If you think that in a land of conflict and bloodshed a career change to farming and grazing sheep would offer some protection, think again.
In Afghanistan, more than a year after the US cluster bombing of the country, these two professions are as hazardous as coal mining in China.
Cluster bombs kept in readiness
At the last count, 127 civilians had died, among them large numbers of farmers and shepherds, according to a Human Rights Watch report. The figures understate the extent of the problem since they come from hospital data that does not include people who died on the spot and those who were injured but not admitted to hospital.
A cluster bomb contains 208 bomblets, each in the shape of a bright yellow can. When dropped they spread over an area of 32,000 sq. feet and are supposed to explode on impact. Many don’t and they are called duds. They lie waiting for an unsuspecting child, farmer or shepherd to pick them up. Once disturbed they explode killing people on the spot. Estimates of duds range from five percent to 22 percent of the bombs dropped.
Cluster bombs fall into the category of so-called precision weapons which are touted to hit selective targets and spare the civilian population. But not only have cluster bombs often missed their targets, they have taken a large toll in civilian lives.
According to a recent independent study by Marc Herold, professor of economics and of women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire, an estimated 4000 civilians were killed by the US military in the bombing of Afghanistan.
The study found evidence of US air strikes against civilian targets, including an F-18 dropping a 900kg bomb on a Red Crescent hospital and a 450 kg cluster bomb on a 200-bed military hospital. Another bomb landed on Karam village killing around 100 people.
In all, nearly 1150 cluster bombs were dropped on Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Anaconda.
The US military said the cluster bombs, CBU-103, used in Afghanistan were improved versions of earlier ones. But the Human Watch study stated that the modifications did not provide technical proof that they were actually better.
Corroborating this, the US-based Project on Defence Alternatives (PDA) said in a recent report that despite claiming to be a “bull’s eye” war, the death rate of civilians was perhaps four times higher in the Afghanistan conflict than the 1999 Balkans war.
In absolute terms the civilian death toll in Afghanistan was twice that caused by the 1999 NATO bombing over Kosovo and Serbia. The PDA report said that as of 10 December 2001 at least 12,000 bombs and missiles had been fired by US forces in Afghanistan, compared to 23,000 in NATO’s 1999 Balkans campaign.
Given that fewer weapons were expended, a higher level of civilian death implied that the bombing in Afghanistan was less accurate that the one associated with the 1999 Balkans war, it said.
The other seriously contested material said to have been used by the US was depleted uranium. The US and the United Kingdom did not acknowledge the use of this radioactive element in its weapons.
But, an independent study by the US-based Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC) indicated a strong likelihood of civilians being exposed to uranium dust and debris in Afghanistan.
According to British researcher Davey Garland, the UMRC sent two separate teams in mid and late 2002 to study the aftermath of the Afghan bombings. The teams concentrated on the Jalalabad and Kabul regions. Tests for deplete uranium in urine showed concentrations 400 to 2000 percent above that for normal populations, amounts which have not been recorded in civilian studies before.
“Those in Kabul who were directly exposed to US-British precision bombing showed extreme signs of contamination, consistent with uranium exposure and with some types of chemical or biological weaponry. These included pains in joints, back/kidney pain, muscle weakness, memory problems and confusion and disorientation,” says Garland, quoting the study.
The study then conducted a preliminary sample examination of newborn infants, discovering that at least 25 percent were suffering from congenital and post-natal health problems that could be associated with uranium contamination. These comprised undeveloped muscles, large head in comparison to body size, skin rashes and infant lethargy. Since the children had access to sufficient levels of nutrition, the symptoms could not be due to malnourishment.
Researchers concluded that that the United States-led forces had possibly used milled uranium ore in their warheads to maximise the effectiveness and strength of their weapons, as well as to mask the uranium.
A scientific researcher Dai Williams in her report “Mystery Metal in Afghanistan” pointed out that with an electron microscope, it was possible to make out the difference between natural uranium and that found in the metal fragments. The microscope in the case of fragments found in Afghanistan revealed the presence of small ceramic particles produced by the high temperatures on impact.
The UMRC chief Dr Asef Dracovic, in an interview with Al-Jazeera television on the eve of the war against Iraq, pleaded that “US forces must refrain from using depleted uranium weapons like the ones they used in Afghanistan in their possible attack on Iraq.”
There are those however who argue that the US made an effort to target only military and Taliban targets. According to Richard Falk, a faculty at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the US Government did do its best to minimise Afghan civilian casualties, but in a manner that was hampered by the greater attentiveness to tactics that would reduce American military casualties to near zero.
Viewed in the context of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, it is hard to contend that the level of violence relied upon by the United States was disproportionately large in relation to the ends of restored security and punitive justice being reasonably sought, he argues.
Or, as US Army Major General Franklin L. Hagenbeck was quoted as saying recently, there are limitations in both intelligence and precision bombing in complex terrain like the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile the yellow toy-like canisters, though few and far between, continue to entice young Afghani children only to explode in their innocent faces when they are picked up.