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“Now that you are disabled, your life is finished!”

04-04-2006 Feature

Being disabled in Afghanistan, a ruined country in the grip of perpetual warfare, is a cruel fate. Many people afflicted in this way despair and end up a burden on their families. But with the ICRC's help, others are finding their way in the world. Here are the stories of nine people who have been aided by an ICRC microcredit programme to get their lives started again.

Introduction

Since the ICRC's first limb-fitting and rehabilitation centre opened in Kabul in 1988, five others have been set up in Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Jalalabad, Gulbahar and Faizabad. In 17 years of work, almost 69,000 disabled people have been registered by the organization and received physical rehabilitation. Over 55,000 artificial limbs, 60,000 braces, 105,000 crutches and 10,000 wheelchairs have been produced over the years at ICRC centres in Afghanistan.

 
 
  Read the overview of activities.  

But rehabilitation is only the first step down the long road to securing a place in society. In 1997 the ICRC initiated a range of new programmes aimed at reintegrating disabled people into the mainstream. They featured:

  • material aid to help children get an education, including courses at home for children who can't go to school (almost 1,500 participants so far)

  • helping young people find job training and keeping tabs on them throughout the process (over 1,100 beneficiaries so far)

  • helping adults find a job (nearly 1,000 disabled adults have found jobs in this way, in addition to the 500 employees of the limb-fitting centres, all themselves disabled)

  • microcredits to help individuals to start their own business.

The microcredit programme lies at the heart of the reintegration programme. Almost 4,600 people have already received these loans. To get a microcredit, a disabled person must present both a project and a budget for it. The programme's staff assess its feasibility, evaluate the budget and talk with the candidate to gauge his or her motivation.

If the project is judged viable, the ICRC does not actually dispense cash to the beneficiary but rather purchases the items required by the budget. The beneficiary then reimburses the ICRC, interest free, over a period of months, depending on the project and the budget.

Even if not all projects succeed, this is the most effective way to help disabled people once again become productive members of Afghan society. Recipients of microcredits are able to live independently of their families and of institutions of all sorts, which helps them gain confidence and once again feel like autonomous human beings.



Mohammed Yasin

 Mohammed Yasin    

© ICRC 
 
 
     

Mohammed Yasin lives in Abul Waleed, a dry and dusty neighbourhood of the western Afghan city of Herat. He is 38, married, and father of four children. Before coming here with his family a decade ago, he faced a long series of ordeals.

Mohammed was 14 when the Soviet Union invaded his country. His family fled Herat and found refuge in Iran, 100 kilometres to the west. A few months later, he joined the mujaheddin and went back to Afghanistan to fight. " For four years I lived far from my family, " he says. " I spent that time in Abul Waleed, which was usually un der mujaheddin control. But whenever the Russians captured the neighborhood, we fled up into the mountains to hide and prepare to retake it. "

On their way to an operation against the Soviets in 1985, Mohammed and his comrades were riding in a truck that struck an anti-tank mine. He lost both legs and spent years in hospitals in Iran, Pakistan and Greece. In 1998, now married and father of three children, he returned to Herat, moved into a house and opened a small store. It was, he says, the first time that they had really been able to live all together.

In Herat, Mohammed turned to the ICRC for new artificial legs, since the original ones were wearing out. In 2001, he applied for a microcredit to restock his store. Before, he had purchased his stock on credit from wholesalers and paid them back once he had sold the items concerned. The interest was so high that he earned very little money. " Since I have been renewing my stock through ICRC loans, my profit has quadrupled, " he says. " We live simply but we're able to get by. Without this loan, I wouldn't be able to make it. "



Haseena Jan

 Haseena Jan    

© ICRC 
 
 
     

At five years of age, polio left Haseena Jan with total paralysis in one leg and partial paralysis in her hands. After 12 years of schooling she married in 1987 and had three children. In 1992, with her home caught up in the midst of the fighting that was ravaging Kabul, the family fled to Pakistan, where Haseena worked as a cleaning woman.

Haseena returned to Kabul in 2002 following the fall of the Taliban. With the help of an Afghan organizat ion she trained as a seamstress. She applied for the course because, she says, " even if I didn't manage to make a living at it, at least I could make clothes for my family. " When the course ended she received a sewing machine and the other things she needed to begin work. But she didn't earn enough at it to buy cloth, and had to stop after only three months.

She approached the ICRC's limb-fitting centre for work and there she was offered a microcredit to help her succeed as a seamstress. " The ICRC granted 350 dollars with which it bought me a second machine and other items. They paid the cost of renting and renovating a small store. But I no longer buy material – it costs too much. " Instead, her customers purchase the material and she does the sewing according to patterns taken from catalogues. This time her business is going well, and with a growing clientele Haseena is able to support her family.

A year ago Haseena agreed to give seamstress training to other disabled women recommended by the centre. She trained two girls last year and has two others working with her this year. Both are polio victims like her. She treats them with the understanding and patience that only a fellow sufferer can show.



