“The shock as I looked down was the worst”

Report by ethnographer Jens Kjær Jensen

“It takes calm and concentration to work as a mine sweeper. If you do not have those qualities, you won’t last long in the job.”

Hamid knows what he is talking about. He works for the humanitarian organisation Danish Demining Group (DDG) and has cleared a lot of land mines in Afghanistan.

Many of the mines that were buried during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s are placed on mountainsides where they cannot be approached with machines. That creates a need for human mine sweepers such as Hamid.

”Last year accident struck”

I meet him by a minefield on a mountainside just outside of Kabul. We walk around on marked paths in the minefield. White stones mean that the area has been cleared, while red stones are a warning of mines still in the ground.

“Last year accident struck,” Hamid tells me. “After a long day at work, I returned home through a minefield. For just a second I was inattentive and stepped outside of the marked path. I vividly remember the explosion. At first it didn’t hurt much. The shock as I looked down and saw the remains of my leg was the worst.”

Today Hamid has an artificial leg, but he also still has his job.

“After the accident I didn’t think I could keep my job as a mine sweeper, but after intense rehabilitation I’ve returned. It’s been a difficult process, but I’m happy to be back.”

A meaningful job

One might wonder why Hamid would want to continue working as a mine sweeper after his accident. Nevertheless, as head of a household of 17 people – of which he is the only one making money – he does not have much choice.

But Hamid is also proud of his work:

“I’m happy that I can sustain my family,” he says, looking out over the minefield. “At the same time, it feels good to work as a mine sweeper. I make a difference and partake in rebuilding our country.”

Every year, thousands of Afghan civilians are mutilated or killed because of the mines. The mines are often constructed in a way so that they do not kill people, following the logic that a wounded soldier will be more costly for the enemy than a dead one. This is an important reason why so many Afghans are disabled.

Hamid packs his bags after another day at work. Today he has cleared four mines and collected 15 pieces of unexploded ammunition – and made Afghanistan a slightly safer place to live:

“Every time I clear a mine, I might rescue a child from being wounded or killed. There are still many mines left in Afghanistan, but we have come a long way already.”