Blast from NZ firing range ammunition kills Afghan children

3:57 pm on 17 November 2019

Seven children died in an explosion caused by a device left behind on a New Zealand Defence Force firing range in Afghanistan.

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This man who headed a local council told the documentary makers he complained to the United Nations about ordnance that injured two men in his village. Photo: Supplied / Stuff Circuit

A Stuff Circuit investigation has revealed 17 civilians were either killed or injured in connection with unexploded ordnance left on New Zealand's firing ranges.

New Zealand withdrew from Afghanistan in 2013, and a NZDF spokesperson told the Stuff Circuit documentary Life and Limb, its firing ranges were cleared as per the rules of the time.

The following year, seven children, aged between 5 and 12, died in an explosion near the Beersheba Range.

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This woman says in the documentary she lost two sons in the blast that killed five other children. Photo: Supplied / Stuff Circuit

Their families say the area is commonly used by children, and have urged New Zealand to clean it up.

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The man on the right told reporter Paula Penfold his cousin was missing after the blast and feared dead - he was found three days later hiding in a cave. Photo: Supplied / Stuff Circuit

Last year, 39 sq km of former ranges were deemed dangerous, and the United Nations says New Zealand is responsible for making those safe.

Listen to investigation co-author Paula Penfold's interview with Jim Mora on today's edition of Sunday Morning:

Journalist Paula Penfold told Sunday Morning in the 2014 case which killed the children, it's more likely that the device a child took home came from ground New Zealand was using, rather than the Americans or Russians.

She said Russian forces operated in the area a long time ago and the Americans used some of those ranges for very short time.

"I would reference I guess what the United Nations Mine Action Service says, which is that while there is a mathematical possibility that the ordnance was the responsibility of somebody else - say the Soviets or Afghan forces - there's that mathematical possibility, but is it a reasonable likelihood? The UN says no, it is not."

She said another child was also present in the April 2014 incident and it looked as if he was protected by the bodies of the other children. He escaped and was found three days later, hiding in a cave.

Ms Penfold said while she was in Afghanistan she went with a local de-mining agency representative to the firing ranges used by NZDF. She was told that 18 million square metres of land needs to be cleared - to date only 297,000 sq m has been cleared - which equates to less than 2 percent of land that is deemed dangerous.

"So while the NZDF might say that there has been a clearance done, it is certainly not adequate and even in that small portion of land that has been cleared the UN says it's been cleared to a military standard they would describe it as, but not to a humanitarian standard. It remains dangerous."

She said that although New Zealand was in Afghanistan through an international initiative, it's responsible for the cleanup.

"Is it the UN's responsibility? Well they are responsible for talking with governments - they are an intergovernmental agency and they are in negotiations and talks with various governments about this kind of work but no, it is not their responsibility to pay for it.

"They say it is the responsibility of foreign armies who are there when they leave to clean up their mess.

"The feeling in the village is that because they have to live and work and gather firewood adjacent to these firing ranges they want them cleaned up as soon as possible."

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These mothers tend the graves of their children who died in an explosion in the Beersheba Range in Afghanistan. Photo: Supplied / Stuff Circuit

She said the Defence Force refused to be interviewed for the documentary although they supplied a statement which did not answer all the Stuff Circuit investigation team's questions.

Eugene Bingham, who helped produce Life and Limb, said the discovery of the fatalities and injuries was shocking.

"To learn that these firing ranges that New Zealand was using are associated with, according to the United Nations, the deaths and injuries of 17 civilians is a big deal and its's something New Zealand needs to deal with and decide: are we going to clean them up; are we going to deal with this and also what are we going to do about the victims of these explosions."

The Defence Force has set aside $10 million for the work, and is in talks with the Afghan government.

Meanwhile, Nicky Hager, the author of a book that looks into possible civilian deaths in a New Zealand defence mission in Afghanistan, said he's not surprised about the news.

"Of course the New Zealand Defence Force didn't mean to hurt children, of course it was an accident, a somewhat careless accident.

"...the important thing is when these things go wrong, the Defence Force knew there had been problems on these ranges and there had been people hurt, they don't do anything about it and they cover it up and so it's that systemic unwillingness to admit when something goes wrong and to make it better," he said.

"What happened when the Defence Force was in Afghanistan is that they gave New Zealanders hundreds of stories they wrote themselves about all the good things they were doing, but whenever anything went wrong they had exactly the same response, which was to hide it, deny it, and hope that the news would never catch up with them - which is not what you expect from your military."

NZDF says it takes ordnance responsibilites seriously

In a statement, the Defence Force said it takes its responsibilities to ensure all areas in Afghanistan used by New Zealand forces are free of unexploded ordnance very seriously.

It said the range linked to the deaths of seven children in 2014 was cleared the year before by a contractor and was assessed as being free from landmines and explosive remnants of war.

But it said after the Defence Force deployments finished in 2013, a new standard for range clearance was adopted and it's been working with agencies to ensure all the firing ranges it used are cleared to that standard.

It said the unfortunate history of conflict in Afghanistan is such that the level of unexploded ordnance contamination across the country makes it extremely difficult to definitively link unexploded ordnance incidents with particular weapons used by a variety of nations over many years.

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