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.