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“Collateral Damage and the Uncertainty of Afghanistan”
Photos and article by Linda Panetta

[Please request permission to publish or reproduce photos. Thanks! 215/473-2162]

The following should be seen as an overview of the recent history of Afghanistan as well as a reflection of my all too short visit there. We started out for Afghanistan the afternoon of June 14. Three days later we were finally landing in Kabul, the capitol of Afghanistan. As I gazed down from the window of the rattling airplane, I was amazed to see how the desert sands seemingly silted the roof tops of the buildings and homes below. Approaching the landing strip one could see the twisted metal of what appeared to be a helicopter, while the remnants of destroyed airplanes littered the grassy median - abrupt reminders of the ongoing warfare that has plagued this purged region of the world.

Early into my visit a young girl approached me and with a smile from ear to ear, she rather persuasively told me that I should give her my notebook. Her smile alone was worth ten thousand notebooks-without a second thought I conceded it to her. Her younger brother, Ehsanullah Nasrullah, who is eight, also thoroughly enjoyed attending school. In fact, he excelled so well that he was many grades ahead of the other children his age.

One morning Nasrullah and his cousin, Nabile, were running late for class. As they scurried to school, Nabile’s attention was drawn to  a small yellow canister. Thinking it was one of the yellow cans of biscuits/rations that the US had dropped, he picked it up. Without warning the can began to smoke. Unaware of its deadly contents, Nabile threw it into the air-in the direction of Nasrullah. The canister detonated, sending shrapnel in all directions, tearing flesh from the bodies of the two young boys. Nasrullah’s wounds were nearly fatal; so severe, in fact, that doctors wanted to amputate his two legs as well as an arm. Thankfully, a German soldier was able to arrange to have him flown to Germany for special treatment and surgery. Eight months later, Nasrullah returned home to his family. His legs and arm were retained, but the physical struggles remained persistent as even walking is, at times, painful.

When asked what his life was like before the explosion, he promptly and assertively responded “Perfect!” But all has changed for Nasrullah and his family. They struggle to pay the exorbitant cost of his ongoing care. The trauma  runs deep for everyone involved, especially his father. He grieves terribly knowing that, despite all his efforts, they are inadequate to meet his sons vital needs. Nasrullah can never again be the animated child he once was. In fact, even the laughter of other children is debilitating. He describes the pain comparable to loud bells ringing in his head. With some scars visible on his face, it seemed plausible that the pain is due in part to the shrapnel from the bomblet, but one glance into the eyes of this inspiring little boy and his mental afflictions are clearly dramatized. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, his face lights up as he responds: “The President!” He continues to explain “... so I can bring peace and happiness to my country.”

Afghanistan is a country littered with landmines and other antipersonnel devices. The bomblet that wounded Nasrullah was from a cluster bomb dropped by the United States. Each bomb contains 202 deadly bomblets, each fracturing into about 300 steel, body-piecing and tank-penetrating, fragments. A single bomb can penetrate and immobilize a tank. With ballistic speed, they have the capability of affecting a 250 by 400 meter region, and individual bomblets can cover an area roughly the size of a football field. Reports by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch put the number of cluster bombs used in US air strikes as high as 1,150 and 3,744, respectively, equating to  potentially more than 750,000 anti-tank/airplane and antipersonnel bomblets. As part of its sinister design, anywhere from 10%-20% of the bomblets will not detonate, they haphazardly fall to the ground as sleeping predators. Tens of thousands of these lethal weapons litter the country lying patiently for their victims to revive them; they are activated simply by touch or vibration (cattle grazing, or a vehicle driving by). The indiscriminate targets are often curious children who mistaken them for a bright yellow toy, or desperate adults looking to feed their family. Over 280 of the 333 districts in Afghanistan do not have medical facilities. And with one doctor per 50,000 persons, the likelihood that a victim will survive is slim at best. 

