>KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Walking up a winding dirt path, the smell of rotting flesh hits me. Then I see it, face frozen, eyes black, its gaping belly full of maggots. The horse's head is connected to the remains of its body by a long strand of flesh. The leg that set off the buried bomb is gone. I notice some of its intestines splattered in the mud behind me. The U.S. patrol I'm with has stopped here to wait for an explosives team that's clearing another bomb just up the road. I stuff leaves up my nose to block the smell.
Story continues below photos
I'm told that a man was riding a horse-drawn cart home to Arghandab District, here in Kandahar Province, with his two children when the horse's weight triggered the bomb. He'd just bought the animal in Kandahar City.
Many of the main roads around the villages here are now being rigged with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), often called "roadside bombs," indiscriminately victimizing civilians. Explosions in the distance are almost constant -- some caused by IEDs or mines, others by rockets or controlled detonations by U.S. soldiers. On certain days, you can hear vicious firefights breaking out to the south.
Southwest of Kandahar City, in Panjwaii, the Canadians are having a rough time. There are just as many IEDs here, possibly more. But it's nothing new to the Canadian troops. Since being deployed in 2006 on their first combat mission since the Korean War, they have been the main allied military presence in Kandahar. Although their extended mission is winding down, and will finally end next year, the Canadians have relentlessly kept up the fight to secure Kandahar. IEDs have been a huge challenge for them. Some are massive, their designs often changing in ways that continue to surprise the Canadian engineers. The IED has come to symbolize this war in the way the stinger missile symbolized the mujahideen's fight against the Russians.
Flying into Zhari District with the U.S. 101st Combat Aviation Brigade Medevac Company, which goes by the Vietnam-era call sign DUSTOFF -- and whose job it is to go into the war's worst places, picking up wounded civilians and combatants from all sides. The dust is so heavy in the sky that it looks and feels like we're flying into oblivion. Now closing in, the Blackhawk dips, drops, and lands in a swirling cloud of dirt. Soldiers quickly emerge to deliver another gutted victim of the conflict. Here, too, IEDs are everywhere; they're responsible for the majority of casualties in Zhari. More and more IED victims are now civilians, including, horribly, many children.
One of the most disturbing days I've experienced here unfolds in Panjwaii. It's blistering hot. I join a group of Canadian soldiers researching the wells in the village. We walk in, we stroll out; everything's normal. As we near our vehicles, preparing to leave, there's a loud blast. A mushroom cloud has burst into the sky 150 meters north of our position. There is confusion. Are we under attack? Did an insurgent accidentally detonate an IED meant for us? It is unclear. The decision is made to leave the area and avoid getting drawn into a potential ambush.
Suddenly, a group of men are spotted running toward us with an eight-year-old boy carried on one man's back. The boy is soaked in his own blood -- another IED. His situation is grave. He is screaming and bleeding heavily from his ear as well as his upper arm; his intestines are exposed; and he has numerous shrapnel wounds in his abdomen and neck. The soldiers immediately begin first aid, calling in the DUSTOFF medevac team. Though the boy is in critical condition on arrival, the medics manage to save his life. In the armored vehicle on the way back to base, however, I can only wonder about the future, and worry about how Afghans in remote areas such as Panjwaii will be able to cope with situations like this after NATO forces are gone.
The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Alexia Foundation.
Louie Palu is a photojournalist who has been covering the war in Afghanistan since 2006. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and The Economist, as well as in numerous collections.