Said Jamshid

 Said Jamshid    

© ICRC 
 
 
     

Said Jamshid is a 16-year-old who has been living in Kabul for the past three years after his family returned from Pakistan, where he had always lived as a refugee. His legs have been paralysed since the age of six months.

" Until I was 10, I had nothing to do, " he says. " I just stayed at home. Then I began working with my father. " Along with his brothers he learned to carve stone. They sold their carvings to tourist stores in Islamabad and enjoyed a good living.

Eventually, Said's father took him to Kabul for treatment at the ICRC centre there. He underwent an operation, received braces and was placed on a waiting list for rehabilitation. In the meantime they returned to Pakistan. But just before the programme was to begin, the Taliban took power. " I didn't have a beard, " says his father. " And it was forbidden not to have a beard in Kabul at that time. " Unable to follow the rehabilitation programme and still growing, Said outgrew his braces and, by the time the family was finally able to return to Kabul three years ago, it was too late for him ever to walk on his own.

Eight months ago the ICRC purchased 400 dollars worth of tools and stones to restart the family business. The prices they get for their carvings are less than what they earned in Pakistan, but it's enough to live on. They have already paid back half of the sum .

" I enjoy carving, " says Said. " It's tiring, but I enjoy it. The best thing, though, is that a teacher is coming to our house every day to teach me to read! " In addition to the microcredit, Said has been enrolled in an ICRC schooling programme for disabled children. " Because I couldn't walk, I was never able to go to school. I saw all the other kids going off to school, but I couldn't. Maybe someday I'll go to university and become a doctor. "



Abdul Samad

 Abdul Samad    

© ICRC 
 
 
     

Forty-year-old Abdul Samad lives on the outskirts of Herat with his wife and nine children. " A tenth is on its way, " he says with broad smile. " My religion teaches that the more children you have, the better. And I want to be a good Muslim. "

Abdul runs a small grocery shop in his house, the house he grew up in. When he was a child, the house was part of a wheat mill. " I worked with my father at the mill until I was 20 years old, when the war came and we had to flee to Iran, " he says. Over the years the milling mechanism fell into such disrepair that it had to be abandoned, though Abdul regularly returned to Herat to check the house. During one of his visits he was picked up by an Afghan army patrol and conscripted into military service. " It was like prison. For three months my family had no idea where I was. Then they were able to come and visit me, but I couldn't go anywhere. "

Abdul was a soldier for four years until one windy day he was walking along with an armoured column. " The air was filled with dust churned up by the tanks and I became disoriented and fell under the tracks. They mangled my legs. " After six months in a Kabul hospital, he was discharged from the army and returned with his family to Herat. He received a pension for a few months, but that ended when the mujaheddin took power in 1992.

Abdul and his son started a brick-making business. " With my legs practically paralysed, the work was too hard for me, " he says. " I always wanted to be a shopkeeper, but you first have to buy the merchandise, and nobody wanted to lend me the money. So I went on making bricks for another 13 years! "

In October 2005 Abdul heard a radio programme about the ICRC's limb-fitting and rehabilitation centre and its microcredit programme. " I went there the very next day. For 13 years nobody had been prepared to lend me a thing, but within a few days the ICRC approved my plan and I was able to make my dream come true. "



Ainullah

 Ainullah    

© ICRC 
 
 
     

Ainullah works as a tailor in a modest Kabul neighbourhood. When he beams at you and talks about his job and his four children, it's difficult to imagine the ordeals he has faced in his 33 years.

When he was 10, the men in his family joined the ranks of the mujaheddin. Persecuted by the police, the rest of the family sought refuge in Pakistan. " In Pakistan I had to go straight to work on a construction site to help my family, " he r emembers.

When the mujaheddin took Kabul a decade later, the family returned to find their house had been destroyed. Life was hard and Ainullah had to comb the hillsides for firewood. That is when he stepped on a mine. His leg had to be amputated. While he was in the hospital the war in Kabul started up again and the family once more fled the capital, this time for Jalalabad to the east.

Living in a camp for displaced people, Ainullah was chose by the Afghan Red Crescent Society for training as a tailor, at the end of which he received a sewing machine and other items he needed to make his living. He loved the work.

When he was able to return to Kabul four years later, Ainullah opened a shop. He applied for and received a microcredit for a second sewing machine and other equipment. He decided to teach tailoring to disabled apprentices selected by the ICRC centre. " Getting the chance to learn this skill was a terrific stroke of good luck for me, " he explains. " It's the least I can do to help others in the same way. "



Said Akbar

 Said Akbar    

© ICRC 
 
 
     

In his mid-forties, Said Akbar lives with his wife and six children on the outskirts of Kabul. He has a tiny shoe-repair stall.

Ten years ago Said made his living as a mechanic. " One day I was working on my back under a car in a nearby village, " he recalls. " Suddenly rockets started coming in. The Taliban were attacking the place. One landed just beside the car. After the explosion had passed, I could see that one of my legs was gone, a nd the other was badly torn up. " Doctors tried for 45 days to save Said's remaining leg, but finally had to amputate it. There was not enough left of either leg for the ICRC centre to be able to fit Said with artificial limbs.

