Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hidden Arms Take Their Toll

Local militia commanders are supposed to have disarmed but recent deadly explosion shows many have kept their arms caches.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

The explosion of a former militia commander's munitions dump, which left 34 people dead and at least 11 injured, is causing nationwide consternation as residents of "disarmed" villages wonder how many secret caches remain.

Commander Jalal Bashgah, a former leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami party and an army division commander in Baghlan province, is one of scores of strongmen who ostensibly surrendered his weapons under the UN-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration programme

On May 2, however, a bunker next to the commander's house in the village of Kohna Deh, exploded. The commander was absent at the time, but eight of his family were killed in the blast, which also levelled five nearby houses and a mosque. Nearly 60 other houses in the village were also damaged.

“I don’t know what the cause was,” said Mohammad Nabi of Kohna Deh. “I was at home when I heard the explosion, and the whole village was engulfed in dust. Then all the people were looking for the dead and injured.”

He called on the government to prosecute Bashgah.

The cause of the blast remains under investigation but Delbar Khan, an official in the province, said that Bashgab had held back 100 kilogrammes of explosives from the disarmament drive to help build roads in his area, located about 200 kilometres miles north of Kabul.

Officials carrying out the disarmament programme have frequently warned of just such hidden stores. They also pointed out that many of the munitions, which date back to the 1980s, could be highly unstable because of their age.

During the war years, practically every village in Afghanistan had a commander with a large cache of weapons. Officials involved in the disarmament process say that more than 50,000 fighters have given up their weapons and that the disarmament process is 80 per cent complete.

Bashgah had no permission to keep the explosives for road building or anything else, said General Zahir Azimi, a defense ministry spokesman. The ex-commander remained under investigation, said Lutfullah Mashall, of the interior ministry.

The spokesman said that Bashgah’s secret arsenal appeared to include mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery shells.

“There are a lot of dumps in the provinces," acknowledged Mashall.

But there's not telling how many hidden arsenals actually exist, said Azimi.

"If these dumps are not discovered and cleaned up, such explosions will happen again," he warned. He said the government intended to find and get rid of them all.

“It is impossible to accomplish this task alone, so local people should tell the responsible authorities if they know about munitions dumps in their regions,” said Azizullah, who heads the disarmament programme for the federal government.

Some people were clearly afraid to do that, however. A resident of Garizwan district in Faryab Province, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the commander of his village, with help from only close relatives, moved and hid huge amounts of ammunition last year.

“I know most of the commanders still have weapons in this district," said Mohammad Asef, from Wardak Province. "These are 28-year-old weapons, and if they explode, hundreds of innocent people will lose their lives."

Saifullah, another Wardak Province resident, told of a local commander who had also ostensibly been disarmed under the official process but had actually kept a large amount of old munitions, which he sells to nomads.

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif. Amanullah Nasrat is an IWPR staff reporter in Wardak.