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Afghanistan: mine victims want jobs, not pity - Najmuddin’s story

26-11-2009 Feature

Born in 1966 in Panjshir, Afghanistan, Najmuddin was educated in Panjshir and Kabul. At 18, he lost his legs to a landmine. For the following five years he struggled to find a job, without success, leaving him confined to his home. In 1988, he obtained artificial legs – and a job – from the rehabilitation centre of the ICRC in Kabul. He trained as a physiotherapist and in 1995 became director of the rehabilitation centre. Together with the ICRC, he is promoting the social reintegration of the people with disabilities in Afghanistan.

Najmuddin with a patient in the ICRC rehabilitation centre in Kabul. 
  See also the video : A new life for Afghanistan's amputees   

My name is Najmuddin Helal.

I am one of the thousands of Afghans who have lost their legs to landmines. I was 18 when the accident happened. It was a miracle I did not die. I confess that, at that time, I would not have minded if I had.

I spent six months in hospital, then I went home. I bought a pair of legs from a prosthetic workshop – the only one in Kabul at that time. One was 3 cm shorter than the other, but at least I could stand and walk a few steps.

I felt destroyed, physically and psychologically.

My constant question was “And now what?” I was the eldest son; I knew that my father had great expectations of me. “And now what? And now what?”

So that I wouldn't have to stay inside the house, my father bought for me a wooden chair, quite an expensive one. (In Afghanistan, at home, we mainly sit on cushions and carpets on the floor). I placed the chair in front of the house and sat there, looking at people, cars, life. The life that I was excluded from. Soon the neighbours were so used to seeing me sitting there that I became a kind of landmark. They’d talk about “the street where the cripple sits,” with pity in their voices.

“And now what?” My life couldn’t end like that.

I asked my father to help me to find a job, any job, even without a salary. I didn’t want to sit on that chair any longer. But everywhere the answer was negative. Nobody seemed to believe it possible that someone like me could even think of asking for a job.

Five long black years passed that way. Although it was the only bridge connecting me to th e world, I hated that chair.

Then, one day, I heard that a new prosthetics workshop had opened in Kabul, run by a Swiss organization called International Committee of the Red Crass, the ICRC. I went there.

What immediately surprised me there was that I did not feel pitied.

I got a pair of legs. It took some time to learn to walk, but I managed. Then I tried my chances: I asked for a job. The answer was “Why not? We’ll see.” Unbelievable! They didn’t say no!

Even more unbelievable was the fact that, after a few weeks, they did call me, inviting me to become a physiotherapy assistant.

It was not easy. I had to learn the job from scratch and face the rivalry of some of the non-disabled employees, unhappy to have a colleague like me. But I kept going, trying to improve and not to disappoint those who had given me the chance of a job.

With a lot of effort and some luck, things went well and I was promoted.

But something was missing.

Although I was convinced that disabled people have every right to rebuild their lives, I considered myself a kind of exception.

Then one day I met a man called Mahmood, and everything changed.

Mahmood had been in two landmine accidents and had lost both legs and one arm. With three small children to feed, he was a beggar.

We met him in 1994, on a terrible day. It was civil war in Kabul at that time, with daily rocketing and street fighting. We invited him to come and get a pair of artificial legs. He came. It took him several weeks to learn to walk.

Almost a year later, he came back. He told us: “You have helped me to walk; thanks. Now please help me not to be a beggar any more. I feel ashamed in front of my children, they are growing.” Then he said something I will never forget for the rest of my life: “I know that I am a wreck of a man but, if you help me, l am ready to do any job, even if I have to crawl in the dirt.”

What kind of job could I offer someone with no legs, only one arm and illiterate? Full of pity for him, I told him “We’ll see,” but I was convinced it was impossible.

By chance, there was a vacancy in the carpentry workshop, where we manufacture feet for prostheses. A simple job, gluing and screwing the soles of the feet. But I was not sure he could do it. “He’ll be disappointed, better not to try, he’s too badly disabled,” I thought. But in the end, after some adaptation of the workshop, we decided to give him a month’s trial ...

After one month, Mahmood was the fastest worker in the workshop.

Now I know that my “rehabilitation” was only completed that day, thanks to Mahmood. From him I learned that nobody is a “wreck of a man,” everybody has the right to a chance to rebuild their life. I was not the exception. I learned that prejudices and lack of self confidence are more dangerous than the disability itself.

But ... there is a but. Do not let my story, of Mahmood and the good work of the ICRC and other organizations, make you believe that the problems of disabled people in Afghanistan have been solved. Far from it!

While there has been some success in the field of physical rehabilitation, a huge amount of work remains to be done in the field of social reintegration.

Afghanistan has taken some important legislative steps. For instance, the new constitution mentions and protects people with disabilities, and in 2008 the Disability Law was finally been approved – note that I say approved, not implemented! But providing assistance for people like me is left to the goodwill of NGOs and other organizations. So far, assistanc e has remained an act of charity, not a right.

We need the support and intervention of the international community to make sure that our rights are clearly expressed and implemented by law, detailed and precise law.

This is the only way. Otherwise, most of Afghan people with disabilities will carry on sitting somewhere, excluded from the life to which they are fully entitled.

I forgot to tell you about the chair my father bought me. I burnt it when I got the job. I never told him.