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The Cairo Chronicles : bits of life in Kabul

05-11-2007 Feature

Alberto Cairo is head of the ICRC's programmes for the war disabled in Afghanistan. Over the past 18 years he has met many ordinary people with extraordinary stories. Extracts from his diary.

The Cairo Chronicles





Kabul, capital of Afghanistan - a place synonymous with war, ruin, despair... but as in all catastrophic situations, there is another side: that of resilience, determination, selflessness, and hope.

Alberto Cairo, a 52-year-old orthopaedic specialist from Turin in Italy, is in charge of the ICRC's programme for war disabled, which since 1988 has helped some 80,000 people. He has written about some of them in a personal journal.

Originally published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, these sketches of everyday life have been brought together in " Storie da Kabul " , published by EinaudiPresse Universitaire de France in April 2003. This book was also published in French by in November 2007. Read also the feature about Alberto Cairo.  




Each of our rehabilitation centres has dormitories for people who come from far away. They’re not palaces: bunk beds to save space, little metal closets and unbreakable plastic cups, spittoons placed in strategic positions (indispensable). But the centres are warm and clean and serve three meals a day. When the treatment is finished and the prosthesis has been received, it’s immediate discharge to make room for new patients, of which there’s no shortage.

Hamidà should have gone back to her village several weeks ago but she’s still with us. She’s four years old, and has polio, and has to come back every three months for a check-up. As she grows the crutches and splints she uses for walking have to be regularly adjusted or replaced. Hats off to her father, who brought her to us when she was tiny – it’s easier to prevent deformity and get good results when you start in time. It’s a great blessing to have attentive parents.

But this time it’s a cousin who has brought her. Because Hamidà has no one else any more, apart from her little sister, a burns victim, who is in hospital. Her grandmother is with her. The cousin says Hamidà doesn’t know anything about this yet, but Zarminà, the physiotherapist, is sure she has guessed. She’s very quick, and she was deeply attached to her daddy, a corpul ent man with very light-coloured eyes and pitch-black beard and hair, dyed, like many people’s here.

Every time, he kept asking us to speed up the little girl’s treatment. We laughed with him: “You don’t want to give us time to see the regrowth? She’ll stay here until your beard has turned totally white”, we threatened.

He was from the province of Khost, on the Pakistan border. Many of the Taliban came from there. He was a farmer. The bombs falling on his village, looking for suspects, made no distinctions. Hamidà’s family had all come together for dinner. Seven of them died. The house was set on fire. Hamidà was visiting an uncle, that’s how she was saved.

Today her grandmother has come. She’s slightly bent over as she walks, with a wrinkled face and blue eyes. Her son’s eyes. Gently stroking my bearded chin with her hand, she thanks us for having kept Hamidà for a few extra days for her. She says a peasant has offered them hospitality until Hamidà’s little sister is discharged from the hospital. Then they’ll go back to the village. And then Hamidà will find out everything. We tell the cousin to bring her back to us regularly for her check-ups. He promises he will.

Off they go, weighed down with sorrow. Seeing Kabul so changed, full of foreigners and nice cars, you delude yourself that everything is all right. Then you meet Hamidà and you wake up. You understand how easy it is to forget other people’s troubles, especially if they’re far away. And a war is never very quick about coming to an end.

 Alberto Cairo  

War and memories



10 a.m. The women’s physiotherapy unit is full of mothers and children. Simà, the head prosthesist, comes up to me. Today she has two of her children with her. They’ve grown. She wants to know about the war in Iraq.

“The bombings are continuing”, I answer. “Even on the cities?” she asks. She shakes her head. Zarminà, the physiotherapist, come up. She has no children, but war took one of her legs, her parents and her sister. She knows what it’s like. I tell them what the radio and TV are reporting.

Now I’m surrounded by women. With their burqa half lifted, they ask what has happened and where. Some know what’s going on. Afghan houses nearly always have a radio. They are relieved to know that the war isn’t close by. America is a well-known name. A distant place, and rich: that’s where dollars come from. A powerful world, with extraordinary weapons. The Mujahedeen’s sub-machine guns are nothing by comparison.

They know that Iraq is an Arab country that fought against Iran for a long time. “It’s in Arabistan”, says a student. No one asks why there is a war on, but whether there’s food, whether the hospitals have medicines, whether people have large families and who helps the widows. “Can they escape to the countryside?” “It’s all desert”, replies the know-all student.

The women’s thoughts turn to the days of the civil war, when bombs were falling on Kabul and no place was safe. They waited anxiously for people who had gone out to buy food or get water to return. If they stopped shooting for a day, you immediately began to hope it was all over. But each time they started up again. “War, war… It’s always the poor who pay” comments one mother.

