To survive, some Afghans sift through deadly remnants of old wars

TANGI VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN (NYTIMES) – The father of six knew that where he was digging could kill him. But winter was approaching, and selling a few pounds of scrap metal peeled from a nearby abandoned military outpost could offset the rising prices of food and fuel as Afghanistan’s economy collapsed around him.

So Sayed Rahman and his nine-year-old son, Javidullah, set out to disassemble a few decaying fortifications scattered among the remains of the country’s last three wars.

“We found a mortar shell,” Javidullah recalled. The munition exploded, killing his father and wounding the boy in the head.

“Now I don’t come here any more to collect scrap,” he said during a recent visit to the blast site in the Tangi Valley in central Afghanistan.

In this once strategically important thoroughfare that connects Wardak and Logar provinces, 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 congealed mass of discarded steel and hidden explosives.

The valley is a scrapper’s fever dream, a place where 15 pounds (6.8kg) of discarded metal can be quickly harvested and sold for around one US dollar (S$1.39).

But in the nine months since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, more than 180 people have been killed by unexploded munitions, many of whom were trying to collect and sell scrap, according to United Nations and Taliban officials.

The actual number is most likely much higher, the officials say, because casualty reporting was disrupted after the collapse of the Western-backed government.

The scrap-metal economy and casualties from buried munitions are inextricably linked, long a part of Afghanistan’s history as one of the poorest and most heavily mined countries in the world.

But now there is an added urgency as the lack of foreign aid has disrupted demining efforts and neutered the government agency responsible for coordinating them.

Areas that were once off-limits because they were too dangerous – such as former military bases, front lines and old firing ranges – are now accessible to an increasingly desperate population.

Last November, Mr Rahman and his son were drawn to the abandoned Afghan military outpost in the Tangi Valley because of its supply of so-called Hesco barriers, sand-filled containers held together by metal caging.

As military bases were abandoned after the war, they became a windfall for scrap dealers like Mr Mohammed Amin, 40, whose company buys scrap in Wardak province for about 11 US cents a pound. But he is concerned that as the economy has tanked, scrap pickers have become less discerning.

“The percentage of dangerous military equipment and explosives we get is still very high,” he said, “especially from people and children collecting from 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 turned into construction material. The Taliban have clamped down on smuggling of the steel into Pakistan, where it usually commands a higher price.

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