But amidst the despair, there is hope. One of the most inspirational facilities we visited was a rehabilitation hospital in Kabul run by the International Red Cross.. All those employed are individuals with some sort of physical handicap. The vast majority of the staff and patients are amputees, some double amputees. As we walked through the facility we passed by several patients who, one by one they would, almost methodically, lift up their pant leg to show us their prosthetic, or they would remove their prosthetic to show us their limb. And although this was generally followed by a  handshake, or an arm-shake for those without hands, it was always followed by what I perceived to be a look of gratitude. Ironically, many of them knew that we (being from the US) were in part responsible for their terrible plight, but there was no visible hatred nor condemnation. We felt welcomed. And although there was little we had to offer, the gift we were able to give was our presence; it was simply the gift of our time, and our ability to look into their eyes and affirm their courage. For when you are in the company of these amazing people, young and old, your attention is not drawn to their handicap; rather, it is to the determination on their faces, the gracefulness in their stride, and to their incredible craftsmanship. With meticulous precision they carve out prosthetics, shoes, braces, crutches, and piece together wheelchairs using both newly issued supplies and recycled scraps. In all, the hospital has manufactured over 10,000 prosthetics from recycled plastics. The knowledge, compassion, and enthusiasm of the therapists, nurses and doctors is profound and quite contagious.

The hospital workers fill an endless need in a country where landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) seem as prevalent to the landscape as the war-torn, tattered ruins--Mosques, schools, hospitals and scorched orchards. First extensively laid by Soviet forces, and later by the Mujahidin, Northern Alliance and the Taliban throughout the 1990's, these antipersonnel weapons take the lives of, on average, 200-300 people per month, and have devastated crops and herds


(The photo to the right is a landmine being detonated. For size perspective, a tank is situated next to the red flag at the base of the explosion).
Although an individual landmine can be purchased for $3.00, the cost to safely extract one can run as high as $3,000. Mines are often wired together in an intricate web, making deactivation very difficult and extremely dangerous. Additionally, new developments in mine technology have produced: plastic mines, which are undetectable by metal detectors used by de-miners; and “anti-handlin” devices which activate when an attempt is made to tamper with or deactivate the mine.

We also had the opportunity to meet with the Hazardous Area Life Support Organization (HALO Trust), one of the leading de-mining organizations in Afghanistan and worldwide. We watched as they detonated their 1 millionth landmine-of which 870,000 were from Afghanistan. It is estimated that roughly 5% of the landmines in Afghanistan have been cleared. Although this number is seemingly small, it represents a significant effort and dedication by countless individuals (paid less than $5/day) who risk their lives to eradicate these deadly apparatuses.

Stones, painted red on one side to illustrate a potential landmine field, and the other white-representing a “safe area,” delineate regions where the teams have surveyed. Since 2000, HALO has cleared over 4 million square meters of mine contaminated area and over 60 million square meters of former battle area contaminated by UXO. Despite these ongoing efforts, hundreds of thousands of returning refugees, nomadic clans, and internally displaced families--equating to nearly one-third of the population (of 16 million)--remain daily targets. Dependence on mobility and the richness of the land for sustenance is integral to their existence. It is also what makes mines and UXO such an effective killer-- targeting anyone and anything that crosses its path, for years on end.

Afghanistan has a long and complicated history. To begin with recent history, the Soviet Union airlifted thousands of troops into Kabul on December 24, 1979. During their 10 year occupation of the country, more than 1 million Afghans were killed, mostly by aerial bombardments. The U.S. had little overall interests in Afghanistan until the Soviets moved into the region. For their part, the CIA organized and trained many of the Mujahidin (or jihad) as opposition fighters. Ultimately, under the 1988 Geneva Accords, the Soviets agreed to remove all troops by February, 1989. Once the Soviets withdrew, US interests also dwindled. Rather than helping with reconstruction, the US handed over the interests of the country to its allies: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

With the blessing of the US, Pakistan quickly took advantage of an awesome opportunity and forged relations with warlords and later the Taliban to secure trade interests and routes. From clear-cutting logging practices, which has destroyed all but 2% of forest cover country-wide, to massive uprooting of wild pistachio trees for the exportation of their roots for medicinal uses, to opium cultivation, the past ten years have wrought irreparable ecological and agrarian devastation. The US is now icing over the denudation by bombarding the country--the remaining forests--with massive assaults of artillery. Although depleted uranium has been used less in Afghanistan than in Kosovo, conventional weapons are littering the country with toxins such as the carcinogen, cyclonite.

