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

Sniffing Out Landmine Danger

A dedicated team of Afghan trainers and their dogs are perfecting techniques that are now in demand in trouble spots across the world.
By Danish Karokhel

With an estimated 10 per cent of the world's entire stock of landmines laid across the country during two decades of conflict, it is hardly surprising that Afghans - or to be more precise, their dogs - have become world experts at finding them.


Afghanistan's Mine Detection and Dog Centre, MDC - a local organisation under the United Nations umbrella - is now training mine-sniffing dogs sent in from as far afield as Britain and the Czech Republic, and sending others to problem areas such as Yemen and Sudan.


Mario Boer from Germany, who works with the organisation under a government aid programme, told IWPR, "The MDC training programme is the biggest of its kind in the world and is a low-cost, high-success operation.


"The techniques developed in this country are now being used in other countries suffering from the plague of landmines."


The programme began in 1989, after the Soviet Union was forced to end its 10-year occupation by anti-communist mujahedin, who then turned on each other in more fighting that paved the way for the takeover by the Taleban. The student militia's brutal regime was only ended by a United States-led offensive twelve months ago.


It was estimated that some 10 million mines were laid in the country during this near-quarter century of warfare, ranging from small booby traps that can blow off a child's foot to monsters that can take out a tank. The firing mechanisms can be a simple pressure switch, a trip wire, or an acoustic or seismic sensitive device.


Deployed for as little as three US dollars each, they cost up to 1,000 dollars to remove. These devices kill or injure around 20 people across the country every day - many of them children.


At the outset of the programme, the dogs were bought from abroad and trained by American experts. But the cost of training each one - around 9,000 dollars - was prohibitive for one of the world's poorest countries, and the MDC launched its own breeding and training programme. They bought 12 dogs, 10 females and two breeding males, a German Shepherd and a Malinois from Belgium.


"At present we have 211 dogs, 130 of which are working in mined areas while the others are undergoing training," Javed Ahmad, who heads MDC's training programme, told IWPR. "We are getting between 50 and 60 new dogs a year from our breeding programme, 80 per cent of which are suitable for training."


Training begins when the puppies are just two months old, and takes 18 months to complete. They are then let loose in the minefields, where their extraordinary sense of smell enables them to sniff out the fumes coming from explosives, even those encased in metal and plastic and buried deep underground.


MDC trainer Zainuddin explained that mines were normally laid between 20 centimetres and one metre underground, depending on the soil conditions. "Our dogs are guaranteed to find them at these depths. One of them discovered a mine buried nearly one and a half metres underground," he said.


The Afghan training programme is far more rigorous than in other countries where the mines are planted and taken out by hand after each exercise. This often enables the dog to home in on the smell of the trainer left on the metal, rather than the scent of explosives.


"We wash off all traces of humans from the mines, let them dry in the sun and then bury them for two or three years before we start using them in our training programme," Zainuddin said. "Foreign trainers are copying us now."


With so much invested in the dogs' training, and so much depending on them, it is no surprise to learn that they have their own veterinarian and a clinic with the latest equipment and medicines from Germany. "We are dedicated to keeping the dogs fit and free of disease," Dr Abdul Hakim Hakimi told IWPR. The dogs are expected to be on active duty for at least five years.


The training starts as a game, using a rubber ball, and gradually moves to dummy mines and then to the real thing.


The dogs, on a ten-metre leach controlled by their handler, are taught to sit down next to the spot where they sniff out a mine. "Dogs are perfect for this work - in fact they are twice as efficient as machines," Ahmad said. "Machines can only locate metal, which means they dig out all kinds of objects. Our dogs are only interested in explosives, and can smell them through plastic."


He said using dogs is also less dangerous than other methods, adding that over the 13 years of the programme, only 10 people and seven dogs had been killed clearing mines, while a further 26 handlers had been injured - a relatively low number for such an intensive and hazardous operation.


The operation is split into 18 groups across the country, with four dogs and 24 handlers and back-up personnel for each group. "Each group clears around one square km a year. So far we have cleared 90 square km, which represents some 45 per cent of all the territory in Afghanistan that has been cleared of mines. The rest has been done by other, foreign mine-clearing organisations," he continued.


Some 113 square km have yet to be de-mined, and about 30 square km of former battlefields cleared of unexploded shells.


"We are getting requests from all over the world for our dogs to come and help clear mines. Unfortunately because we are stepping up our programme in Afghanistan, and have so much more to do, we can't spare many more of them," said Ahmad.


Danish Karokhel is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.


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