Special report: Toying with death

Landmines, IEDs and other unexploded ordnances pose a threat to people of the tribal districts — particularly children.
Published January 27, 2020

Even the rainfall the night before could not dampen the spirits of voters in Wacha Khwara: a small village in South Waziristan’s Sararogha tehsil. It was July 20, 2019, the day of the first provincial election since the historic merger of the tribal districts with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A public holiday had been declared, and twelve-year-old Faiqa was eager to spend it with friends. Like thousands of tribespeople from the Mehsud Belt, her family had migrated to Dera Ismail Khan before Operation Rah-i-Nijat was launched a decade ago. But summers in the city were unbearable, and as electricity bills soared with the rising temperatures, the families would return to their ancestral villages during the school holidays.

On that day, Faiqa’s father dropped her off at an aunt’s house, a half-hour drive from the polling station, built on top of a barren mountain. But something ominous lay beneath the surface that afternoon, out-of-place with its surroundings.

As soon as she stepped outside to join her friends playing in the distance, she fell prey to a landmine: buried under the ground, the colour of wet earth.

Faiqa inside her home.
Faiqa inside her home.

The sound of the explosion reverberated through the valley — but Faiqa could not hear it. She briefly lost consciousness, disappearing in a haze of smoke and dust. Several members of her extended family rushed to help. They placed her on a charpai and carried her down from the mountain to the road below.

“That road is desolate, especially in the afternoon; but because of the election, there were a few vehicles passing by that stopped to help,” Faiqa’s mother recalled.

They hastily drove her to a government hospital in Dera Ismail Khan. Once there, she was administered a painkiller and her leg was bandaged to stop the bleeding. Her calf bone had shattered, with only flesh dangling from where her leg once was. Military officials soon swept in and shifted her to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH). That evening, Faiqa’s right leg was amputated just below the knee.

Pakistan remains one of thirty-three countries to not have signed the Mine Ban Treaty.

Three months later, Faiqa’s mother helped her sit on the edge of the bed and quietly placed her crutches beside her inside their home in Dera Ismail Khan. The child smiled self-consciously. Her words remained terse, until she was cajoled to speak by her sisters, who whispered the questions into her ear. Later her grandmother shuffled into the room and placed a dupatta over my head: “It’s Jummah,” she muttered under her breath.

She mentioned that Faiqa frequently burst into tears because she felt “different, excluded from the other children.” She used to help her mother with the housework, but now required assistance even with simple tasks: putting on her clothes, or washing herself. Once her wound heals, her family will get a prosthetic leg made for her in Peshawar, so she can become self-reliant again.

“We heard about similar cases in other parts of Waziristan, but this was the first incident of its kind in our village,” Faiqa’s mother said. “One month later, two other boys were wounded by landmines: one lost his eye, the other his right hand. They were even younger than my daughter.”

Despite the risk, the family hoped to return to their village. “We can’t leave our home,” the grandmother sighed. “That’s our land, our water.”

Deep Wounds

Wacha Khwara translates into Dry River, but the region experiences heavy rainfall every now and then. Just three months before the election, two children drowned in flash floods that thundered through the village.

Perhaps landmines scattered at some point during the decades of war and militancy were displaced with the changing weather patterns, but there is no way of saying this for certain. Even now, there is a great deal of secrecy around the issue, NGOs do not have permission to carry out independent assessments, and many people are afraid to speak openly since Pakistan remains one of thirty-three countries to not have signed the Mine Ban Treaty.

“Landmines have posed a serious problem in the tribal areas since the Soviet-Afghan War,” said an anti-landmine campaigner, who did not wish to be named in this story. “In the early 1980s, Russian planes air-dropped antipersonnel landmines along the bordering towns and villages of Kurram, Bajaur and North Waziristan to prevent anti-Communist fighters from crossing over [the Durand Line].”