Kabir, the principal of our school for disabled children arrives. He’s more knowledgeable about it. He used to be a teacher of contemporary history, he has studied and lived in Russia. A golden era, he always says. He speaks with assurance of dictatorships, rights violated, weapons and oil. The conflict will have major repercussions throughout the world. Less so in Afghanistan: the people have suffered so much, wounds are recent, they’re not so interested in other people’s wars. At least as long as foreign aid is arriving and the international peace forces remain.

“In Iraq have they mud houses like ours?” asks one woman. “They’re in cement,” says the student, “luxury houses”. “The American weapons can reach anywhere. Like they did with the Taliban,” says Kabir. The whole of Kabul used to shake – memories are still very vivid.

On Thursday, the staff and various patients in the orthopaedic centre asked me how people in Europe were reacting to the war. “Those who don’t agree are going out into the street and protesting.”

“What can we do here?”

“We can pray,” I suggested suddenly, even though I’m not very good in that department.

 Alberto Cairo  

False papers



Rafiq dreams of a good job. He’s a lad who’s always kept himself busy. Since becoming head of the household at 16, on the death of his father, he has been a porter, a bricklayer’s apprentice, a baker’s assistant, a pedlar and a mender of bicycles.

When a mine took his leg, he learned carpet-making. A wholesaler supplies him with the wool and pays for the labour, by the square metre. Rafiq’s mother, sisters and younger brothers work with him. This is what they live on.

They must be good, because they have almost never been without work, even when the market was in crisis. But because of the competition they have to work terrible hours, from morning to night, and with never a day off. And making carpets you can’t save enough for a house and a wife, and you’ve no time to go to school.

That’s why for some time now Rafiq has been asking us for a job, a regular wage. A month ago, at long last, a job came up, as a substitute, for just three weeks, in the laundry. Rafiq accepts eagerly. He does the work of two, washing and ironing, he’s never still.

One morning he introduces a round, bearded gentleman to me, a relative. I tell him we are pleased with Rafiq, that he’s a good worker. When the job as a substitute is over, Rafiq takes his leave smiling, thanking us over and over as if we had somehow done him a huge favour.

The day before yesterday the round, bearded gentleman comes back. “What, isn’t Rafiq still with you?” he asks. He says we cheated him. For shame! He glowers at us. We call Rafiq, who laughs happily. “He’s my future father-in-law. For three years he’s kept me on tenterhooks: he won’t give his daughter to someone who only knows how to make carpets.

" An amputee isn’t a good match. Unless I have a proper job, no engagement. Oh no? I led him to believe the job with you was a permanent one. Now we’ve already had the engagement ceremony with the mullah and the guests. It’s done!” and he laughs and laughs.

For a while there’s no talk of weddings, but Rafiq waits patiently. I ask if the girl is willing. He swears she is, they’ve known one another since they were children. He adds that, when he found out the truth, the father-in-law was so furious he nearly had a heart attack. He went on and on about it, convinced that the entire orthopoedic centre was involved in the plot to cheat him, with me as the ringleader: “for cripples, that foreigner would forge false papers!” he’s supposed to have said. A fine compliment – I like it. Now, though, to restore the peace, we really do need a steady job. But there aren’t any.

Today an unexpected solution turns up. From the mountain troops, who are looking for staff for cleaning and maintenance work at the Bagram barracks. They will accept people with disabilities - ten for now, and then we’ll see. Rafiq is among those taken on. The wages are good. He’s worked it out, and in ten months he’ll be able to get married. Enough time for his future father-in-law to cool off.

 Alberto Cairo  

Traffic and medicinal herbs



The traffic in Kabul has grown out of all proportion. You used to be able to cross the centre in a few minutes. Now it can even take an hour. There are thousands of cars, too many for the streets, which are too narrow. Some routes have been closed because there are military buildings on them. Then there’s the lack of discipline. The police gesticulate frantically and blow their whistles, but hardly anyone takes any notice. Now they’re resigned, and they turn a blind eye to all kinds of offences.

The most daring are the cyclists, who are convinced the rules of the road are not meant for them. They go down streets the wrong way and cross anywhere. Driving along I observe their acrobatics. I often see Omar. I hold my breath. He zigzags quickly and surely between dilapidated taxis and luxury cars.

With no hands.

He lost them in a street accident some years ago. One arm is missing from the armpit, the other from below the elbow. We gave him a hook prosthesis that he opens and closes by moving his shoulders. That’s what he holds the handlebars with.

Today, on the carrier, hanging onto a patched bag, is his small son, looking calmly around him. They must have been to the wholesale market. Many amputees won’t wear a hook – it’s too ugly, even though it has a hundred and one different uses, and you can even write with it. They prefer a plastic hand: you can’t move it but it looks less sinister. Choices.

