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Afghanistan: mine victims tell their story

23-11-2007 Feature

In Afghanistan, even if there was not a single new mine accident, tens of thousands of mine victims will require healthcare and assistance for the rest of their lives. Not only do they need physical rehabilitation, they need to be able to reintegrate into society. This requires vocational training and employment opportunities. Here, four mine victims who have been helped in different ways by the ICRC or the Afghan Red Crescent Society tell their stories.

Najmuddin Helal

 Najmuddin Helal  


 Najmuddin, age 43, is the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) orthopaedic centre in Kabul – by far the biggest ICRC physical rehabilitation facility in the world.  

  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/AF-E-0080    
  Najmuddin treating a fellow amputee at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Kabul    
    " I was 18 years old when I lost both my legs. I was driving my car across a dried-up riverbed in the eastern part of Kabul… that's all I remember; I don't remember the explosion or what happened after that. I can only assume that I had driven over an anti-vehicle mine. I woke up several days later in hospital, and slowly realised that the lower part of my body felt strangely light.

When I realised my legs were gone, I felt completely hopeless and afraid – afraid of disappointing my family, of not being able to help or support them, of depending on them for everything, of being an outcast… I am my parents'eldest son out of nine children, so I knew they had big expectations. It was as if the tree they had planted to bear fruit had been cut down. But thankfully, they were very caring and understanding.

I was in hospital for 12 months. It took five months before I could even sit up in bed. Afterwards I stayed at home for five long years, just sitting on a chair by the front door of our house, doing nothing. This was a very difficult time. I wasn't able to get any kind of work. People felt sorry for me, treated me as a victim, and didn't really encourage me to get back on my feet.

In 1988, I heard about the newly-opened ICRC orthopaedic centre in Kabul. I went there, and was registered as the 34th patient. I stayed in one of the centre's dormitories. Within a few months I had received new prostheses and was slowly, painfully, learning to walk with them. At last I had a glimmer of hope that my life would begin to improve.

The orthopaedic centre had – and still has – a policy of positive discrimination in favour of disabled people, so everyone working there has some kind of physical disability. Before long, I was employed as a physiotherapist, helping people in a similar situation to myself. Hiring disabled people makes sense since they understand the particular problems and needs, and can help to give hope to the patients here.

Sometimes I still feel that what happened to me was very unfair. I wasn't a fighter, I didn't have any enemies. I still have a burning sensation in the stumps of my legs, and sometimes a sharp phantom pain in my foot that isn't actually there. Sometimes I feel sad that I will never be able to run, never feel water on my legs.

But really I can't complain. Of course, the economic situation in the country is catastrophic and many able-bodied people can't get work, never mind those who are disabled. So in many ways I feel lucky, not only to be able to support my family but also to give hope to even a few people who suffered the same fate as me.

In 2004, I carried the Olympic flame in Cairo, representing landmine victims worldwide. This was a very proud moment for me. A lot of progress has been made in recent years towards ending the landmine era – both in Afghanistan and around the world. But there is still a long way to go. Even if there are no new mine accidents, there is so much work to do looking after all the people who have already been affected. "

Rohafza Naderi

 Rohafza Naderi  


 Rohafza, age 30, is a physiotherapist supervisor at the ICRC orthopaedic centre in Kabul.  


  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/af-e-00781    
  Rohafza with a young patient at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Kabul    
    " I can remember the day of my accident clearly. I was ten years old at the time. I arrived at school very early, around 7am, the first child there. The school was next to my house, in Kabul. As I approached the school gate, I remember the explosion. I didn't know what had happened, didn't understand that I had stepped on a mine. I didn't even feel any pain.

I remember the head teacher and other teachers come running towards me. They went to my house and fetched my mother and sister, who took me to the hospital.

I looked at my right leg, and it was intact except for the big toe. But it was black, with bones protruding and there was lots of blood. I was in a state of shock, but completely calm, comforting my mother who was crying.

There was no general anaesthetic, only local, and I can still see the doctor cutting off my leg with a saw. Then I passed out, and was in a coma for nine days.

I had many other injuries too – on my groin, around my hips, back, on one hand and on my head. I spent seven months lying on my back, unable even to move from side to side. I became very thin and weak, and I felt very afraid. My mother and my aunt stayed with me at night and comforted me.I spent almost one year in hospital, then several more months at home recovering. Eventually I went back to school. At that time, I didn't have a prosthesis; I managed just using crutches.

