Broken Hearts, Lost Minds and Missing Limbs
In Afghanistan, the Frontline Is Everywhere
Jan 3 2013
Photos by Farzana Wahidy
Amputees take a break from exercise at the International Committee of the Red Cross Orthopedic Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2012.
e stand by the bed of Mohamad Doad in the paraplegic ward of Kabul’s International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Orthopedic Center.
Aziz Ahmad, my Afghan colleague, translates Mohamad’s grievances.
“He says he hates American soldiers,” Aziz tells me.
“Why does he hate the US?” I ask. “He’s a policeman. The US trained him to fight the Taliban.”
“He says he saw three families killed by coalition forces. If he gets better, he says he will kill American forces himself.”
“But he’s willing to speak with me?”
“So he can remember your face, he says, and kill you when he is well.”
Eleven-year-old Mariam, who lost a leg after stepping on a landmine, rests after physical therapy.
Mohamad, who is 23 but looks no older than 14, was shot by the Taliban last spring. Across the hall is an examination and exercise room where recent amputees learn to operate their new prosthetic limbs. Most of these patients have lost a hand or leg to land mines or rocket-propelled grenades – some of them as long ago as the 1979 Russian invasion, others in the more recent fighting between American troops and the Taliban.
I wedge my pen between the pages of my notepad and consider Mohamad. I am an American reporter. Aziz and I have worked together in Afghanistan since 2004. On this trip, I am reporting on the consequences of more than 30 years of war by spending time with a handful of its victims.
I arrived in early July and stayed through August. I had hoped to come earlier, but Aziz warned me in an email that, at the time, I would not be safe. In January, just six months before my arrival, a video surfaced showing US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. A month later, US troops burned dozens of copies of the Koran, sparking days of deadly riots across the country and attacks on American forces. Then, in March, a US soldier was charged with shooting to death 16 civilians after entering their homes in Kandahar province. US officials apologised for the incident, but their remorse failed to quell protests and attacks that killed at least 30 people, including six US soldiers. And in the weeks before I arrived, the Pentagon reported increasing numbers of American-trained Afghan police recruits turning their guns on US soldiers.
“This is not a good time for you to visit,” Aziz had said when he picked me up at Kabul International Airport. “Everyone is very angry with America.”
Mohamad is subdued in his hospital bed, and his brown, unblemished face seems almost waxen beneath the pale glow of the iridescent lights hanging above from loose ceiling wires. His wide blue eyes seem to consider me more with curiosity than hatred, but his words say otherwise. Plastic leg braces with Velcro straps clamp his legs straight, legs so thin it makes me wonder whether he was already suffering from polio before his incident. Soiled Mickey Mouse socks donated by some humanitarian group and much too big for his feet droop over his toes.
Most of the patients in the paraplegic ward are paralysed from the waist down. A few, like Mohamad, can walk short distances but only with the aid of leg braces and heavy iron walking frames. The centre does not have the staff to feed patients and help them use the toilet and bathe and dress themselves. A friend or relative must fill in; otherwise the patient will be discharged. Which is why Mohamad’s cousin is here, standing behind the young victim’s walking frame and offering him a glass of juice.
The Taliban ambushed Mohamad’s car outside Kandahar in May. One of his duties as a police officer had been destroying opium poppies, which are sold to help fuel the insurgency. Mohamad was shot in the back; the bullet exited the left side of his chest. He collapsed against his car, unable to move. Another policeman found him ten minutes later and drove him to the US military base in Kandahar, from which he was helicoptered to Kabul Army Hospital. He was treated there for five days. On the sixth day, he was transferred to the Orthopedic Center.
“Remind him Americans saved his life,” I tell Aziz. “What does he think of that?”
“He says it is not about his life but about Western armies being in his country.”
“Why did he become a policeman?”
“Because he needed a job. He liked it, but then he was shot.”
Aziz tells me that, as a policeman, Mohamad earned about $33 each month. His commander has not called or visited him since the attack. The other patients stare at us while Aziz translates. They lie on brown plastic mats too large for the metal bed frames underneath, twitching in the July heat. An unrelenting cyclone of flies swarms above their heads. I listen to the sound their skin makes as it peels away from the plastic mats, and I smell the raw funk of their bodies when they roll over and their sheets fall away. Several have gaping bedsores the color of spoiled avocados along their thighs and buttocks. They look as if they have been mauled.
