Alberto Cairo, head of the ICRC’s physical rehabilitation programme in Afghanistan, in his office at the Ali Abad orthopaedic centre in Kabul

Amid transition in Afghanistan, ICRC’s orthopaedic centres continue to assist

Article 31 August 2021 Afghanistan

The scars of war can last a lifetime. For someone who has lost a limb because of an explosion or a bullet, a properly working prosthetic arm or leg greatly expands the person's capabilities. For children with congenital deformities or cerebral palsy, a lifetime of specialized care may be needed.

The head of ICRC's orthopaedic programme in Afghanistan, Alberto Cairo, continues to oversee the ICRC's seven orthopaedic centres during a time of change and transition in the country. The programme's largest centre, in Kabul, is open but is operating at reduced capacity.

If we leave, who stays? We are supposed to work in places at war.

Alberto Cairo, head of ICRC's orthopaedic programme in Afghanistan

"Patients are coming, and we are doing some jobs, all the services that cannot be postponed," Dr. Cairo said. "So, for instance, if a child is coming because he needs the plaster on his foot to be removed or renewed, you have to do it, you cannot wait. Young feet continue to grow."

The prosthetic legs that the ICRC provides people in need are sturdy and durable. But even these simple, efficient models may need repairs from time to time. Dr. Cairo said his team now, in an uncertain time and working with a reduced staff, are doing the best they can. "We repair a large number of devices and we make new ones when they can't be fixed anymore," he said.

The ICRC is mandated to treat victims of war no matter which side of the conflict they come from. During this period of change in Kabul, Dr. Cairo and his team are seeing patients from the Taliban. "They come and ask for services. Some we have known for many years, and some are new," Dr. Cairo said.

The ICRC's orthopaedic project started in 1988 in Kabul and has grown massively. About 210,000 physically disabled patients have been registered since then, of whom at least 150,000 per year receive treatment at one of the seven centres.

About one-quarter of the patients are amputees – mostly victims of mines and explosive remnants of war – while the rest include sufferers of polio, spinal injuries, congenital deformities, cerebral palsy and accident victims, among others. Most of them need treatment for many years, often for the rest of their lives.

On a recent August Sunday in Kabul, the orthopaedic centre saw about 300 patients, half of what it might see on a normal day. Dr. Cairo said he knows the patient load will increase in the coming weeks.

"The situation in Afghanistan is still volatile. The number of patients coming to our doors is reduced, but so too is our staffing. Both numbers will progressively rise in the near future, according to the situation," Dr. Cairo said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been in Afghanistan since 1987 and will continue to stay to help those in need. As Dr. Cairo recently told the BBC: "If we leave, who stays? We are supposed to work in places at war."

"I hope the international community is going to keep an eye on the country, because to feel abandoned is one of the most terrible feelings that one can have," Dr. Cairo said.