By Maj Abdul Wadood Yousufzai
Waziristan was full of lethal ammunition like the Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) and the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which were littered around the landscape by Taliban, a testament to the threats posed by the terrorist infrastructure that has long been dismantled. Although the terrorists have either been eliminated or gone back to their sanctuaries in Afghanistan, their signature of destruction abounds from the grazing grounds to pathways and mountains to the forests as if they were part of the natural foliage. These devices still catch the unsuspecting citizens from elders to the children and women to the youngsters and cause loss of life and limbs. Even the personnel, trained to identify and neutralize them, also become their victims.
Despite the return of peace and normalcy, such accidents also cause panic and despair, and obliterate the diurnal routines of life. People from the local communities have been injured or lost their lives due to these. Dozens of army personnel, including the members of the bomb disposal units, have also lost their lives and scores have been injured while clearing the area. According to the data available, until April 2018 two soldiers were martyred and more than 130 army personnel have been wounded including serious and life-changing injuries while clearing the explosives. At the same time, 22 locals embraced martyrdom and nearly 60 people have been wounded. A majority of the victims are women and children with scant knowledge of the lurking dangers. The children, while playing outside in the open, often mistake these remnants of war as toys attracting them to injury or death. Pakistan Army offers immediate medical aid and compensation to the victims, and specialized free treatment at their Combined Military Hospitals (CMHs). This also includes provision of prosthetic limbs to allow people to recover with self-reliance. So far, more than 20 citizens have been given free prosthetic limbs and an equal number are in process of receiving them.
The demining teams from the Pakistan Army Engineers are working hard to remove this lethal legacy, but the progress is bound to be slow. One of the main reasons for this is the unavailability of any prior data about the quantum, spread and the patterns of the UXOs and IEDs. The terrorists have planted the IEDs deceptively to cause maximum damage and hindrance to life. Therefore, it demands extreme caution. Moreover, some of the devices are decades old and have moved away from their actual locations due to the natural interventions such as rain, floods and social erosion, making their positions more deceptive and hard to find. Steep, irregular, or damp ground, overgrown vegetation or hardening of the ground can change their properties and the milieu around them that can seriously affect the performance of metal detectors and the deployment of manual demining personnel. This increases the risk of injury or fatality from an unintended detonation while excavating the explosives.
Demining comprises four main components: locating, mapping, marking, and clearing. Most importantly, information gathering and sharing is at the heart of these operations because the beneficiaries — the general public — need to understand the importance of their role in sharing information or acting upon the information that is provided to them. Public awareness and UXO/IED location and mapping involve an exchange of information with the public as well as an effort to persuade individuals to perform desired actions, such as informing the local population about the dangerous areas and persuading them to avoid using these areas; and not to handle, defuse, or collect any of these devices. The process of marking and clearing involves informing the public of the progress on the operations, possible timelines, and persuading the local populations not to interfere with the personnel engaged in the clearing activities. Marking and clearing also requires coordination between local communities or political administration officials and Engineer/Ordnance bomb disposal units. Keeping in view the importance of these aspects, the Army remains in close coordination with local populace through dedicated information and awareness programmes to disseminate information and raise the threat profile to minimize human and material losses.
The awareness programmes that started in May 2016 has received impetus in the recent months and developed into a more comprehensive form of public information campaign as the peace has returned to the region and the business and normal life activities have picked up. Using the local dialects of Pashtu, they are designed to educate the public about the looming dangers posed by UXOs and IEDs in various milieus, and how people can exercise caution to remove any immediate dangers for themselves, their families, the cattle and their surroundings. The campaign involves distribution of information booklets, workshops, and raising awareness through the posters, billboards and FM radio programmes and discussions. The imams feature as an important component of these operations. They inform the people, especially through their Jumma khutbas, about the progress on the issue, and continually implore them to exercise caution in negotiating with their local geography. The mobile information units from the army deliver visual demonstrations to the school children and their teachers. In addition, they give quick presentations to the people on the village tracks or the villagers in their traditional hujras, including the hard-to-reach areas to disseminate information to as many people as possible and in their own settings. Rasool Dawar, a local journalist from North Waziristan, knows the dangers of UXOs, especially for the children as they often mistake them for toys or playthings. Therefore, for him the criticality of awareness campaigns remains undisputed. Besides, he believes the awareness efforts “will send positive messages to those who are still afraid of returning to their homes”. Since October 2017, the Army has pressed 42 bomb disposal teams into service throughout FATA. Until now, 34% population center areas that had been mapped so far have been demined. That makes it all the more essential that local residents know how to identify UXOs and IEDs. Habibullah Khan from South Waziristan’s Ladha tehsil is wary of the munitions that are widespread as he fears for his life and that of his kindred. For this reason he believes that awareness campaigns are important for them to survive while the area is cleared. The renewed impetus has filled him with abundant hope.
(The author Abdul Wadood Yousufzai is associated with Pakistan Army with rank of major. He may be contacted through E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)