These included the infamous, brightly-coloured ‘Butterfly Mines’ — also known as the ‘Green Parrot Mines’ — which appeared in the shape of a winged ‘toy’. If one of the wings was tampered with, the mine would detonate. Other mines resembled pens and water bottles.

A Soviet-era landmine shaped like a water bottle.
A Soviet-era landmine shaped like a water bottle.

The tribal areas were used for recruitment and training of Mujahideen, who then laid additional landmines to protect their bases and weapons supply lines. The Soviets pulled out from Afghanistan in 1989, but fragments of that war and the continuation of catastrophic geopolitics left a heavily militarised region in its wake.

During the days of the war, children in some parts of the tribal areas could be seen selling weapons — bullets, mortar shells, rocket launchers — on pushcarts covered with chadors.

Later, in the 1990s, there was a clampdown on such brazen activities, particularly in Kurram, where sectarian violence intensified between Shia and Sunni groups. While it was rare to see landmines being sold in the ‘open market’, some individuals and groups kept stocks inside their homes and storages, using them to settle personal disputes.

Between 1999 and 2006, one NGO conducted on-ground assessments in Bajaur and Kurram. Since these were agricultural lands with higher population densities, they were considered to be the worst hit by landmines left behind by the war. They identified hundreds of casualties: the majority were children, who would often mistake explosive devices for toys; their hands or legs would get blown off, or they would die from a loss of blood if not treated urgently.

The NGO carried out public awareness campaigns and distributed pictorial pamphlets amongst school and madrassah-going children. They engaged local mosques, encouraging prayer leaders to incorporate mine risk education into their Friday sermons. They also set up rehabilitation centres, conducted door-to-door first aid training sessions, distributed wheelchairs among double amputees, and arranged for ambulances to take victims to the big hospitals in Peshawar. Some years ago, however, they were asked to wrap up their activities, along with other organisations working on the issue in the tribal belt.

The campaigner stressed that he could not comment on the current situation, though he occasionally came across reports of new casualties, particularly from North and South Waziristan. “There have been several operations between 2006 and 2016, so the situation must have changed considerably. There’s a need for clearing these areas of all explosives and remnants of war. It’s also the people’s demand.”

‘Collateral Damage’

At the Pakistan Institute of Prosthetic and Orthotic Services in Peshawar, doctors and technicians could be seen walking from one room to another, carrying artificial limbs. The steady hum of chatter and machinery from its workshop would be interrupted intermittently by the receptionist's voice as she announced patients’ names off the waiting list. Some were crippled by disease: polio, diabetes, or cerebral palsy.

Others were the ‘collateral damage’ of decades of war, militancy and custom: a few hours in their midst and the scale of the trauma that besieged the people of this region became apparent. And it was trauma that cut across generations.

Muhammad Asim waits his turn in PIPOS, Peshawar.
Muhammad Asim waits his turn in PIPOS, Peshawar.

Twenty-one-year-old Muhammad Asim from Bara, Khyber, once had dreams of becoming a cricketer — a batsman, specifically — but his life took a cruel turn on two occasions: first, when he was forced to leave his village and become an IDP at the age of ten; and then upon his return as a young man in 2018. On his first day back to his village, he decided to go for a swim in a seasonal stream that had recently filled with rainwater. He plunged into it, but the moment his feet touched the ground, a powerful explosion ripped through the toes and heel of his right foot. Since receiving a prosthetic leg with aid from the government, his cousins frequently brought him to PIPOS for physiotherapy lessons.

Seventeen-year-old Salman from Parachinar, Kurram, was another regular in the physiotherapy room. Every two years, as he grew taller, he returned to PIPOS to get a new fitting for his prosthetic leg. Seven years ago, he lost his right leg to a landmine blast, while the fingertips on his left hand were burnt. “Even after all these years, it doesn’t feel natural,” he said in reference to his artificial leg.

Prosthetic legs being manufactured at PIPOS.
Prosthetic legs being manufactured at PIPOS.

In 2017, fourteen people were killed when a passenger van struck an anti-vehicle landmine: the fatalities included a woman, a child, and four Khasadars on census duty.

