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An Anatomy of a Landmine Blast: Case Study – Wacha Khwara, Pakistan

Wacha Khwara, Sararogha, South Waziristan, Pakistan

This story was originally reported in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest and largest English-language newspaper. COvid19 travel restrictions prevented AOAV from doing its own field research on this incident.

July 20th, 2019 was a historic day in north-west Pakistan. It was the beginning of the first provincial election since the merger of semi-autonomous tribal districts with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the four large provinces of Pakistan. 

For 12-year-old Faiqa this meant a public holiday and a day spent with friends in the family’s ancestral village. Like many others from the Mehsud Belt, Faiqa’s family had migrated to the city of Dera Ismail (DI) Khan prior to Operation Rah-i-Nijat – the Pakistani military’s successful offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan in 2009. But in the summer holidays, due to the soaring temperatures and corresponding electricity bills, families tended to return to their home villages. 

Faiqa’s father dropped her off near her aunt’s house, a remote location in the mountains. But as soon as she stepped outside the home to join her friends playing within sight, she activated a landmine buried under the ground, the small device coloured like wet earth. 

Faiqa lost consciousness as several members of her extended family came to her aid. They lifted her onto a charpai and carried her down the mountain toward the road below. 

The road, normally desolate, was fortunately far more busy due to the election. They persuaded a vehicle to stop, and the driver quickly drove her to a government hospital in DI Khan. She was given a sedative and her leg was bandaged to stop the bleeding. But this wasn’t going to be enough – her calf bone was shattered with just flesh dangling below her knee. Military officials intervened and sent her to the Combined Military Hospital, where, that night, her right lower leg was amputated. 

Speaking to Dawn three months after the incident, Faiqa’s mother said she felt “different, excluded from other children.” This could happen anywhere, but in rural Pakistan there is a particularly acute social stigmatisation of the disabled. Faiqa has lost her self-reliance, she needs help to do simple tasks like clothing and washing herself but the family hope a prosthetic leg they plan to purchase will allow her to restore her independence somewhat. 

Two years prior, the army and government had announced the start of a compensation scheme for landmine victims. Those injured would receive Rs200,000 (~$1,250) while the family of those killed would be given Rs500,000 (~$3,200). Faiqa’s family received their money in two installments. One of the first purchases they made was for an air conditioner, so Faiqa’s wound wouldn’t get infected during the summer months. 

“We heard about similar cases in other parts of Waziristan, but this was the first incident of its kind in our village,” Faiqa’s mother told Dawn. “One month later, two other boys were wounded by landmines: one lost his eye, the other his right hand. They were even younger than my daughter.”

Landmines have remained a serious problem in the north-western tribal region of the country ever since the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. During the early years, Russian planes dropped anti-personnel landmines along border towns to prevent the movement of anti-Communist fighters. These included ‘Butterfly’ or ‘Green Parrot Mines’ which, to a child, might look like a winged toy. After the Soviets left, manufactured explosive weapons remained prominent in a thriving black market. 

While reportedly rare to see landmines being sold openly, many individuals kept stocks domestically, using them to settle personal scores. Dawn cites one NGO that conducted on-the-ground research in Banjaur and Kurram. They found hundreds of casualties, the majority of whom were children who would mistake the devices for toys. It’s believed that during the military’s offensive against the Taliban in 2009, both sides laid even more landmines. 

Despite government and NGO clearance attempts, campaigners still report heavy landmine contamination and continued casualties in the region. But despite the risk posed by wandering through Wacha Khwara, Faiqa’s family are resolute: they will return, they cannot leave their home behind. 

Report continues:

Chapter 3: SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Chapter 4: SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
Chapter 5: SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being
Chapter 6: SDG 4 – Quality Education
Chapter 7: Other Considerations
Conclusion and Recommendations