KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghans who scratch out a living by removing some of the country's countless land mines have long had to contend with rugged terrain, accidental explosions and the threat of kidnapping — but these days they face the added risk of being laid off.
A financial crisis in recent years has forced the country to cut back on efforts to remove explosives left over from decades of conflict — buried bombs that kill and maim dozens of people every month and render precious farming and grazing land unusable.
Wali Mohammad, a 32-year-old de-miner, spends long hours roaming the mountains south of Kabul, looking for mines left over from the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Like other de-miners, he wears a protective helmet and visor as well as gloves to protect his hands from snakes and scorpions.
The painstaking work pays $300 a month, barely enough to support his wife and eight children, who live as refugees in neighboring Pakistan. "Whenever I go home I ask for (my family's) forgiveness, because it is a dangerous job and anything can happen at any time," he said.
At least 90 de-miners have been killed and more than 120 wounded since 2010, according to government figures. Another 720 have been kidnapped, though all but seven were later freed through military operations or tribal negotiations.
A far bigger threat, for many, is another round of layoffs. Some 5,000 de-miners have been let go since 2014, when the U.S. and NATO formally concluded their combat mission and switched to a support and counterterrorism role.
The HALO Trust Organization, which has been carrying out mine-clearing efforts since 1988, has had to lay off 1,000 de-miners, and now employs just 2,400 Afghans.
Over the same three years, the Taliban have widened their reach and an Islamic State affiliate has risen in the east. Aid agencies have been forced to scale back operations, and funding has dried up as they scramble to address crises in other parts of the world.
The government has set the ambitious goal of clearing all the country's known minefields by 2023, but that looks increasingly unattainable, especially since armed groups are actively planting new roadside bombs.
The shortage of funding and manpower will have a "huge impact" on the government's ability to reach its target, said Wais Ahmad Barmak, the state minister for disaster management and humanitarian affairs, which oversees mine removal.
Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, with millions of people living within 500 meters (yards) of a minefield, according to Farid Ahmad Homayoun, HALO's Afghanistan country director.
Around 140 people, mostly women and children, are killed or wounded by land mines or roadside bombs every month, according to the government.
Gul Hassan, a 25-year-old de-miner, says he had to accept the difficult job to support his four children. He is still haunted by an accident a year ago, when a blast tore off his co-worker's hands. But he takes pride in his work, which allows impoverished communities to reclaim much-needed land.
"When any of my countrymen can live freely and without fear it makes me proud," he said.