Immediately following the Soviet retreat, tremendous infighting erupted as leaders of the CIA-trained Mujahidin vied for power and ultimately became embattled “warlords.” With substantial Soviet assistance, the communist government was able to maintain power as the civil war of the Mujahidin continued. Then in early 1992, a coalition of forces, called the Northern Alliance, united against the remaining communist parties. They elected Tajik leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, as the President of Afghanistan, with Ahmad Shah Massoud as his Defense Minister. Excluded from this coalition was the CIA’s number one operative and Pakistani protege, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. That same year Hikmatyar launched a massive and indiscriminate assault on Kabul which lasted until his expulsion in 1995. Thousands were killed; in 1994 alone, 25,000--mostly civilians--were killed in Kabul. The bombardments caused immense structural destruction, essentially reducing one-third of Kabul to ruins.

The oppression and mass killings were so great, we were told, that the people welcomed the Taliban. The Taliban (meaning “student”) were largely comprised of Islamic students and former Mujahidin who were disillusioned with the chaos that had besieged the country. They were organized under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar, also a former Mujahidin from the Qandahar province. They initially built support and alliances with the stated aim of restoring stability; though they also instated their own fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. Successfully attacking and overpowering local warlords, the Taliban were able to take control of Kabul by 1996. The defeated Massoud fled to the North and looked to his former opponents, Russia and Iran for assistance. With their support, Massoud reconstituted the Northern Alliance into a Taliban opposition force.

Early on, the US government supported the Taliban. They maintained their ties, in part, through the US oil company, UNOCAL. It wasn’t until women’s rights groups in the US began to lobby on behalf of the rights of Afghan women did the US back off from their public support of the Taliban. By 1998, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia gave the Taliban recognition as the official government of Afghanistan. That support would be short-lived as the Saudi born dissident, Osama bin Laden and other prominent Taliban leaders, were held responsible for the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam.

For the people of Afghanistan it soon became evident that every aspect of life, for the vast majority of the population, was going to plummet even further. Religious icons and temples were destroyed, and most other basic freedoms, sports and entertainment were withdrawn under the Taliban. Human rights, especially the rights of women, were minimally disregarded and mostly discarded. Education and medical treatment for women was mostly performed clandestinely, and most professionals, including female doctors, were basically outlawed. There are more than 60,000 widows in Kabul who are the sole providers for their family. Yet, it was common practice for women to be publicly tortured, stoned or raped simply for walking in the streets, even to seek medical care for their children, if unattended by a male relative; though even this did not always provide them safe passage.

Clearly, one would easily equate the Taliban as a terrorist organization. Their infamous history and deplorable human rights record stands on their own merits. But, additionally, the US government knew that the Taliban were mounting a “jihad” (holy war) against the United States, seen as the devil incarnate. Furthermore, the US knew their capabilities since many within the Taliban leadership--former Mujahidin--were trained by CIA special forces. Yet despite this knowledge, despite the ongoing opposition by Women’s groups in the west, the U.S. government justified giving this despotic regime $43 million US taxpayer dollars to purportedly “fight the war on drugs.” Ironically and sadly, this money was given to the Taliban just months prior to the September 11 attacks.

Did limited eradication of opium crops occur? Yes. Yet so did the stockpiling of poppies. In fact, it was reported that the street price of heroin and opium significantly declined because of the surplus. Under the Taliban, drug use is strictly prohibited. But all the better for it to be used to destroy “nonbelievers” in the United States. Furthermore, the question remains, how much of the $43 million was used to wage the attacks on September 11? One can only speculate.

Along on our delegation were family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks. Myrna Bethke’s brother worked in the World Trade Center and Kristina Olsen’s sister was on American Airlines Flight 11. They are members of the group “Peaceful Tomorrows,” which seeks peaceful resolutions to conflict and terrorism. Together our group met with survivors of the US bombings raids, some of whom had lost as many as 16 family members. 