An FSc student at Peshawar University, Salman moved to the city because his father wanted him to pursue his higher studies and get away from the violence and uncertainty in Parachinar. He believed that whoever placed the landmine in his path did so intentionally to target the children who walked that same route to school every day: “Others were there too, but I suppose it was my fate,” Salman stated as a matter-of-fact.

That fateful morning had begun like any other, except he was running late for school, a fifteen minute walk away from his home. As usual, he strode hurriedly on the side of the main road to avoid incoming traffic, accompanied by his friend Adnan — always a few steps behind him. Some three minutes in, however, an explosion swept him off his feet. “At first, I thought someone fired at me. Then I saw that my arm and leg were bleeding, and my calf bone was protruding out [of my skin],” he recalled. Another ten minutes later, Adnan met a similar fate. He lost both his legs, and has since been confined to a wheelchair.

When he was younger, Salman wanted to join the army, but that was out of the question now. “The doctors have been very good to me, which is why I’m studying to become one now,” he smiled.

Children on their way to school in South Waziristan.
Children on their way to school in South Waziristan.

Ticking time bomb

In the absence of information, a handful of locals took it upon themselves to document the situation on the ground: notably, a young activist from Ladha, Alamzaib Khan Mehsud, who came of age against the backdrop of the ‘war on terror’ and the rise of social media.

Four years ago, he started uploading pictures and videos of landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mortar shells and hand grenades lying precariously on the fields and mountains of Waziristan on his Facebook page. “If you come across such material… explain to your children to not touch them; either report it [to an army unit] or inform an elder, but do not touch it,” he cautions in one video, crouching over (what appears to be) an anti-vehicle landmine.

Other videos are more graphic, including one scene at a hospital, where the camera pans in on a sixteen-year-old boy who lost both his hands and an eye in a landmine explosion. Visibly distraught, Alamzaib weeps towards the end of the video: “For how long will our children be incapacitated?”

A landmine on display at the police bomb disposal unit in DIK.
A landmine on display at the police bomb disposal unit in DIK.

He sometimes uses ‘landmines’ and ‘IEDs’ as interchangeable terms, though there is a marked difference. Anti-personnel landmines are weapons of ‘conventional warfare’, first circulated on a large scale during the Second World War and following the Cold War era. On the other hand, IEDs are home-made devices, linked to the rise of insurgent and terrorist movements of the twenty-first century. However, landmine parts found in the black market can be used to make IEDs, blurring the distinction.

“In the past, there were a few landmine blasts in Waziristan, but the issue really blew up once IDPs started returning to their homes, after their areas had been marked safe. According to the data I’ve collected, there have been approximately 110 cases of death or injury caused by landmines in North and South Waziristan since 2013,” he told me in Peshawar one evening.

He was in between court hearings, having spent eight months in jail for taking part in a protest that demanded justice for Naqeebullah Mehsud outside the Karachi Press Club. “We realise [others] suffer too, but at least their deaths are acknowledged. Ours are not. When you don’t acknowledge the dead, it’s like saying there’s no problem.”

Even today, the vast majority of casualties are children: their inquisitive minds leading them off well-trodden paths, picking up and examining everything in sight. There are also a large number of women — particularly those who rear livestock, the primary occupation in Waziristan — who fall prey to landmines while herding or chasing after their animals on mountaintops. And then there are the countless animals. “You won’t find a home where a cow or goat hasn’t been lost to an explosion, depriving families of their sole source of income,” Alamzaib said.

“Initially, when victims of landmines and IED blasts were brought to hospitals in Dera Ismail Khan for treatment, they received little help from the state,” Alamzaib explained. A nineteen-year-old student at Gomal University at the time, he joined a student’s collective with roots in the tribal districts, which would raise funds for the victims. They called themselves the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (MTM), and were led by a fellow student named Manzoor Pashteen.

