Reporting from a perilous landscape in Afghanistan
By Kevin Sieff,
BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Ten-year-old Khaili Jan lurched toward me from his family’s tent in the desert. He had two crutches that sank into the sand with each step, and two plastic prosthetic legs stuffed into oversized sandals.
As the boy inched closer, his father, Amir Jan, told me what had happened to his son. Khaili Jan had lost his legs while looking for scrap metal a few hundred yards away — in an arid expanse of land that looks like many other Afghan moonscapes, but happens to be one of the country’s largest American firing ranges.
In days of reporting here, I had heard more than a half-dozen stories like this: Children wander into the range to graze sheep, to play with friends or to collect shrapnel. When they step on explosives, or pick them up accidentally, the blast can be heard across the village. Families rush toward sons and brothers. The victims have typically lost at least one arm or leg by the time help arrives.
Like the other residents I spoke with, Amir Jan described the most common cause of the accidents: egg-shaped projectiles, gold and black, that litter the desert. Everyone in the village called them “American grenades.” I asked Amir Jan if he could show me some of the explosives.
Following his instruction, my colleagues and I drove into the firing range, following tire tracks that had flattened the sand. Through the window, I could see Bagram Airfield, a massive American base built atop the skeleton of a Russian military installation.
In other villages like this one, I’d met residents maimed by old Russian anti-personnel mines, millions of which are still buried across Afghanistan. But Bagram was different. Most of the explosives that caused injuries there were produced in the United States and launched by American troops over the past decade. A United Nations official would later tell me that the United States had refused to construct a fence around the area, calling the proposal too expensive.
A few hundred yards into the range, Amir Jan told us to stop. Less than 30 seconds after getting out of the car, my driver spotted a live 40mm high-explosive grenade a few feet from where we stood. Then we saw another. And another. And another. The explosives were everywhere and they were all undetonated, designed to kill within a five-meter (5.5 yards) radius.
Some of them were half-buried in the sand. Others lay unblemished and uncovered, as if they had just been dropped from the sky. Then two helicopters circled over our heads and shot Hellfire missiles at the mountain in front of us.
Amir Jan looked at me. “The Americans have given us nothing except bombs,” he said.
Our photographer, Javier Manzano, snapped a few photos of men filling a truck with sand just a few feet away from one of the grenades. Ironically, the sand collected from the firing range would soon be sold to fill American blast barriers.
A few days earlier, I’d met two boys in a Kabul hospital who were maimed in this desert. Both described the grenades that I now saw littered around our car. One of them, Abdul Rahman, lives in a tent next to a concrete slab emblazoned with the faded words “Small arms range.” It is the only indication that the desert is more than a desert. There is no translation in local languages.
Rahman’s brother, who had never before met an English speaker, wanted to ask me a question. “What does that mean?” he asked, pointing to the words.
When I told him, he nodded, saying nothing.
Like many other villagers, Rahman’s family had many other questions. Why had they decided to put the firing range here, on the only land suitable for grazing their animals? Why don’t they clear the ground of live explosives?
Other residents suggested that the Americans had planted the grenades there on purpose, mining the area just as the Russians did 30 years ago.
I wrote down the questions, and a few days later, posed them to a U.S. official, Michael Hartman, who oversees the range. He wasn’t aware of any civilian casualties on the range over the previous three years. There had not been any claims filed at the base’s legal office, he said. None of the villagers we interviewed were aware of such an office.
“It’s important that we are doing whatever we can to minimize the risk to civilians,” Hartman said. “Our reputation is on the line.”