Birds dip between low branches that hang over glittering brooks along the drive from Jalalabad heading south toward the Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Then, the landscape changes, as lush fields give way to barren land.
Up ahead, Achin is located among a rise of rocky mountains that line the border with Pakistan, a region pounded by American bombs since the beginning of the war.
Laborers line the roadside, dusted with the white talc they have carried down from the mountains. A gritty wind stings their chapped cheeks as they load the heavy trucks beside them. In these parts of Achin, nothing else moves in the bleached landscape. For years, locals say this harsh terrain has been haunted by a deadly, hidden hazard: chemical contamination.
In April 2017, the U.S. military dropped the most powerful conventional bomb ever used in combat here — the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, known unofficially as the “mother of all bombs,” or MOAB.
Before the airstrike, Qudrat Wali and other residents of Asad Khel followed as Afghan soldiers and U.S. special forces were evacuated from the area. Eight months after the massive explosion, they were finally allowed to return to their homes. It was soon after, Wali says, that many of the residents began to notice strange ailments and skin rashes.
“All the people living in Asad Khel village became ill after that bomb was dropped,” says Wali, a 27-year-old farmer, pulling up the leg of his shalwar kameez to show me the red bumps stretched across his calves. “I have it all over my body.” He says he got the skin disease from contamination left by the MOAB.
When Wali and his neighbors returned to their village, they found that their land did not produce crops like it had before. It was devastated, he says, by the bomb’s blast radius that reached as far as the settlement of Shaddle Bazar, over a mile and a half away. “We would get 150 kilograms of wheat from my land before, but now we cannot get half of that,” he says. “We came back because our homes and livelihoods are here, but this land is not safe. The plants are sick and so are we.”
Yet the bomb residue plaguing the village is but one example of the war’s toxic environmental legacy. For two decades, Afghans raised children, went to work and gave birth next to America’s vast military bases and burn pits, and the long-term effects of this exposure remain unclear. Dealing with the consequences of the war’s contamination will take generations. [Continue reading…]