Tackling Tajikistan’s cluster bombs
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Rashd Valley, Tajikistan
High above the mulberry orchards and rolling hills of the Rashd Valley, and just beneath the soaring snow-covered peaks, lies the village of Chor Charokh.
Donkeys wander amid the mud huts, and women in traditional colourful headscarves shy away from visitors.
A group of small children, happily oblivious to the poverty that surrounds them, scream and laugh as they chase a dog along a stream.
None of these children were born when the government and the opposition fought for control of these mountains.
Yet, in a way, for these children the war is still on, a decade after the ceasefire.
Diligently, with his hands folded on his knees, 10-year-old Samir told us his story.
Two years ago, Samir went to cut wood in the forest and found a shiny metal ball. He had no idea, he said, that it was a cluster bomblet.
Samir only survived because he threw it a long way, but the blast shattered his knee and left him half blind.
Hundreds of others have not been so lucky.
Ten years since they were dropped, unexploded cluster munitions are still killing people here.
According to the UN, that makes Tajikistan a perfect example of why the weapon should be banned.
Lack of funds
International efforts to ban cluster bombs gained new force after last year’s war between Israel and Hezbollah, when Israel dropped an estimated four million cluster bombs on southern Lebanon.
Cluster bombs are believed to be stockpiled by at least 75 countries around the world, including the US and Britain.
When dropped they disperse into hundreds of smaller bomblets, or sub-munitions – and that is what, according to the UN, makes them more dangerous and vicious than landmines.
“The worst thing is that you simply don’t know where they are,” said Andy Smith, who works for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and advises the Tajik government on mine clearance.
“At least with the landmines you can predict where they have been laid. But cluster sub-munitions spread over vast territories, and they continue to move around,” he said.
“They can be shifted by snow, or roll down the hills, and unlike landmines they don’t rust away but stay armed for decades.”
The UNDP is among several international organisations that are trying to help Tajikistan rid itself of mines and cluster munitions.
But their effort is undermined by a lack of funds.
Working on one of the steep hills of the Rashd Valley, three men in blue uniforms are sweeping the area with bright yellow detectors – a miniscule operation considering the scale of the problem.
What makes clearance ever more difficult is that next year’s snow melt is likely to send more bomblets down the hill and towards the villages.
“Yesterday we found seven sub-munitions at the bottom of just this one gulley; there are thousands of them here,” Andy Smith said.
Life without work
The problem of unexploded munitions and landmines spreads far beyond the Rashd Valley.
Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan is full of landmines – a legacy of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
More recently another neighbour, Uzbekistan, mined its frontier with the country, saying it needed to prevent terrorists from crossing.
“We don’t have a record of a single terrorist being hurt by mines there, but there certainly have been plenty of civilians,” said Jonmahamad Rajabov, head of the Tajik Mine Action Cell, a government agency that deals with the issue.
Landmines and unexploded munitions have not only claimed hundreds of lives here, they have also destroyed thousands of livelihoods.
In a country where jobs are scarce, losing a leg or an arm means a lifetime of unemployment – and if the victim is a breadwinner, it means poverty for the entire family too.
When a cluster bomb exploded near his house, Saygufron Abdulhayrov lost both his arms. His cousin died in the blast.
Elsewhere, he might have considered himself lucky to have survived, but in Tajikistan his injury means he now faces a lifetime without work.
The help he gets from the government is enough to buy him 20 loaves of bread a month.
“What is there for me to do? I can never find a job, I can never own a shop or do anything with my life,” Saygufron said.
But even those who are not injured or dead are still victims here.
About 93% of this country is mountainous, so every inch of flat land is precious.
In the countryside, where most people eat what they grow, mines and sub-munitions are halting agricultural development.
Their clearance, the government says, is essential for the economic revival that Tajikistan so desperately needs.
In the village of Chor Charokh, like so much of rural Tajikistan, there are hardly any men left.
Samir’s father, like many others, has left to search for work in Russia. The 10-year-old, in the meantime, is making his own plans for the future.
“I want to become an eye doctor so that I can help others – and maybe,” Samir added, “cure myself too”.
It is not an impossible dream. Samir’s vision could probably be restored, but his family does not have the money to take him to the city hospital.
Money is also needed to make this land safe to walk on and farm.
“We need more detectors, more assets, more men,” the UN’s Andy Smith explained.
“With the right investment we could make this country mine-safe in three years and mine-free in five. Without this investment, it could take another 100 years.”
While Tajikistan desperately needs aid, the world, according to the UN, needs an international treaty banning cluster bombs, preventing this from happening elsewhere.
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