The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Edward Colimore – Inquirer Staff Writer
Tajikistan, surrounded by snowcapped mountains, is still feeling the aftereffects of a civil war that killed more than 50,000 people a decade ago.
Trenches and earthen fortifications scar the high ground overlooking the Rasht Valley, and unexploded cluster bombs are claiming lives – often those of children who pick up the softball-size munitions.
Thousands of miles away, in Woodstown, Salem County, Frank Lenik, a Quaker and former Peace Corps volunteer, knew of the plight of the people there and wanted to help.
In his work as a surveyor, Lenik uses magnetic detectors similar to those utilized by United Nations contractors to locate and dispose of abandoned munitions.
So, when he saw the manufacturer of the devices offer a deal, Lenik went to members of his Woodstown Quaker meeting to raise money to purchase some.
Today, three detectors – two bought by the Quakers for about $1,500 and a third donated as part of a deal with the manufacturer – are being used under U.N. auspices in Tajikistan. And Lenik, his fellow Quakers, and others are raising money to buy more.
“From one small corner of New Jersey, we can reach around the world and send some good, positive energy,” said Lenik, 48. “Fifteen hundred dollars is a small amount of money to do so much good.”
U.N. officials say unexploded munitions are common in dozens of countries – wherever war has broken out, from Tajikistan and Somalia to Lebanon and Laos.
What’s uncommon is getting equipment through private citizens to help dispose of them.
“I’ve never heard of a group doing this,” said Richard Kollodge, a spokesman for the U.N. Mine Action Service, who took reporters to Tajikistan in June to acquaint them with the cluster-bomb problem.
“Countries acquire this equipment, but Tajikistan has a tight budget and can’t afford them,” Kollodge said. “This is a godsend.”
The civil war in Tajikistan, a former republic of the Soviet Union, began in May 1992 when a disenfranchised group from the Gharm and Gorno-Badakhshan region rebelled against Tajikistan’s national government and the old guard supported by Moscow. A peace accord was reached in 1997, but by then unexploded munitions had been strewn across the landscape.
Cluster bombs – canisters fired by artillery or dropped aerially – open in flight and can scatter hundreds of “bomblets.” A three-day conference, which concluded yesterday in Vienna, sought to create an international treaty banning them by next year.
Lenik said he got the idea for purchasing the detectors while attending the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping in St. Louis in March.
At the trade show, he was drawn to the booth of Schonstedt Instrument Co. of Kearneysville, W. Va., which was promoting its new humanitarian demining initiative: Buy one of the company’s pipe-and-cable locators, and Schonstedt would donate a magnetic detector to the U.N.
“I’m a Quaker, and we’re a church that believes in living your faith,” said Lenik, who attended the event as a delegate of the New Jersey Society of Professional Land Surveyors. “Every surveyor I know has one of these detectors. That’s the thing that grabbed hold of me: This is something I use every day.
“I was aware of the munitions problem, but not aware that there was something I could do personally.”
The detectors can locate steel and iron objects buried as deep as 10 feet. They normally are used to find surveyor’s markers.
“I went back to my meeting, talked to the Friends, and created an information board to tell people about the detectors and what we wanted to do,” Lenik said. “We have suppers and community dinners to raise money for charity, for good causes. . . . We’re one of the peace churches. It’s what we do.”
Bob Ebberson, manager for the Schonstedt Humanitarian Demining Initiative, said the Quakers did not need a pipe-and-cable locator and asked if they could simply buy the magnetic detector.
“We offered them a discounted price on two” – $750 each, Ebberson said. “And [we] provided a third for free,” he said.
Schonstedt now kicks in an additional detector for every one purchased for donation at the list price of $1,015. The company and its customers have furnished 50 detectors to the U.N. demining operations.
The Quakers’ three detectors were among 10 put to use in Tajikistan this year, the U.N. said. The others are being used in Laos and Somalia.
Justin Brady, planning officer for the U.N. Mine Action Service, said he hoped to have 10 more detectors donated through Schonstedt by the end of the year.
The equipment has been used to clear 200,000 cluster munitions left in Lebanon after the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, U.N. officials said.
The Quaker donations caught Brady by surprise.
“We hadn’t expected this to happen,” said Brady, who assembles teams of commercial contractors and government employees to search for the bomblets. “We want to try to open it up to private people and organizations to donate.”
Lenik is all for that.
“We’re one church in Woodstown, and Woodstown probably has more than a dozen churches,” he said.
“Every town has churches. And if every church that could participated in a program like this, we could save a lot of lives and show people around the world that Americans are people of faith and have good hearts. . . . We’re talking about children.”