NZDF urged to front on Afghanistan children's deaths

The AM Show 18/11/2019

One of the journalists who revealed the deaths of seven Afghan children near a former New Zealand firing range says it should be the Defence Force (NZDF)  fronting for interviews, not himself.

Eugene Bingham and colleagues at Stuff Circuit on Sunday reported seven kids died in 2014 after an unexploded ordnance they found near their village exploded.

The device was found on a firing range New Zealand forces had left behind in 2013.

"Could you imagine if this was Waiouru? They wouldn't have left it unfenced," Bingham told The AM Show on Monday.

"They wouldn't have left it unmarked... If this was Waiouru, if this was anywhere where there's a firing range in New Zealand, there would be an uproar."

The NZDF says it cleaned up the range to the standard required at the time.

"We are under an obligation to make sure that any territory we are responsible for or control, when we leave that we make sure there are no explosive remnants left behind," University of Waikato international law expert Alexander Gillespie told Newshub.

"If it was just [a] rudimentary [clean-up], then it wouldn't have been good enough. But if it was to a good practise - only the military will know the answer to that - then it may be excusable. It may have been an unforeseeable risk." 

The standard was lifted a few months later, and Bingham said it's their responsibility to make sure it's totally clear.

"This wasn't a war. This was a humanitarian mission... Surely New Zealand as a Government, as a country, has got responsibility to clean up these ranges."

Because all seven children in the vicinity of the device were killed when it blew up, Bingham says no one knows exactly what happened.

"One of them picked up a device and brought it back to the village, down to a potato field right next to the village and they were playing with it. Something's happened - maybe one of them dropped it.

Eugene Bingham. Photo credit: The AM Show

"What often happens is one of the children will have something, another child recognises it's dangerous, say 'it's dangerous' and they'll drop it. It's at that point - 'bang'. We don't know exactly."

Both the NZDF and Minister of Defence Ron Mark have suggested it wasn't a New Zealand ordnance that caused the fatal explosion.

"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," a spokesperson told Newshub on Sunday.

The NZDF also says it cleaned up messes left behind by US and Russian forces, who'd used the range before they did. 

"Afghanistan and many other nations are littered with explosive remnants of war from many decades of conflict," Mark told NZME.

Bingham said his team first heard about the 2014 incident when they were in Afghanistan investigating the NZDF's involvement in a battle in which two Kiwi soldiers died. Bingham said they asked the NZDF if there were more incidents involving New Zealand forces, and were told no.

"Why aren't they sitting here today? Not me... They've never fronted for an interview with us."

The AM Show / Newshub reporters Dan Satherley & Lydia Lewis