I was the only amputee at my school. Many of the children were unkind to me, making fun of me and pushing me, even making me fall over. One day I was crying so hard, I didn't want to go to school. My father was very kind. He went to talk to my teachers and made sure that the teasing stopped. Eventually the children accepted the way I was and left me in peace.

I was a very good student and passed my exams. I went to medical university and studied for almost three years, before the war became too intense and I had to stop in 1994.

By this time, I already had a prosthesis from the ICRC orthopaedic centre and was receiving regular physiotherapy. In 1994, I was offered a job as physiotherapist myself. I love my work. It is so rewarding to help those who most need help, to see someone who was wheeled into the centre be able to walk out by themselves.

In Afghanistan, women face many challenges in life. Disabled women have a particularly difficult time, especially those who don't have a profession. For one thing, it becomes very difficult to find a good husband. Sometimes they might get taken as a second wife by a n old man. Those who are already married often get mistreated or neglected while their husband takes another wife.

I consider myself quite lucky. I'm not married, but I have a supportive family and I have my work. This gives me a lot of satisfaction. "

Mashal Mohamad

 Nine-year-old Mashal attends the ICRC orthopaedic centre in Kabul for physiotherapy, three years after losing his right leg in a mine accident. His mother, Zia, talks on his behalf.  


  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/af-e-00785    
Mashal with his mother, Zia 

" Mashal was only six years old when he lost his leg. We had fled to Kunduz province because of the fighting, and had just returned home to Kabul. Mashal was playing near the well in our compound when there was an explosion. I saw it happen. Mashal screamed once, and then was quiet. His right leg was completely blown off.

We were all in a state of shock. We got Mashal to the hospital and he was there for a couple of months. He also had severe injuries to his abdomen and hand. On top of that, he got appendicitis and needed surgery.

The accident changed Mashal. He is still disturbed. Sometimes he has terrible temper tantrums, and at other times, he doesn't speak at all. It is very stressful.

Three months after leaving the hospital Mashal received his first prosthesis from the ICRC orthopaedic centre. At first, it was very difficult for him to learn to walk. Since then he has had three pro stheses and he now manages to move around quite easily. He has even learned to ride a bicycle.

Mashal goes to school and he is a very eager student. He is very intelligent, more so than any of his six brothers and sisters. He complains though that the school is too far away, and he gets a pain in his leg walking all that distance.

I often feel frustrated that I can't offer Mashal what he wants, such as a bicycle or even new clothes. I have six other children to provide for. My husband works as a cleaner in the parliament. Our financial situation is very difficult.

My biggest wish is for Mashal to be able to finish his education, not to be illiterate and not to end up working as a cleaner. He wants to be a doctor.

I'm still afraid of landmines. Of course none of us will ever be able to forget what happened to Mashal, and there will also be fear of the same thing happening to someone else in the family. This will affect our lives forever. "

Musa Khan

 Musa Khan  


 Musa Khan, age 54, works for the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society as a mine risk educator in Kandahar, in the south of the country.  


  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/af-e-00784    
Musa Khan, mine risk educator in Kandahar  
    " I used to be a logistics expert in the national army, but my accident was completely unrelated to military life. In fact, I was tending my sheep and goats in a field when I stepped on a landmine. That was almost 15 years ago.

When the explosion happened, I didn't feel anything – even though my right leg was gone. After some time, people came to help me and drove me to the clinic in Kandahar, but the treatment there was not good. Eventually I was taken to an ICRC hospital in Quetta (Pakistan).

My left leg was also badly injured. I was desperate that I wouldn't lose that leg too, but gangrene set in and after 15 days it was amputated. I was devastated.

I was extremely worried about how I would look after my family. I had three children at the time, and I didn't know how I would manage to feed them and provide for them.

I got out of hospital after 51 days and tried to get around in a wheelchair, but it was very difficult. Eventually I got artificial legs and slowly but surely learned to walk again.

We survived those early days with the help of family and friends who supported us, and even collected money on our behalf. I also started teaching children Pashto language in my home, and the local primary school paid me a small salary for this. I didn't want charity and didn't want people to feel sorry for me. It was very important for me to try to do things for myself.

A few years ago, I approached the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society in Kandahar to ask if any jobs were available. To my delight they offered me a job as a mine risk educator. Obviously I'm well qualified to do such a job. Normally a team of us go to various villages in the province, and teach in schools or mosques, sometimes in hospitals or clinics.

It's great to be able to pass on what I know about the danger of landmines and how to try to avoid them. Hopefully through my own misfortune I can at least help other people, and prevent more people falling victim to mines. "