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Najmuddin, head of the ICRC orthopaedic centre in Kabul


Portrait of Najmuddin, head of the ICRC orthopaedic centre in Kabul. A mine took off his legs

" Don't worry, they're anti-tanks. You can step on them, " says a Field Officer. I hold my breath at the sight of a man who is herding sheep in the field extended from a dry-hill which was a battle field no more than 5 years ago. On the other side of the tarmac road are red tapes and red marks of a skull which continue for a few kilometers. " Tomoko, you know what these mean? " says Jose, a colleague sitting in a front seat, looking back and asking me in a cynical tone.

Pointing out a hole in a tarmac road ahead, a driver then mentions, " I was there when a shell hit the road. There was a bus stopped this side, and I rushed behind the bus. " In fact, survival stories are not something one can hear only from the driver. In a country like Afghanistan that has more than two decades of history of fighting, almost everybody recalls a survival experience of his own. Commonly-heard stories often relate to land mines - a legacy of fighting which neither move along with the front line nor cease after the gun falls.

For five years since the fighting ceased, Kabul remains as the world's most landmine/UXO contaminated city , continuously claiming some hundreds of casualties a year. In 2000, for instance, 735 out of 1,096 mine/UXO cases were reported in and around Kabul. Most of them were non- combatants, i.e., civilians including children.

Responding to the dire needs of assistance, the ICRC currently runs six orthopaedic centers throughout the country , providing free services including physical rehabilitation, physiotherapy, training of the loca l staff, home care, and job referral.

Handicapped staff  

The orthopaedic center in Kabul set up in 1988 has an annexed factory which produces prostheses, orthoses, crutches and wheelchairs serving 43,000 clients registered since the beginning of its operation. As one goes around the centre, what becomes obvious is the presence of the staff who are handicapped with artificial limbs and arms. The workers in the factory repeat their routines skilfully with the help of their artificial arms.

Najmuddin, the Head of the orthopaedic center, is also one of the thousands who fell victim to landmines. He lost his legs up to the knee when his car hit a, presumably, anti-tank landmine on the outskirts of the city 18 years ago. Referring to the ICRC employment policy that gives preference to those who are handicapped, he points out the advantages:

" First of all, the ICRC, by hiring handicapped, provides social and economic security to them who, otherwise, might not possibly support their families. Additionally, having gone through the same ordeal, they are far better able than anybody else to understand clients' physical and mental needs. Finally and foremost, their presence at work has a positive mental effect on clients who are being encouraged throughout the long rehabilitation phase . "

Typical mine injuries will not heal in a short time. Treatment can last as long as one lives and often requires long term rehabilitation. Artificial limbs, for example, require changes every few years, and for children of age up to 12, they might have to be changed every 3-6 months. The encouragement that Najmuddin mentions is probably essential if clients are to commit themselves to long term rehabilitation and treatment.

By saying so, however, those who are encouraged do not seem to be limited to the clients side. Najmuddin recalls how much he was excited when he was offered a job by the ICRC - the moment he was finally'needed'after he lost two legs to the landmine. " For 5 years after I was discharged from the hospital, I had stayed home doing nothing. So, I did not care about salary and conditions, " he says.

Having lain on a bed in the hospital for months, Najmuddi never thought for a single minute that he would stand up and walk again in his life. " So, whenever I see landmine survivors in despair brought in on a stretcher, I roll up my trousers and show them my two'legs', " he continues, " when such guys start walking once again, they bring us gifts, - Of course, I always refuse, " he grins. " The fact that they walk again is, indeed, a big gift for us. "

For 13 years, Najmuddin claims, he has never taken a single day off from the work. Admitting the job is demanding and always calling his attention, he sounds somewhat proud as saying, " When humanitarian needs require my help, that is what pushes me. "

Encouraging and being encouraged, even if some people in Afghanistan might have given up their legs and arms, yet have they never given up their hope. Keeping the spirit high and remaining devoted to the needy, a quite simple way of life, like the one Najmuddin discovered at the orthopaedic center, might be a salvation to the country where things seem to be stuck at all ends.

 Tomoko Niino, ICRC, Kabul, 24 June 2001