“Oh, Jesus,” I say, covering my nose and mouth.
“Fuck America,” he says.
I tell Aziz I feel sick. He takes me by the elbow and hurries me into the amputee ward, where open doors let in a warm breeze. My head clears, and the tightness in my throat subsides. Framed sketches of prosthetic legs and hands and arms hang on the bright white walls. Patients sit on benches, waiting to be seen. Some of them have removed their prosthetic legs, which line the wall, worn sandals and shoes fitted on their stiff plastic feet.
We listen to a therapist working with a boy. The boy’s pajamalike salwar kameez flaps loosely where his left leg once was. Kneeling, the therapist examines his stump, rubbing his thumb over the scars. He wears a white lab coat. He has bright blue eyes and a heavy grey beard. Deep lines divide his sunken face.
“What’s the problem?” the therapist asks his patient.
“I can’t bend it well at the knee,” the boy says. He hands the therapist his prosthetic leg.
“What is your name, and how old are you?”
The therapist writes this on a clipboard.
“How did this happen?”
Abdul Sabur, a former mujahideen fighter, was paralysed after being shot in the back by government troops during a gunfight in 1991. Since then, infected bedsores have kept him in and out of the hospital.
“US shelling, Colonel.”
The patients call the therapist the Colonel because he had been a colonel in the Afghan Army under the command of President Najibullah, who ruled Afghanistan from 1987 until 1992, when rebel mujahideen forces ousted him from power. The Colonel lost his right leg in 1991 near the city of Ghazni, when the mujahideen fired a rocket into his armoured vehicle. The explosion knocked him out. When he came to, he crawled out of his vehicle and over to the warmth of a burning truck. Wind kept the flames at bay while he hid and inspected his body. His right leg was shredded into strips. He could not feel it. He tied it off with torn pieces of his uniform to stop the bleeding. Then he passed out.
“I think the prosthetic needs some adjustments, that is all,” the Colonel says.
“Generally, I don’t have a problem,” Zabiullah says. “Sometimes my stump itches and I have pain.”
“How were you injured?”
“Last year, in Wardak province, I was in the mountains with our donkey collecting firewood. Two kilometres away was a coalition base. Coalition forces fired a mortar, and shrapnel hit my left foot. I was just thrown like somebody had picked me up. My cousin put me on the donkey and took me to the hospital.”
The Colonel makes a face and shakes his head, removes the prosthetic leg from the boy and loosens a screw. Every day, patients like Zabiullah remind the former soldier of his own injury. When he woke up beside the burning truck he did not know what had happened or where he was. Charred trucks and Jeeps from his convoy blocked the road. Then he remembered. Shadows pooled around him and began to shrink with the sun. The Colonel saw a car approaching and waved, but the driver did not stop. Two men on bicycles pedalled up to him. “If we pick you up, the opposition will kill us,” one of the men told him, and they left. A small boy brought the Colonel water in a dish. But the dish had a hole in it and the water drained out before the Colonel could drink from it, so he licked the damp plate dry. He did not know where the boy had come from. He heard two men cry for help. He did not recognise their voices but assumed they, like him, were injured soldiers. Please, please help us. Their voices weakened. Then they stopped calling.
A truck driver spotted the Colonel and pulled over, and he pleaded with the man to pick him up, but the driver worried that, should the mujahideen search his truck and find the Colonel, they would kill him. “No problem, just tell them to kill me,” the Colonel said. The driver carried him into his truck and told him to sit up. He covered the Colonel’s face and upper body with a blanket so that the mujahideen would think he was a woman.
“How is that?” the Colonal asks Zabiullah about the new adjustment.
“It fits better,” Zabiullah says.
“The US soldier is blind,” says the boy’s father, who is standing nearby. “They see boys, why would they shell?” He then explains to us how, every day, 15 to 20 people die in Wardak. “Just yesterday, there was heavy fighting,” he says. “People were hurt. They were all civilians.”