“Collateral damage, the follies of war... the war on terrorism.” Neither apologies, regrets, nor excuses can console 8-year old Amena. Amena was pulled from the rubble of her home following a US attack. Not so fortunate were her sisters, brothers, aunt, uncle, cousins and her mother who all died. The body of her mother was not immediately identifiable. In fact, Amena could only identify the torn and twisted remains of her mother by the tattered dress that covered the remaining fragments of her body. Many of those wounded and killed in the assault died because they responded to the cries of their family members and friends following the initial US bombardment. But the attack was not over. As the villagers attempted to pull the bodies from the rubble, the US warplane doubled back to capitalize on the opportunity to create greater carnage. Were these misguided bombings a result of a US strike that went terribly awry, or was it misleading information provided by a regional warlord out for revenge? Regardless, the nearest Taliban forces were 10 km away.

Kabul is currently the only city in Afghanistan which has maintained peacekeeping forces. As a result of the added security, there is an sense of liberation in the eyes of the people. And as you walk the streets and interview people, there seems to be some hope that peace can eventually be realized. From the rubble homes are being rebuilt, stores are reopening, and Mosques are being restored, despite the trickling in of promised US aid.

Security and stability is quite fleeting though, and is especially complicated by US forged relations with many despotic warlords; some of whom the US swindled into the Loya Jirga (meaning: Grand Council). They were provided seats in the council, despite the fact that their had been consensus by the Afghan leadership against their involvement. An obvious intimidation factor, many of those brought in were the same militants who wrecked havoc on civilians prior to and during Taliban control. The imposition of the US on this and other crucial decisions was certainly a contentious issue. It not only served to divert discussion on many critical issues, but it nearly resulted in the collapse of the Loya Jirga. Originally created to bring tribal leaders together to draft a constitution that would provide a more representational government, the end result of this year’s assembly was primarily limited to selecting a president. In the end, the acting leader of Afghanistan, and American ally, Hamid Karzai, was affirmed the interim president. Unfortunately by the conclusion of the Loya Jirga, despite Karzai’s appointment and as a result of the intense venting and verbal infighting that transpired, some left feeling frustrated. Others, however, felt empowered and embraced a sense of responsibility to bring about peace, greater equality, and reconstruction to their beloved country.

United Nations officials, the Karzai administration, aid groups and a growing number of bipartisan lawmakers in Congress have urged the United States to help expand international peacekeeping operations throughout Afghanistan. Despite the assassination of the Karzai’s Vice President days after the conclusion of the Loya Jirga, the Bush administration says that an expansion of “peacekeeping” would be unlikely. This, despite the fact that large-scale reconstruction programs, that include (and may be dependent upon) the support of peacekeeping forces, would give jobs to those who might otherwise become allied with the Taliban for support. The Bush administration needs to develop a new agenda for Afghanistan. Pumping billions of dollars into the hands of arms-producing US corporations will prove to be a failed and impotent attempt at eradicating a ubiquitous “enemy.” “Bombs away!” ...all in the name of “democracy!” After all, isn’t this the American way?

Four days after I arrived in Afghanistan an errant missile blasted through the door of a home about 100 yards from where we were staying. Most of us brushed off the blast thinking we had heard a garage door slamming. It wasn’t until morning that we learned what in fact had happened. Fortunately, no one was injured. But it served as a reminder of the constant threat that the people of Afghanistan endure on a daily basis. Luckily the incident did not deter President Karzai’s Chief of Staff, Said Tayeb Jawad, from visiting us the following evening.

When we met with Jawad he asked that we give a brief introduction of ourselves. I jokingly stated that I was with the State Department and followed with a question concerning the warlords. Jawad responded: I knew that you weren’t with the State Department because rather than using the term “warlord” you would have said “regional commander.” As with the renaming of the School of the Americas, and so many other examples, the US is attempting to assuage the fears of those who have been tortured, abused and exploited by violent and despotic men simply by changing their title. The whitewashing will not wipe away the pain, bring back the dead, nor garner the support that the US is desperately seeking. Our efforts must be a continual reminder to the government that their attempts to sweep injustice and impunity under the rug will not be tolerated.

