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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bombs That Look Like Balls

ReutersSappers putting undetonated mines into a pit for destruction.
KHOST, Tajikistan -- Every spring, meltwater dislodges bomblets in the mountains and sends them down steep gullies toward inhabited areas.

That is how Salim Saimuddinov, 10, who was born after Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war ended, became one of its victims.

A green-eyed boy wearing ripped tracksuit bottoms and an old denim jacket, he lives in a small village in the Pamir Mountains of eastern Tajikistan.

Two years ago, he went out with his brother Narzikul to collect firewood, a necessity in a village where the electricity rarely works. It was Narzikul who spotted the bomblet and, thinking it was a ball, picked it up and threw it.

Nozim Kalandarov / Reuters
A sapper watching the mines being blown up.
"Suddenly something exploded. My leg and face were covered in blood," Salim said, looking frightened as he recalled the ordeal. "My brother brought me home and then we went to the hospital."

Shrapnel hit his right eye while his leg was pummeled by 160 small metal balls from the unexploded, Russian-made ShOAB-0.5 bomblet, part of what is known as the RBK series of anti-personnel cluster bombs.

These bombs have been found in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Uganda and are still used by the military in countries including Cuba, India, Syria and Ukraine, according to data compiled by Human Rights Watch.

Anti-personnel mine use may have declined after high-profile campaigns, but the process of clearing them is costly, and needs to go on for years after the guns fall silent.

"I was very scared," Salim said as his eyes filled with tears. "I do not want this to happen to me or anybody else again."

Tajikistan's civil war, which pitched a Moscow-backed secular government against a coalition of Islamists and others, killed 150,000 people. The country has been gradually recovering ever since.

The United Nations Development Program's Tajikistan Mine Action Center says 10,000 mines and unexploded ordnance are scattered over 25 million square meters of Tajikistan, a country that is 90 percent mountains.

Nozim Kalandarov / Reuters
Sappers using detectors to search for undetonated ammunition in Rasht.
Cluster bombs explode to scatter bomblets over a wide area, each one effectively becoming a land mine that will often remain deadly for decades.

A peculiarity of the ShOAB bomblets that wounded Salim is that the devices, 6 centimeters in diameter, often roll downhill, and, like other cluster bombs, they often arouse the curiosity of children.

"We need more deminers, we need more detectors," said Andy Smith, chief technical adviser of the Tajikistan mine center. "We do not have enough funding. The bombs will be near the land and the houses soon."

Nozim Kalandarov / Reuters
A land mine victim putting on a prosthetic leg at a hospital in Dushanbe.
There have been 300 confirmed deaths and about the same number of injuries recorded from mines in Tajikistan since 1992, many of them women and children, and there are presumed to be many more unreported deaths and maimings.

Two more people join the list of casualties every month, and there has been no downward trend.

Smith said funds for land mine clearance often flow to hot spots like neighboring Afghanistan, while more peaceful countries like Tajikistan are often overlooked.

"It will take a hundred years if this level of financing remains," he said.

Salim, whose local school teaches only Tajik and math, said his wounds made him want to learn medicine.

"I would like to become a doctor who treats eyes, to help others and to cure my own eye," Salim said.

Nozim Kalandarov / Reuters
Zafar Khamidov defusing a mine in Rasht, 185 kilometers east of Dushanbe.