Lethal Residue

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The leftover explosives at encounters and army’s shooting practice sites are claiming lives, mostly of children and poor scrap collectors. A labourer at Islamabad was its latest victim. Hussain Danish reports

A recent phenomenon: Police in certain areas have started erected boards cautioning people against visiting the gun battle sites till they are cleared off the unexploded ammunition

Working at the bandsaw, Muhammad Maqbool of Maloora cannot escape the thoughts of February 14 – the day he lost three children to a live shell. The children had mistaken the shell for a toy.

On that morning, 45-year-old Maqbool left for work at the bandsaw-a short distance from his home with his son Noor Mohammed, 13, in tow. The father-son duo started piling up wooden logs until the electricity went off at five in the afternoon.

While Maqbool took the opportunity to smoke, Noor went to play in the nearby rubble of a house that was razed in an encounter between militants and security forces, last October.

“Army left without clearing the rubble and the owner of the house dumped the rubble on the vacant land across the road,” says Maqbool.

When Noor found a live shell in the rubble, he mistook it for a toy and took it along to share with his kid sisters.

As the electricity was restored, Maqbool returned to work.

Half an hour later, Maqbool and Noor went home after a day’s work. Muskaan, 6, and Bisma 9, Maqbools daughters served tea. Afterwards, Maqbool went for a nap.

Meanwhile, Noor beckoned his sisters to the doorway, showing them the “toy”, he had retrieved from the rubble. All the three went out. Inside the house, their mother was busy tending to her newborn son in her lap.

“Suddenly there was a loud blast that was followed by a deep silence,” recollects Maqbool. “There was no sound of children; no cries; nothing.” Maqbool was still inside the house when his wife came running with both her hands on her neck.“Her throat was bleeding. She was wailing,” Maqbool recollects. “She told me that Noor had brought something that exploded.”

Maqbool rushed to the spot and found his three children – Noor, Muskan and Bisma – in a pool of blood. Inside the house, his third daughter had suffered injuries in the knee. The only ones to escape unhurt were Maqbool and his infant son. Noor died on the spot. Bisma was declared brought dead at the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences Medical College, Bemina. Two days later Muskaan succumbed to injuries at SKIMS, Soura.

The leftover ammunition at armed encounter sites has consumed many lives and maimed many others, mostly children, who mistake these for toys, and scrap collectors looking for some sellable metal. This year in six incidents, including the one at Maloora, have been killed four scrap dealers and three children besides causing injuries to many others.

A labourer was killed and three others were injured on June 6 when a shell exploded accidentally in Mattan area of South Kashmir’s Islamabad district.

The labourer, Abdul Hamid Dar, a resident of Qazigund town in south Kashmir, was killed when a live shell, inside the dead stock, went off during transportation in a load carrier at Kheribal in Mattan area.

A migrant labourer and two local women, who were passing through the area at the time of the explosion, were also injured.

The officials said the live shell had been mistakenly placed in the ‘dead stock’ which was disposed off as scrap by the army unit concerned.

The Jammu and Kashmir coalition of civil society (JKCCS), – a non-governmental human rights organization – has listed 78 cases since 2002, wherein civilian casualties have taken place due to abandoned explosives and landmines.

Around 93 people including 80 children have been killed in these incidents besides leaving 91 including 74 children.

The data compiled by JKCCS reveals that around 20 incidents have taken place in 2009. The largest number of persons (19) were killed in 10 incidents that occurred in 2002, and all the victims were children.

Eight such incidents occurred in 2003, 11 in 2004, five in 2005, four in 2006, four in 2007, five in 2008 and six in 2010. In 2003, 12 persons were killed while three were injured. In 2004, 10 people were killed while 19 were injured in similar incidents.

In 2005, six persons died and 15 sustained injuries. In 2006, six persons were killed and six were injured. Five lives were lost and two injured in 2007 in littered explosives. Seven people died in incidents of abandoned explosives and landmines while nine received injuries in 2008. Thirteen people were killed and 23 injured in 2009.

A month before the Maloora incident, a scrap dealer Ghulam Hassan Peer and his nephew Museeb Peer both residents of Chowkibal sustained critical injuries when a shell exploded off at Ridi, some 20 kilometres from Kupwara.

In March, Nazia, 11, and her brothers Mashooq, 14, and Adil,18, of Margi Devar village in Kupwara, 100 kilometres from Srinagar were injured in a similar incident.

In April, two persons were killed and another seriously injured when a shell exploded inside a scrap dealer’s shop in Akhnoor Jourian area of Akhnoor in outskirts of Jammu.

And as late as May 29, a youth, Mukesh, was killed when he fiddled with a mortar shell near Charmarki firing range in Akhnoor border belt in Jammu province.

Last June, three civilians on a picnic in Tosmaidan – a tourist spot in the neighbourhood of army’s artillery practice field – in central Kashmir’s Budgam district were killed when they fiddled with an unexploded shell.

In 2009, two youths were killed in a mortar shell explosion in the same district.

The army recently asked residents of 16 villages in central Kashmir’s Budgam district to refrain from venturing into the artillery practice field at Tosamaidan range from June 7 to June 12.

A large population of the villagers, however, deals with scrap. After the practice sessions, the villagers collect the metal pieces left behind and sell them in the market. Sometimes they bring home unexploded shells.

In villages closer to the Tosamaidan practice field, a survey by Mdecins Sans Frontires (Doctors Without Borders) – an international healthcare NGO – in 2005 in Budgam found a large chunk of the population with amputated body parts, mostly hands and fingers.

“When we enquired about it, we found that a major population of the village is rag-pickers. Every morning, they go around for collecting metal scrap and often they lay their hands on shells, mistaking them as non-lethal metal pieces. They (villagers) try to crush the shells to extract cheap metals which explode and cause injuries,” a senior medico who was part of the MSF survey, wishing anonymity said.

The survey was carried out simultaneously in Budgam and Kupwara districts for gauging the effect of violence on the mental health of the people.

Human rights activists say the “accidents” due to abandoned explosives have witnessed an increase in the past 20 years. The activists believe, it is the “negligence” of army and police that leads to accidents.

“Normally these incidents follow the encounters between militants and the army. It so happens that after the encounter army evacuates without clearing the site of the explosives. And police does not bother to prohibit civilian movement in the area until the abandoned explosives are removed,” says human rights activist Khurram Pervaiz.

The army, however, claims to clear the encounter sites of all explosives. Defence spokesman Lt Col J S Brar, said, “The explosives we carry to the (encounter) site are used in the encounter.  When we leave there are actually no explosives left behind. We do take precautions.”

The army says that the abandoned explosives in incidents like Maloora are necessarily a property of militants or other agencies.

“How is it possible that the shell will remain undetected for six months? Clearly, the shell that caused the causalities at Maloora did not belong to the army,” says Brar, adding that the “accidents” in the far-off areas were a result of people treading closer to the army camps.

“These are places where there are no encounters. The accidents occur when people step closer to the accident-prone army controlled areas. But we do take all necessary precautions to avoid accidents,” he said.

Inspector General of police, Kashmir, Shiv Murari Sahai, said the police lacks a role in managing the abandoned explosives. “If it is an encounter, we ensure the place is cordoned off properly but the responsibility of managing the explosives is with the respective security agency,” Sahai said. “There are increasing instances of scrap dealers actually rushing to get the shells (after routine exercises) to collect and sell them.” It is in these situations that accidents take place. “Apart from mass awareness, I doubt we can do anything.”

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