I felt that Jawad, an amicable man, truly takes the interests of his country to heart. Though, as with many politicians, his ignorance was exemplified by his statements concerning the plight of the poor. As for myself, and for anyone who visits Afghanistan, I am sure that Jawad’s heart is plagued by: the ongoing US aerial assaults which continue to add to the enormous rubble already vexing the country; seeing the remnants of 5 years of some of the country’s most intense drought epidemic; and realizing Afghanistan’s consistent placement on the bottom of most economic, social and political statistical scales--but there is hope. And that hope begins in part with the politicians, in part with the drastically modified role that the US government (hopefully) adopts, and most of all it resides within us all. Each and every individual not only has the opportunity, but we all have the obligation to reach out to the Afghan victims of US-issued terrorism.

The attacks of September 11 will be etched in our hearts and minds for as long as we are alive. And although, for many, the emotional pain endures, the actual attacks ended on 9/11. In retaliation, in an attempt to eliminate a massive and ubiquitous enemy, we - the US - have continually, for nearly one year, battered the people of Afghanistan with ballistic missiles and bombs. Each of the thousands of aerial assaults raining down on unsuspecting Afghan civilians are a “9/11" in the eyes of the survivors, the victims. For as we know, not only have the Al Qaeda militants been targeted, but the targets have included wedding parties, clans of tribal leaders, de-mining camps, relief agencies, social workers, educators, mothers, fathers, children, infants. And the suffering, maiming, killing continues. Their pain, sorrow and loss is magnified daily by the terror endured within violent and overcrowded refugee camps, by their hunger, their mental anguish, and their inability to gain access to basic medical care, or even basic hygiene.

In some cultures, individuals believe that a photo has the potential of snatching away or holding captive their soul. As I undertake the arduous task of organizing the hundreds of photos I took in order to circulate them to others, I realized that the photos have, in fact, thoroughly captivated my heart and soul. In their smiles and smirks, and with their tears and laughter is both the uniqueness and similarity of us all. Although the depth of their suffering is immense, so too is their hope that tomorrow will be a better day than yesterday, that the family members they have just buried will be the last victims of terrorism, and that their loved ones still living will no longer have to go to bed hungry, fearful, or forced to endure immeasurable pain.

The victims are countless. Through meetings with Islamic Relief director, Sakandar Ali, it was made clear that the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced, along with much of the current refugee crisis, are a direct result of the US bombing raids following 9/11. Afghanistan already suffers from immense poverty and famine as 70% of the population is malnourished, nearly 80% has no access to potable water, one in 4 children will die by the age of five, and in Kabul alone, there are over 37,000 street children.

Decades of war and genocide have ravaged the psycho-social functioning of Afghan society and culture. In addition, Afghan women have been systematically bludgeoned physically and mentally. All attempts have been made to make them voiceless, non-beings cloaked not only by a burka, but in nearly every aspect of life. Ninety-seven percent of women surveyed in a 2001 UN study showed signs of depression, while 85% suffered from significant anxiety. To date there is only 8 psychiatrists in the entire country. 

We visited one of only 2 mental health hospitals that exist in Afghanistan. We met with hundreds of women, children and men who shared their stories with us. Many were victims of US assaults and were also part of a victims-compensation program organized by Global Exchange (GX). The grief of the women was overwhelming, as were the stories they shared with us. It had been months since Orpha had seen her husband. He had been working in Pakistan raising money for his family. He arrived home just four days before the US planes attacked his village, leveling their home. He along with five of their children were killed. It was stated to us that the majority of the people outside of Kabul have no idea who is bombing them. Without access to radio or TV most are unaware that the assaults are US-led. Others, such as Orpha’s family in Pakistan had a different view. Live TV broadcasts offered gruesome details of the US onslaughts. Sadly, some of Orpha’s family members in Pakistan watched in horror as they realized that the bombings were targeting her village. As a result, two of her nephews, practically children themselves, traveled from Pakistan to help her rebuild a home and to offer support for Orpha and her remaining four children. Despite six months which have passed since her husband and children were killed, she still collapses in overwhelming anguish as she mourns for them. Unable to relinquish the trauma and the grief, she cradles her surviving children who also grieve that they are powerless to comfort their loving mother.