MTM had a single demand then: to clear Waziristan of landmines and provide compensation to the victims. But when they discovered the issue spanned beyond Waziristan, they expanded their demands to include all the tribal districts, linked together by history and fate.

“For how long will our children be incapacitated?”

  • In Mohmand, ten-year-old Bilal, ten-year-old Mukamil and his twelve-year-old brother, Iftikhar, were on their way to cut grass for their cattle when they were injured by a landmine.

  • In South Waziristan, ten-year-old Saira was severely disfigured after falling face-first near a landmine. Blinded by the intensity of the explosion, she has undergone four reconstructive surgeries at the CMH in Peshawar.

  • In North Waziristan, three girls were wounded when a “toy bomb” fell from a tree in their path: five-year-old Insha, three-year-old Hizra and two-year-old Iqra — the youngest victim so far — who lost both her legs that day.

  • In Kurram, eleven-year-old Sabeel came across a landmine on his way home from school. In the evening, he used a knife to try and cut it open. Suddenly, there was an explosion. His parents rushed to his room and found it covered in smoke and blood. The child survived, but lost both his hands and eyesight.

Two years ago, at a jirga with elders of the Mehsud tribe, the army and government authorities announced Rs200,000 as compensation for people injured by landmine blasts and Rs500,000 for family members of those killed by landmines. Faiqa’s family received their due in two instalments. One of the first things they bought was an air conditioner, so her wound would not get infected in the summer heat. But others are still waiting.

Kotkai, South Waziristan.
Kotkai, South Waziristan.

Stepping on a landmine

“Have you ever seen a landmine?” asked Ali Muhammad, a resident of Kotkai in Serwekai tehsil, some 15-20km from Wacha Khwara. “It looks like a tin of shoe polish,” he said, and brought his hands together to form a circle. “They’re very light. Some are brown, others are green, so they camouflage with the earth and trees.” Seated on the floor of Kotaki’s sole library — a single-room arrangement, built by Pushto poet Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Laswandi in 1980 — he pointed to the rugged landscape visible through the windows: “See those mountains? That’s the danger zone.”

Ali Muhammad returned to his village in 2011, after spending three years as an IDP in Tank. “On my first day back, two girls were killed in a landmine blast,” he told me. In the past eight years, Kotkai has seen approximately seventeen deaths, and countless injuries, to landmines scattered across its mountain ranges. Ali Muhammad’s son, Kabeerullah, and neighbour, Wazir Alam, were both injured a few years ago.

The library’s caretaker, Hafiz Badar-e-Alam, had placed signs on the walls welcoming officers of the Pakistan Army. Under one poster that read “LIVE LONG PAK ARMY”, there was a photograph of General Ziaul Haq standing beside Laswandi during an official visit to the region. Badar-e-Alam told me he once had a total of 1,500 books in his collection, including some rare editions on history and religion, but many had gone missing during the decades of militancy and subsequent operations. “At the last count, there were only 1, 100 remaining,” he frowned.

A woman injured by a landmine in Kotkai.
A woman injured by a landmine in Kotkai.

Kotkai was once a bustling settlement with over 12,000 inhabitants, but locals estimate the population had now shrunk to 6,000.

According to Badar-e-Alam, in the early 1900s, the British built a fort here to safeguard themselves against relentless attacks from the tribesmen. This remained a landmark in the area up until a few years after the turn of the new century, when it was demolished by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The birthplace of TTP Commander Hakimullah Mehsud, Kotkai became the centre of intense fighting between militants and the Pakistan Army in 2009. But on the day I visited, it was strikingly quiet — peaceful even. A white flag fluttered in the distance.

“There was so much blood…”

Wazir Alam spoke first: “The blast occurred in the month of Ramazan, in 2014, when I was thirteen-years-old. Since it was the last day of my summer vacation, I wanted to go out with my friends. We went for a stroll on Sarraghora Pahari — that’s where it happened. I stepped on a landmine, but I couldn’t register this at the time. I think my body went into shock.”

