After roughly 2 weeks working for the Swiss deming organization FSD it suddenly hits me. I’ve been working in mine victim assistance before; I’ve been in landmine contaminated areas before; I’ve treated countless persons who’ve lost legs, arms, eyes and their dignity. I know the different types of mines, their use and destroy methods. I’ve witnessed the results of encounters, accidents, incidents among farmers, children, women who were just going to fetch water or firewood. Landmines and unexploded ordnance are no mystery to me. Still, today the intensity of this stuff struck again.
A colleague in military uniform walks into the office where I am working on a victim assistance strategy. Once, twice. He greets me, and I press my hand to my chess to respectfully acknowledge him. He asks where I’m from, in Tajik. I answer in English. He knows where Holland is. Europe. Yes. He draws an imaginary map of Europe, then Central Asia. I explain with hand gestures and roaring sound that I’ve been traveling in all those country with my motorbike. He doesn’t seem to be too surprised. The conversation continues; a few words of Russian that I picked up along the way (coffee, milk, cheese, eggs, fuel, how much, tyre puncture, etc.) aren’t very useful in this setting but the man doesn’t seem to care. He just speaks in a clear, calm voice. He turns to the pictures on the wall – some clear, some faded into orange colors. Pictures of landmines and weapons in all sorts and sizes; pictures of explosions; pictures of people dismantling the explosives and disposing vessels containing chemicals. People dressed up in field-uniform and protective armour. I’ve walked past those pictures several times, but now I have a closer look at them, I recognize some faces: colleagues that I greet in the mornings and evenings when entering and leaving the office.
The man explains to me what’s on the pictures. The three methods used in demining: searching for explosives with dogs, sending out tank-like vehicles to dig out the land, and manual searching/ dismantling. He tells me how the controlled explosion takes place. Who planted the mines, where and when. He writes the numbers and years on the wall with his finger, then moves to the map of Tajikistan and starts to point out all the previous and remaining mine fields. He remembers the years of hostilily between Tajikistan and neighbouring Uzbekistan, which now belong to the past but the the signature of political friendship didn’t swipe away the minefields along the border. He tells me how he was forcely deployed by the army when the Russian emperium was still in place; how the weapons have been stored away for many years in Tajikistan and how the situation in Afghanistan looks less promising. His voice had grown stronger during our conversation, but now becomes softer – hesitant almost – and the silence in between hits like a rock. I don’t know what to say.
He explains to me both the difficulty of those impassible mountains for material and medical attention, as well as the protection from the fighting in more central areas of the country. Then he points again to a picture with rockets, explaining how far they can reach. His gestures and sounds expressing the action in such a precise way that it sends a shivering through my spine. Here in Dushanbe (Tajikistan’s capital) it’s safer than in Amsterdam and it’s not at all my own safety that I’m concerned about. What strikes me is to picture the men and women out there in the field, day by day, scanning the earth centimeter by centimeter, watching every step they take in order to turn home safely that night. Men and women risking their lives every day only just to clear the land and make it a safe place for children to walk to school, for women to collect water and wood, for men to let their cattle graze. My eyes drift of to the statistics: between 2003 and 2017 FSD clearded a rough 50.000 explosives. 50.000 – can you imagine? And that’s only this little piece of the world, only 1 organization.
Why? I wonder. Why do people need to put themselves out there? Only just because humankind came up with the inhuman idea of planting explosives, hiding them underneath the soil, in so-called strategic locations. No way! No way this comes anywhere near humanity – and it makes me reconsider the term humanitarian work. Why do we do this to each other? What kind of world did we create? Just the other day, the Dutch newspaper wrote about the weapon embargo from Holland to Turkey, now they’ve envaded Syria; some other countries followed the example. What? We deliver weapons to Turkey, make a great deal of money with it but as soon as they are used to their purpose – or, as soon as they world becomes aware of it – we stand up and protest! ‘No no no, Turkey, you were not supposed to shoot with the guns that we sold you’ … What? If I buy a glass, am I not supposed to drink out of it?!
Back to the pictures, which are no postcards with smiley faces, sunglasses and look-good filters but a blunt reflection of reality. I thank the man in front of me, not only for his explanation – even though I still don’t speak Tajik – but for his efforts to clear not even his own land but the neighbours’ of this horrible stuff.
A thousand books of self-management and motivational coaches can’t compete with a 10-minutes conversation like I just had. Back to work – back to the statistics of injury occurring after incidents with landmines and other explosives. I’m looking into the injury patterns among children and adults – and differences between men vs women, boys vs girls. Why? Is the question that comes to me once again. Why? Why do these data exist? Why are there enough casualties recorded (knowing that a large proportion remains unrecorded) for scientists to do research on? Why are there thousands and thousands of deaths injured and injuries leading to life-long disabilities? And why are people falling prey to these silent weapons every day?