“It is God’s will,” Orpha declares. “I do not want revenge, I do not hate Americans...” Her humble request is simply for a financial recompense to help sustain the basic needs of her family. The alternative for her, like so many other widows, is begging on the streets. An editorial from the Washington Post (July 6, 2002) stated that “If American forces prove to be responsible for the deaths of innocent people, compensation should be paid and U.S. commanders should give a public accounting of how and why such a tragedy occurred.” GX and other aid agencies estimate that an average of $10,000 per family would be sufficient compensation. Given the number of civilian deaths that have been reported, the Boston Globe cites that a fund of roughly $20 million for this year--approximately the incremental US cost of a day's fighting--would cover the expenditures.

By the end of my visit to Afghanistan, I realized that the silted rooftops that I thought I was seeing from the airplane as we approached Kabul, were not rooftops at all. What I was in fact observing was merely the foundations of former dwelling which had been laid to ruin. The country is clearly one of extensive ruins. But time and time again I was inspired by the hope and resilience of this ancient society. Just as the US government has a responsibility to the victims of 9/11, they too must take responsibility for the Afghan victims of 10/7, 11/9, 12/3, 12/9, 2/13, 3/16, 4/8, 6/25... The Afghan people must not be viewed as non-beings, as faceless casualties of war. The US may choose to silt over the destruction, in hope that the desert will creep up and blanket the devastation. But as the remnants/foundations still remain from wars past and present, they leave a breeding ground from which out of the rubble, terror and poverty--revenge and hate emerge to cultivate new terrorists (which in turn serves to cultivate our fears, perpetuate our hatred and thus acts as a convenient diversion for the US government).

Who are the targets / the enemy? As we have seen through ongoing conflicts worldwide, it is one that can never be contained, and possibly never subdued; but perhaps that is to our government’s advantage, rather than being its nemesis as they would like us to believe. The impetus of this war was apparently to avenge the 9/11 attacks, but what are the current motives and gains? Clearly the Bush administration, along with weapons manufacturers, have greatly capitalized on this new “boogie man.” From out of the closet, where laid to rest was “communism,” is the “war on terrorism.” But more than simply getting spooked, thousands upon thousands are being displaced, maimed, raped, exploited and killed. Will the US wage another hit and run as they have done in the past in Afghanistan, or will they take responsibility for their actions and lay the foundation for the seeds of peace to be planted and nurtured? Ultimately, it seems, the answer lies with the motives.

Photos by Linda Panetta
For permission to reproduce photos call: 215/473-2162

To take part in a delegation or to learn more about Afghanistan, contact:

Global Exchange: 2017 Mission St., #303, San Francisco, CA 94110. (415) 255-7296 or 1-800-497-1994 or visit: www.globalexchange.org

Resources by Global Exchange include: Afghanistan. An Introductory Reader in History, Culture and Politics. Meet the People, Learn the Facts, Make a Difference. Compiled by Farhad Azad and Nilufar Shuja.

Sources referenced / for additional information:

Ahmed Ghosh, Huma. "Feminist Perspective: September 11th and Afghan Women." January - December, 2001, www.afghanmagazine.com

Atta, Khaldea. "Drought Exigency to Add to List of Problems for Afghanistan," January - December, 2001, www.afghanmagazine.com

Azad, Farhad. "The Game for Afghanistan," www.afghanmagazine.com

Central Asia Crisis Unit. "WHO Special Report." November, 6, 2001. hiebergirardetl@who.int

Hekmatullah Sadat, Mir. "Landmines: Reaping What You Sow," January - March, 2000. www.afghanmagazine.com

Human Rights Watch. "Background of Afghanistan: History of the War," www.hrw.org
___________. "Cluster bombs," October, 2001

Pierce, Fred. "Afghanistan Faces An Environmental Crisis," New Scientist. January, 2000.

Saba, Daud. "Afghanistan's Natural Heritage: Problems and Perspectives," January - December, 2001, www.afghanmagazine.com

Shorish-Shamley, Ph.D., Zieba. "The Plight of Women and Health Care in Afghanistan," www.afghan-web.com

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