As the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan, it is leaving behind a deadly legacy: about 800 square miles of land littered with undetonated grenades, rockets and mortar shells.
The military has vacated scores of firing ranges pocked with the explosives. Dozens of children have been killed or wounded as they have stumbled upon the ordnance at the sites, which are often poorly marked. Casualties are likely to increase sharply; the U.S. military has removed the munitions from only 3 percent of the territory covered by its sprawling ranges, officials said.
Clearing the rest of the contaminated land — which in total is twice as big as New York City — could take two to five years. U.S. military officials say they intend to clean up the ranges. But because of a lack of planning, officials say, funding has not yet been approved for the monumental effort, which is expected to cost $250 million.
“Unfortunately, the thinking was: ‘We’re at war and we don’t have time for this,’ ” said Maj. Michael Fuller, the head of the U.S. Army’s Mine Action Center at Bagram Airfield, referring to the planning.
Mohammad Yusef, 13, and Sayed Jawad, 14, grew up 100 yards from a firing range used by U.S. and Polish troops in Ghazni province. The boys’ families were accustomed to the thundering explosions from military training exercises, which sometimes shattered windows in their village.
But as those blasts became less common — a function of the U.S. and NATO withdrawal — the boys started wandering onto the range to collect scrap metal to sell. They did not know that some U.S. explosives do not detonate on impact but can still blow up when someone touches them.
Last month, Jawad’s father, Sayed Sadeq, heard a boom and ran onto the range. He spotted his son’s bloodied torso.
“The left side of his body was torn up. I could see his heart. His legs were missing,” the father said.
One of the boys, it appeared, had stepped on a 40mm grenade, designed to kill anyone within five yards. Both teens died.
“If the Americans believe in human rights, how can they let this happen?” Sadeq said.
Since 2012, the United Nations’ Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan has recorded 70 casualties in and around U.S. or NATO firing ranges or bases, and the pace of the incidents has been quickening. But the statistics do not paint a complete picture; The Washington Post found 14 casualties not included in the U.N. data, Yusef and Jawad among them.
Most of the victims were taking their animals to graze, collecting firewood or searching for scrap metal. Of the casualties recorded by the United Nations, 88 percent were children.