For four years Said stayed at home, jobless, his family growing poorer with every passing day. Desperate, he decided that he might make a living mending shoes. He bought the minimum equipment and sat ready to receive customers on the roadside.

For two years his family barely survived on the earnings. Then he heard about the microcredit programme and applied for a loan, which enabled him to set up a small stall with some tools, worth a total of 50 dollars. " As soon as I had a stall, I started getting more customers, " relates Said. " I was able to by what my son needed to become a street vendor. Since then the whole family has been living much better. "

Said paid back the first loan and since then has taken out two more, totalling 300 dollars. Business is much better these days. His son has set up a small grocery shop with the latest microcredit. Life is good. " My dream now is to build a house and pay for the wedding of my eldest son. "



Anar Gul

 Anar Gul    

© ICRC 
 
 
     

Ahmad Shah Baba Mena is the last of the string of villages, along the foot of the mountains to the east, that mark the fringe of greater Kabul. Anar Gul lives there with his wife and six children.

Anar, now 47, spent his childhood on the fertile Bagram plain to the north of the city. His father was an farmworker. When Anar was 17, he went to Kabul to complete his secondary education. Three years later the army offered him a chance to enroll in the milit ary academy. After graduation, he went to work at the ministry of defence, where he stayed for 14 years.

In late 1995, when the Taliban first began attacking Kabul, Anar was sent out across the battle lines with a team of 10 men to do repairs on a communications station. " We were having a hard time driving the truck through the snow, " he remembers. " Suddenly there was an explosion. The next thing I knew I was waking up in the hospital. " They had hit an anti-tank mine. With wounds to his spine, Anar had paralysis in both legs. Five of his colleagues had been killed.

For a year he waited in vain for a pension from the defence ministry. Then he heard about the ICRC microcredit programme and, with an initial loan of 25 dollars, opened a small shop where he sold biscuits, candy and chewing gum for children. He has since received six further loans, renting another, larger and better-placed store, and increasing his array of merchandise with each new credit.

But these are tough times for Anar. Prices in Kabul have risen so sharply that people aren't buying as they once did. Still, he's optimistic. " My youngest son will finish school in three years. If I can make it until then, I'll be OK. "



Rashid Ahmad

 Rashid Ahmad    

© ICRC 
 
 
     

Rashid Ahmad is 26 and has always lived in Qala-i-Fatullah, a neighbourhood of central Kabul. He was married eight years ago and is father of two young children. Like so many young Afghans, he started working very young, while still at school. " I worked at my cousin's ironworks, " he says. " He had built most of the equipment himself. One day 10 years ago a machine I was operating exploded between my feet. " Rashid lost one leg and spent three months in hospital. One day, the man in the next bed turned to him and said, " Now that you are disabled, your life is finished. "

" I was sure he was right, " says Rashid. " I really thought that it was all over. But a nephew came to see me. He had lost a leg too, and he told me about the ICRC limb-fitting centre where he had received a prosthesis and was now working. He told me that if I got an artificial leg, I could live and work normally. That gave me hope. "

Rashid went to the centre and was fitted with an artificial leg. He then found work with a grocer, and later making carpets in Pakistan. He saved enough money to set up his own ironworks. But the frequent power cuts in Kabul made it impossible for him to work enough to make a living.

Nine months ago Rashid was at the ICRC centre having his prosthesis repaired when he heard about the microcredit programme. He immediately applied for the purchase of a generator. This was approved and now he can work without interruption. " Business is good, " he says. " And my younger brothers work with me. When they're older and know more about the business, we'll expand the shop. "



Hayatullah

 Hayatullah    

© ICRC 
 
 
     

His father long dead, Hayatullah has been working since his teens and has done more than anyone to support his family over the decades. At 40 he has just become engaged and hopes soon to have the money he will need for the wedding. In Afghanistan it is traditionally the family of the groom that pays for the wedding, but Hayatullah knows that his family won't have the necessary funds.

They were farmers on the south side of Kabul, in one of the area's most fertile spots. " Everyone here used to do farm work, " he remembers. " But when the war came to Kabul in 1992, the irrigation system was diverted and almost everyone had to find another way to make a living. Only the rich could afford to sink wells or have tankers bring water onto their land. "

Hayatullah became a truck driver. And while cycling home from work one evening 11 years ago, his bike hit a mine. Both his legs had to be amputated and he also sustained serious abdominal wounds. It took him years to recuperate.

Finally, with the help of artificial legs supplied by the ICRC centre, Hayatullah began working again as a street vendor in 2001. After two years of toil he asked the ICRC for a loan to open a small shop in his neighbourhood. It was an instant success. " I like this work and I'm my own boss, " he says. " I'm going to expand the business. Then I'll be able to concentrate on the most important thing – getting married. "