The Colonel says nothing to this. He gives the boy ointment for the red sores that speckle his stump. The Colonel recalls how the truck driver left him at a military checkpoint. Soldiers crowded around him, and he felt safe; as soon as this sense of safety came over him he felt a searing pain in his leg. He was rushed to a hospital. First his foot was amputated, but then he developed an infection and they had to take the whole leg. It was a common dilemma; there were not enough antibiotics available. Every day while the Colonel was hospitalised, he says, three or four patients had an arm or a leg amputated. He didn’t fully miss his leg until he was discharged, thinking, How can I go on? A doctor told him he would use a prosthetic.
“Walk,” the Colonel tells Zabiullah.
The boy walks outside, testing his prosthetic leg. He turns around and walks back.
“Good?” the Colonel asks.
“Are you happy?”
“If he is happy or angry, it doesn’t matter,” Zabiullah’s father interrupts. “He has no power.”
The Orthopedic Center closes in the afternoon for Ramadan. The Colonel walks us to the front gate, and Aziz and I cross the street to his car. My throat is raw and dry from the dusty air. An unnerving blast of summer heat rushes out of the car when Aziz opens the doors. We wait for it to cool and then get in. I lean back against the headrest as Aziz turns the key and drives me to my hotel.
Military checkpoints block even the smallest of streets. Camera-equipped blimps supplied by the US hover in the air, recording everything below. I notice a group of young men wearing T-shirts that read (in English): christianity is not a religion. Aziz tells me how Kabul has changed since my visit last summer. I close my eyes, listening to the hot air rushing through the open windows, Aziz’s voice drifting in and out above the noise.
“Security has been very tight since the burning of our holy book,” Aziz says as he drives. “Everyone knows America is leaving. You will see no Westerner sitting alone with his Afghan driver like we are now. No, Westerners now drive in convoys with security guards. Kidnapping is a problem. You should not wander off on your own. If you must go out, go a different way each time. Kidnappers now take the Westerner and his Afghan translator. They release the translator to convey their demands. Even within families, people kidnap one another. One man’s brother was very rich. This man kidnapped his brother and left a ransom note.”
Aziz parks outside the Park Hotel near downtown, about 15 miles from the hospital. Blast walls and a solid iron gate conceal the building. Aziz continues talking as guards with AK-47s escort us inside, through an expansive courtyard. Peacocks strut on the green lawn. Two stone fountains gurgle with water. White picnic tables reflect the sun, and a man waters the grass and potted geraniums along the walk. A British man jogs around the garden, counting each lap aloud.
“I don’t know what will happen when the US leaves Afghanistan,” Aziz says. “If corruption gets under control, then things will work out. But I don’t have much hope for this.”
In four corners above the hotel courtyard guards in blue uniforms sit behind sandbag bunkers, cradling their AK-47s. Barbed wire stretches unevenly between each bunker.
“After the US leaves,” Aziz continues, “there will be fighting in all the neighbourhoods because people will be looting. I will buy a gun to protect my house. But not a Kalashnikov – only a pistol.”
Physical therapist Mursal Hashimi helps Samurgul, 21, with her prosthetic legs.
That night, I look out my window at the courtyard, watching the silhouettes of the peacocks and security guards pacing on the roof above. I feed a stray grey cat that has been crying outside my door. I think of checking in with Aziz but decide against it. I suspect that he drains his car’s gas tank each day after he drops me off. It’s always about half-full when we return to the hotel following a day’s work, but the needle is always on e the following morning. And every morning he asks for money to fill the tank. I give him $10 and tell him to inspect the car for a gas leak, and he always agrees to do so. I have worked with Aziz long enough to believe that he would not want anything bad to happen to me. He would never turn me over to kidnappers. But he will definitely take more than his fair share of gas money from me.
At night, a policeman telephones Aziz and asks whether he had received an anonymous flyer distributed by Taliban sympathisers. It warns that anyone working with Americans will be killed. Aziz has not received the flyer. When he gets off the phone, he tells his sons to stay inside. He locks the front door and all the windows.