For Omar, who couldn’t even blow his nose or pull on his trousers, the hook has given him back some autonomy. And confidence. For someone who has lived for a long time on help and charity (without arms, what can you do?), it has meant he can work again. He’s an expert herbalist, and a small loan from us helped him start up again.

Now his two-roomed house is filled with the smell of decoctions, herbs and dried flowers, and there are mortars and pestles and sieves everywhere. He supplies a number of pharmacies – there’s a demand for natural remedies. My cook will take nothing else.

Once he persuaded me. A mixture of seeds, roots and pods of heaven knows what. It was a sore throat – I thought I was going to die. Amid his reproaches, “If you don’t have faith in them, they won’t work!”. My fault.

Omar has received three loans so far. He makes his repayments punctually. The last was for retailing antibiotics, which sell like hot cakes here. He delivers them himself to the little pharmacies, on his bike. His eldest son is 15. “Why doesn’t he deliver them?” we asked. “They drive like lunatics, haven’t you seen them? It’s too risky. And anyway, he has to go to school.”

My car comes up close to him now. He stops dead: a moment’s surprise, then a big smile, while the child holds out his hand to me. And I realise that for him cycling entails yet another difficulty. He can’t use the brakes. He does everything with his feet. We need to design a brake worked by pedals, now that we have funded him to do dangerous work.

 Alberto Cairo  

Demanding cooks and boss



We have just started a new cookery course for people with disabilities. The instructor is Fatàh Jan, my cook. The latest pupil is Bilal, aged 26, who has one leg paralysed from the knee down from a projectile, when he was a boy. The course should have lasted six months, but there wasn’t enough time so Fatàh Jan had to cut it down to three. With the arrival of the foreign organizations the demand for cooks has increased. Can’t let the opportunity slip – especially if the request comes from the BBC, the radio everyone listens to – a much coveted job.

I remember the final revision session the week before the interview. My kitchen looked like a restaurant: new recipes, dishes all prepared, quantities never before seen. Master and pupil wanted me to try everything. If I said it tasted good, everything had to stop. Didn’t I like it? They were incredulous, they got angry. Then Bilal spent the night studying English. I don’t know how many times I had told him to do that, but he had never listened to me.

The day of the test arrives. Bilal comes recommended, certainly, but he is still only a beginner. However, they tell me he was quite self-assured and that his En glish is actually pretty good. Afghan miracles. Now that he’s been taken on, he spends every morning closeted in great secrecy with Fatàh Jan, getting suggestions for the day’s menu. Then bit by bit he gains experience. He makes his own decisions and comes to ask for advice only when there are a lot of guests, or if it’s an important meal.

Today he tells us he has cooked for twenty people. “Pizza.” I look reproachfully at Fatàh Jan who never makes that for me. " Chicken pizza " , he adds proudly. Oh. " How was the chicken cooked? " I ask. " On the spit. Served whole, placed on top”, and with his arms and his whole body he imitates the position. Three cheers for the BBC and the English, fine hearty eaters.

But there are other foreigners who are a good deal more demanding. A few days ago I had dinner with some embassy officials. “It’s so hard to get good staff”, complained the blonde hostess, brusque and irritable. I look at the maid, a Hazara woman who has probably been on her feet since four in the morning to attend to who knows how many children, get everything done and arrive on time.

The blonde says something to her in an English so pure and fast that even I find it hard to understand. She gets up crossly, making a grimace. The Hazara woman gives a quick, apologetic smile. I see that she is full of goodwill: when I reply to her, in Dari, that I do take sugar in my tea, she stirs it carefully. But the foreign lady is not happy: the shirts always have creases and the curtains are badly hung.

“The problem is, she’s not in the least methodical”, she concludes. Raising her eyes to heaven, with a sigh.

 Alberto Cairo  

Afraid of being forgotten



 Only about ten days, and already almost no one in Kabul is talking about Iraq any more. If they do, sometimes sympathy shows through, for those who are defending themselves and making life hard for the powerful coalition. The fact that it’s a dictatorship seems to count for little: to the poor, who are always forced to obey, every government is despotic.

They have plenty of experience of that here. What you can sense very clearly is that Afghans are afraid of being forgotten. The only important thing about Afghanistan is its geographical position as a link between East and West. No other wealth, no oil.

“If we’re abandoned, we’ll stay a third-world country”, comments Kabir, the principal of our school for children with disabilities. “With all the attention focused on new conflicts, the aid promised won’t arrive, there’ll be no reconstruction and there’ll be more power in the hands of the local lords. Things will be worse and worse for us.”

