Dispatch - In Southern Afghanistan, a center for the war-maimed

In Southern Afghanistan, a center for the war-maimed - © Campbell, Monica

In Southern Afghanistan, a center for the war-maimed - © Campbell, Monica

Third Dispatch by Monica Campbell, a San Francisco-based freelance journalist. This article is part of a series by Ms. Campbell, who reports from Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.

On a recent weekday afternoon in this capital city in southern Afghanistan, Rafiullah, a husky 22-year-old farmer, gripped two metal bars and slowly lifted himself from his wheelchair. Minus two legs, he was learning to rely on his new creme-colored prosthetic prosthetics to walk. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead as he tried to walk. His brother slowly wheeled his chair behind him in case of fatigue. 

“That’s enough,” Rafiullah said after three steps. 

Resting and looking worried, Rafiullah observed another patient in the room: a thin man in this forties, dressed in a black tunic and turban tested out his new right leg. At first, the man moved cautiously back and forth across the room, but soon his stride relaxed. He smiled at a physical therapist looking on and said, “I can do this!”

As Rafiullah watched, his frustrations washed away.  “I never thought I’d stand again,” he said. “And now I see this man walking before me. Maybe I’ll be able to leave my house and help my family’s farm again one day.”

Rafiullah lost his leg last year, when the wheat crops his family tends in southern Afghanistan were ready to sow. At the time, the Taliban had made fresh inroads in his village, convincing the Afghan army to step up their presence and set up a new post on the dirt road bordering the family’s crops. To avoid any chance that the soldiers would confuse Rafiullah or his fellow farmers in the fields for enemies, Rafiullah and his cousin walked over to the soldiers’ post to introduce themselves. We are not Taliban, Rafiullah informed the soldiers. We are farmers, unarmed, and will be out in these fields soon, he said. 

Then, Rafiullah and his cousin began walking back home. But their return route was slightly different, a bit closer to the road’s edge this time. Rafiullah said he doesn’t remember the roadside bomb exploding under his legs. He does remember seeing his cousin bleeding from a lost hand and eye.

After, the Afghan soldiers took Rafiullah to a hospital in nearby Kandahar province. He was then sent here, to be fitted with new limbs at a new ICRC prosthetic and orthotic center in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital.The facility, which opened in 2010, is the seventh of its kind run by the ICRC in Afghanistan.

Overseeing the center in Lashkar Gah is Esmatullah Qazizada, a 30-year-old doctor from Kabul with short, whispy black hair. Daily, Qazizada and his staff register other victims of mines, along with children and adults with cerebral palsy and polio. Besides artificial limbs, the center also provides braces and other forms of walking aids, along wheelchairs and physiotherapy. 

Qazizada pointed out that many of the people who arrive here are male farmers injured by mines. He explained that there are fewer women because they leave their homes less often in this especially conservative part of Afghanistan. When women do lose limbs, it’s typically because they were in a car struck by a mine. 

Qazizada also knows his patients’ struggles well. He was eleven years old when he lost one of his legs to a landmine that struck the jeep he was in as his family traveled over a mountainous road near Kabul. As he got older and saw more Afghans maimed like him, Qazizada’s passion for medicine took root. “I felt like the more I struggled as an amputee, the more determined I became to become a server of my people,” he said. 

He wears his artificial limb so naturally that it only became apparent when he lifts his physician’s white slacks to reveal his prosthetic leg. “You should see how excited people get when I show them that I’m disabled, too,” Qazizada said, speaking English. “The stigma against disabled people here can be enormous. Some people think that if they’re missing a limb, they’re confined to a wheelchair with nothing to do.” 

The parents of disabled children must also be persuaded to not let their kids just sit at home. “I tell them that their kids can still go to school,” Qazizada said. “I tell them that education makes disability less of a problem. It’s our edge.”

It’s also nothing new here that Qazizada has an artificial limb. Nearly the entire staff at the prosthetic center, like those working at the seven other ICRC-run prosthetic centers in Afghanistan, are also disabled. Cleaners, orthopaedic technicians, landscapers and security guards—many wear artificial arms and legs. One carpenter, nearly blind, handily employed a range of tools, including a hammer, to adjust and refit prosthetics for patients. 

This year, the ICRC has assisted closeto 1,000patients seeking treatment at one of the seven its orthopedic centers in the country. “As we see a degradation of the human situation here, we are adding more resources,” said Marcus Geisser, head of the sub-delegation for the ICRC in southern Afghanistan.

For Qazizada, the doctor, the value of the center is to show patients that there is a path toward moving independently. “They see people here physically moving forward and continuing their lives,” said Qazizada. “They see that they are not alone in their trauma.” 

Monica Campbell was commissioned by Intercross to report from Afghanistan. Her work has appeared in The Christian Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, Public Radio International's The World and Newsweek. From 2009 to 2010, she was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

More reporting by Ms. Campbell, ex-Kandahar: