Tangi Valley, Afghanistan – A father of six children knew they could die where he was digging. But selling a few pounds of scrap metal spilled from a nearby abandoned military post could offset rising food and fuel prices as Afghanistan’s economy collapsed around it.
So Syed Rahman and his 9-year-old son, Javidullah, set out to tear apart some of the decaying fortifications scattered among the remnants of the country’s past three wars.
“We found a mortar shell,” recalled Javidullah. The shell exploded, killing his father and injuring the boy.
“Now I don’t come here to pick up junk,” he said on a recent visit to the blast site in the Tangi Valley in central Afghanistan.
In this once strategically important route that links Vardak and Logar provinces, the Soviet war of the 1980s is buried under the civil war of the 1990s, below the 20-year US war that ended in August. The Valley is a scraper fever dream, a place where 15 pounds of discarded metal can be quickly cut and sold for about a dollar.
But in the nine months since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, more than 180 people have been killed without explosions, according to UN and Taliban officials, many of whom were trying to collect and sell scrap. Officials say the actual number is likely to be much higher, as reporting of casualties was interrupted after the collapse of the Western-backed government.
Casualties are inextricably linked to the scrap-metal economy and buried weapons, a part of Afghanistan’s history as one of the world’s poorest and most heavily mined countries. But now there is an added urgency as a lack of foreign aid has stifled mining efforts and rendered ineffective the government agency responsible for coordinating them.
It’s been 33 years since the last Soviet tank left Afghanistan, and their weapons are still killing people, especially children.
In one week in March, 10 children were injured or killed handling abandoned warships across Afghanistan, according to reports from local authorities. United Nations data from 2020, the last full year of accounting, shows that 80% of the casualties from the explosive remnants of the war in Afghanistan were children: 84 killed and 230 wounded.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.