-meter (5.5-yard) radius. But they often fail to detonate when they land on the soft sand of the range.
Because the Afghan government continues to place more former refugees in nearby housing projects, casualty figures near the range have steadily increased. Although MACCA has counted 11 civilian casualties — most of them children — on the range over the past three years, officials say that is only a fraction of the total number of residents who have been maimed. The Washington Post spoke with six injured residents who were not included on that list.
“This is our home. This is where we’ve been told to live. The Americans say it would be too expensive to build a fence. Do they know how much a human life is worth?” said Abdul Hadiq, who works in the community’s association of disabled residents.
The East River Range, which has been operational for the past decade, is one of the country’s largest firing ranges. Every few hours, helicopters fly overhead and fire rockets at the lunar landscape. A shock of dust leaps into the sky when the rockets make contact. Several times a week, military vehicles pull up to the site and soldiers launch grenades and fire off shotguns and rifles. The site is also used to destroy confiscated Taliban weapons caches. Many of the windows in the village have been shattered from the sound of the blasts.
“When we do schedule those exercises, we have tight standards and [adhere to] U.S. military standard operating procedure,” Hartman said.
But some service members describe a lack of order on the range.
“The Bagram tower really didn’t control the range; actually, nobody controlled the range. Whoever showed up first and had the biggest gun at the time owned the range,” wrote Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Flores, an Army reserve pilot, in his 2011 memoir “South of Heaven: My Year in Afghanistan.”
U.S. soldiers have long described the importance of the area, where battlefield simulations include the rare opportunity to practice with live ammunition.
Despite efforts by the United States and other foreign powers to educate residents about the risks of unexploded ordnance, men, women and children continue to spend time on the range. Some said they had no idea that it’s a range; migrants often pass through the area before they can be warned of the danger. Others, including Abdul Rahman and Shah Mohammed, have a sense of the risk. But there is nowhere else to graze their animals or collect metal, they said.
An inevitable risk
Many fathers in the village instruct their sons to collect shrapnel and empty bullet shells in the morning, telling them to avoid live ammunition. The money the children earn selling scrap metal is an important source of income for poor families here, residents say. Children who collect enough metal can save up to buy an occasional ice cream cone.
But on the East River Range, avoiding live ammunition — including some aging Russian explosives — is nearly impossible. Sometimes, the boys step on a grenade unintentionally. Sometimes, they pick up one, thinking that it’s an empty shell.
That’s how Khaili Jan, 10, lost both of his legs last year. His father had told him to stay away from the grenades and rockets, but the boy knew the shells of larger explosives were worth much more than small bits of shrapnel. When he saw a grenade that appeared to have detonated, he gave it a kick to get a better look, and the egg-size ordnance exploded.
Now, the boy has two plastic prosthetic legs and crutches that sink into the sand when he walks through the desert.
“What can he do now?” his father, Amir Jan, asked. “Nothing. He can just sit.”
Each morning Khaili Jan’s brothers head back to the range where their brother was nearly killed, accompanied by a herd of sheep or towing an empty bag to collect shrapnel. The brothers and fathers of Rahman and Mohammed have already returned to the range, as well.
In response to a reporter’s questions, NATO officials said that they will address concerns about civilian casualties with village elders.
But some remain skeptical that the military will take the necessary steps to protect residents.
“The Americans say they’re here to promote civil society and peace,” said Oriakhil, the de-mining official. “But what we see them doing here is causing problems. We see them injuring innocent people.”
Special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.