Magazine article The Spectator

The Devil's Toys

Magazine article The Spectator

The Devil's Toys

Article excerpt

IN front of me as I write is a dud butterfly bomb. It is just over four inches wide and two deep, made of plastic and shaped like a wing-nut - or a butterfly - and its purpose was to blow the hands off Afghan children.

I was given this horrible object in Herat, in the north-west of Afghanistan. It is losing its colour now, having been bright green when new. They were produced in green, blue, red and yellow because they would be more attractive for children to pick up and thus have their hands blown off. This was usually only up to the wrist, but sometimes further, especially if the child was delicate or very small. One wing of the bomb is about half an inch thick and was filled with explosive. The other side is flat, and in the middle is a cylinder that contained the detonator. When dropped from aircraft in their thousands, they twirled on their axes down to earth and landed upright, whereupon the detonator was made active. It had what is called a trembler fuse that would cause it to explode half a second or so after it was picked up. Note the delay. There had to be time for the bomb to be fully grasped, otherwise there was no point in dropping it in the fields and watercourses close to villages. If it could explode at a touch, a child might lose only a few fingers. (Sometimes they lost feet.) No: it had to be seized in a tiny hand for the explosive to act in the way that was intended.

Horrible, you will agree. There must be a word to describe the warped minds that thought up this particular little wheeze, and for those who produced them, and for the evil men who cast them about the countryside, but I can't think of one bad enough. The designer (he? she?) has moved on now, and is probably inventing clockwork POP-UP toasters or something equally useful, while those who produced them and dropped them are no doubt equally gainfully occupied. I trust they do not sleep at night, but likely they do, well enough. In the meantime, some of the children they mutilated continue to exist, after a fashion, for so long as their families support them. But most of the crippled female children are allowed or encouraged to die.

There would be a bang, you see, in a field, and a screaming child would hold up a bright-red, streaming, pumping stump. The women would rush to the infant and shout for the men to try to stop the blood, and in natural womanly fashion they would offer comfort. The mother and grandmothers, sisters and aunts would be beside themselves with grief because they knew that although a maimed male child would be useless to the family, a one-handed female child was worse than that: she would be a burden, for in later life she could not carry water or firewood or be a useful slave before marriage - and who would marry such as she?

And so, if possible, the men would allow the child to die at once. Many girls did those who were not saved by the shrieks of the womenfolk, shaming the men into stanching the spouting blood. Later, after the men worked their malevolent machismo, the mother might agree that a helpless, unproductive female child would be better dead, and she was usually made so, by smothering as she lay asleep between man and woman on the floor, or in the bed of the mother, still held by her. And the man padded across the hard-packed earth in the room in which the other children caught their breath in the still of early morning, closing eyes and ears as he held his scarf over mouth and nose and took the corpse of his child from the house for silent burial among some far-off rocks. …

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