“Astaghfirullah, astaghfirullah,” Ali Muhammad shook his head at the dreadful memory. “It was a nightmare. I was there: I heard the sound of the explosion. I saw everything with my own eyes. There was so much blood…”

Kabeerullah and Wazir Alam inside Al-Hassan Library, Kotkai.
Kabeerullah and Wazir Alam inside Al-Hassan Library, Kotkai.

Ali Muhammad and several other men rushed Wazir Alam to the nearest army checkpoint. It was an extremely tense time, he remembered, and there were no open lines of communication. Getting a clearance at check posts took at least half an hour, but they were let through in fifteen minutes. It was during the drive that Wazir Alam was suddenly struck with a searing burst of pain: “It was beyond belief. I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

The soldiers took him to the CMH in Jandola. Within three hours of the explosion, Wazir Alam’s leg was amputated. Under normal circumstances, he was to have returned to his school in Wana the next day, beginning his eighth grade lessons. Instead, he spent the next ten days at the hospital, sharing a room with an army youth on the bed next to his, who had also been injured by a landmine. He never returned to school again.

Three years later, when he was fourteen-years-old, Kabeerullah stepped on a landmine on the same mountain. He was taken to the CMH in Dera Ismail Khan, where his leg was amputated, before being shifted to Peshawar. He says the pain stayed with him for around eight months.

Before the incident, he had dreams of joining the army, but his disability forced him to abandon his studies in the fifth grade. Both Kabeerullah and Wazir Alam were learning to become tailors, even though neither had any particular interest in it. Kabeerullah lifted the end of his shalwar to reveal his prosthetic leg: “What else can I do?”

His father showed me his medical documents and recently issued CNIC. Despite all their proof, neither Kabeerullah nor Wazir Alam received the funds they were due by the local government authorities. “They send us away saying we didn’t lose our legs to landmine blasts, as if we’re making it up,” Wazir Alam said in exasperation.

“Every other month, a cow or goat or donkey explodes into pieces in these mountains.”

On the drive to Kotkai, military officials could be seen using metal detectors along the roadsides — most likely to clear IEDs, also known as roadside bombs — but the landmines are largely saturated in the mountains. Some of the more conscientious tribesmen took to lifting the explosives themselves and moving them out of immediate harm’s way, placing stones and other objects around them as a way to mark the area unsafe. They would then report the threat to their army unit, but help has not always been forthcoming.

“Every other month, a cow or goat or donkey explodes into pieces in these mountains. We told this to Colonel Sahib. They keep saying they’ll do it, but they don’t,” Ali Muhammad said.

“They will,” Badar-e-Alam reassured him. “I met Colonel Sahib the other day. He promised me he would.”

Houses built on a mountaintop in Kotkai.
Houses built on a mountaintop in Kotkai.

Military officials approached with these concerns did not respond to the questions sent to them, but they did send an official report outlining successes and challenges facing their demining efforts in the tribal areas since 2015.

According to that document, the military has conducted extensive demining efforts and cleared the vast majority of explosives in five tribal districts: Bajaur (95pc), Mohmand (82pc), Orakzai (72pc), Khyber and Kurram (59pc). But it admits “more time will be required” to clear North and South Waziristan, which have a “greater concentration” of anti-personnel landmines and unexploded ordinances, “due to the swath of the area and difficult nature of the terrain”.

Additionally, according to them, there have been a total of five civilian deaths and 120 injuries by antipersonnel landmines. In that same timeframe, five soldiers were martyred, while another 317 were injured. Other unexploded ordinances claimed 45 civilian lives and 85 injuries; and 37 military lives and 17 injuries. Meanwhile, IEDs posed the greatest challenge, being responsible for 102 civilian versus 132 military deaths; and 342 civilian versus 512 military injuries.

Kabeerullah offered the last word. “Why don’t you stick around a few days,” he said half-seriously. “You might see an explosion yourself.”

All photos by author

Illustrations by Samiah Bilal

With assistance from Razia Mahsood and Zulfiqar Ali