He complains that so far he’s seen no sign of real change. Take health, for example. And he points to his friend Ayub, the one who was convinced that everything was going to be fine in Afghanistan very soon and was happy to have g ot back his job in the ministry, which he’d lost under the Taliban. Two weeks ago, Ayub came to the orthopaedic centre to get a new leg. “I haven’t much time for physiotherapy and tests. My wife’s going to have a baby very soon and I need to be with her. Can you be quick?” But a short time later he disappears.

Today he’s come back to apologise. He tells us they’ve taken her into the maternity hospital. That everything there is so dirty that patients bring their own sheets and pillow cases and food from home. He’s been going back and forth, and doing the rounds of the relatives to get a loan.

In Afghanistan, woe betide you if you get sick. In a health system which officially provides for free hospitalization and treatment, Ayub pays everyone from the porter to the stretcher-bearer, from the nurses to the doctor. “We have to operate”, they tell him suddenly. He buys gauze, anaesthetic, suture threads and disinfectant. After a few minutes in the operating theatre, the nurse announces that the baby has been born with no problem at all, no Caesarean, a miracle. Naturally, he won’t be getting back the money he paid in advance, or the surgical equipment.

“A tried and tested scam, that works”, comments Ayub. “Never mind about the money, I’ll sell the TV set. Mother and baby are fine, and that’s what matters.” We give him a present of rice, flour and tiny clothes for newborns, which we got from the Italian soldiers. The bootees, which are beautiful – crocheted pink, blue and yellow ones – don’t match, but Ayub doesn’t mind. Much moved, he says his will be the most elegant baby in the whole of Kabul – “titanic”, which means at the height of fashion. He thanks us and goes off with the old prosthesis under his arm.

“It’s going to take him a year to pay off his debts. It’ll always be like this, and even worse if the world forgets about us”, concludes Kabir, shaking his head. That’s what I’m afraid of mysel f too.

 Alberto Cairo  



It's 8 a.m. The physiotherapists are anxious. So am I - about Zarín, who has a work interview today, including an exam. For a real job. And the competition is fierce.

Zarín is special to us. She was ten when she lost her leg, from a mine. When she arrived she was afraid of everything. Mines tear apart body and spirit. Hard to forget, and for a child, impossible. She's lucky to have good parents, who help her and encourage her. With the prosthesis, she learns to walk. She goes back to school, where she comes first in the class.

Then, with the Taliban, the schools are closed to little girls and she has to stay at home. Sadness all round. School is not just for learning to read and do sums: it's a meeting place. A journalist promises she will bring her abroad and help her study. But no matter what she tries, she can't get the visas. Huge disappointment. Zarín asks us for help. It's not allowed, but how can we say no? So we try. Terri, an Italian friend with a big heart and lots of common sense, takes on the cost. We send a teacher to her house every day - someone we can trust, who won't talk.

Every six months Zarín comes to us for the exam. She's doing the writtens in the physiotherapy unit when the religious p olice arrive. " What are you writing? " Rohafzà, the head physiotherapist, replies promptly: " She's copying medical records. " These lads can't read anyhow. Zarín is good at all subjects, especially English, which she learns at once - so well that she goes to teach in the houses of other girls like herself, with a disability. Her father brings her to work on his bicycle, the poor man's taxi. She is still without a burqa. In the street, the religious police threaten them with a baton: " Why is your face uncovered? " " I'm amputated, the burqa gets in the way. " Her air of sweetness softens them. They even offer her a lift. " No thank you " - relieved they didn't beat them.

She moves on to computer lessons. These are harder to go to in secret, but she manages. So far so good. Now she's learning this too. Zarín has grown. She is 17 now; she wears a burqa, to feel more protected. The Taliban have gone, and new opportunities are opening up to women. At the Red Cross they're looking for someone for the database on prisoners of war - there are thousands of them, and they need to be entered into the computer. We know that Zarín can do it. Last week she handed in her application. She wrote that she was 18, embroidering slightly. And now she's there for the exam. Fingers crossed.

1 p.m. Out of breath from pedalling, Zarín's father arrives: " They're going to take her, they're going to take her! She starts on Saturday! " He's sobbing, from joy. In spite of the mines, in spite of those who made them, those who sold them and those who planted them. In spite of those who barred her from school, who wanted her ignorant and shut up at home. She will have an occupation, she will support her family. And there's more: this means that competitions are open to women, that others like her can try too.

During the Taliban regime, encouraged by Za rín's results, we helped other girls to study. In secret. We do it, but we don't say so. But Zarín was the first. And that she should be the first to find work gives us immense pleasure. " We'll celebrate, after Ramadan " , her father promises. We call the office of the Red Cross that has taken her on to thank them. They reply, precise and chilly, that they took her on because she was the best: " We're not into favouritism " . " Oh, terribly sorry. " I tell her father, who puffs up like a peacock, with shining eyes. And straight away I tell the physiotherapists.

 Alberto Cairo