Later that night, the Colonel remembers the day a rocket exploded in the middle of Kabul and maimed him. He was eating bread and sipping tea in a park. He had just stood up to stretch in the sun when the explosion threw him to the ground. People screamed and ran. He remembers the blood and shattered bodies. The severed head of a man rolling beside the headless body of a woman. Fire trucks hosed the streets of blood, and the vendors who had survived returned to their stalls. All these years later, recovered patients who were injured on that day are finding themselves in the hospital yet again. The Colonel treats them and tells them he was in the park in 1995, too, when they lost either their legs or their arms or both. They talk and reminisce. In those days, the Colonel says, the front line was in a specified, demarcated place. Today with suicide bombers, his patients say, the front line is everywhere.
At night, in his bed at the Orthopedic Center, Zabiullah feels the phantom pains of where his left leg should be. In the dormitory, Mohamad reads from the Koran. Another patient listens to a radio. One man stares at the ceiling and hardly blinks. The 22 others in the paraplegic ward sleep as dim lights cast broken shadows on the brown walls. A dripping faucet splashes the black floor, thin streams of water rolling across in oily lines.
A 13-year-old boy named Wasim Sabur sits beside his father, Abdul. Wasim wears a purple salwar kameez that he has not changed out of in days. He slumps in his chair and listens to his father snore. Abdul is a large man with a mop of black hair. His body fills the bed. It sags under his weight.
Abdul was fighting for the mujahideen against Najibullah when, in 1991, he was shot in the back near Policharki. He spent a year in a hospital. Infected bedsores have sent him revolving in and out of the Orthopedic Center for years. He feels nothing below the middle of his chest and was once again admitted to the hospital in June. Abdul’s legs shake and bounce like gasping fish, and he looks on as if they are not part of his body but rather some uncontrollable, dying piece of meat affixed to his waist. Wasim holds his father’s legs down until the spasms pass.
Patients rest in the courtyard of the hospital.
When Abdul wakes up, Wasim will help him eat, help him to the bathroom and clean his bedsores using iodine diluted with water. Sometimes the physical therapists send Wasim on errands and ask him to tend to other patients. He rolls his eyes at all their requests as if he already carries too many burdens, before running off, sandals snapping against the floor, happy to complete his assigned tasks. Wasim doesn’t like to just sit.
Wasim and his parents live in Kabul with his uncle Mohammad Nasim, who works as a moneychanger. Some days, Mohammad earns $60, and on those nights he, his wife, their three boys, Wasim, and Wasim’s mother and father eat lamb, rice and beans. Other days, Mohammad earns half as much, and they eat garlic, tomatoes and spinach. Abdul discourages his brother Mohammad from visiting him because bus fare costs $1, though today he made the trip anyway.
“Save the money to feed the children,” Abdul tells Mohammad.
“Don’t worry about me, Father,” Wasim says.
“Look at me,” Abdul says. “The jihad is over. What good came of it?”
“When America leaves, Afghanistan will enter another jihad and be destroyed,” Nasim says. “All the people know this.”
Abdul agrees. Wasim frowns, frightened by the serious silence settling between his father and uncle. It’s the sound of Afghanistan’s future. He hurries away, looks for some task to occupy his thoughts, his sandals echoing his retreat.
The next morning, I feed the cat. It rubs against my legs. I open my door. It looks outside, sniffs at the air and then crawls beneath my bed. I let it stay there.
Aziz waits for me in his car on the ruined road – a wide, rutted path lined with broken chunks of asphalt – outside the hotel. The money for roads, Aziz tells me, is given to one contractor who keeps a percentage for himself and then hires another contractor to do the labour. This second contractor also keeps a percentage for himself and then hires another, even cheaper contractor. What little money remains allows for only a negligible amount of repair.
“There is no plan,” Aziz says. “Instead of surveying the road and then paving it, they pave the road and then survey it. The surveyor says, ‘Oh, it is bad. We need $2 million to repair it.’ And then they tear up the road again. It is a kind of game going on here. After ten years, the US doesn’t understand this and keeps giving the government money for roads.”
He starts the engine.
“I will need gas money.”
We reach the hospital and I head to Mohamad’s room. When I enter he is sitting on the edge of the bed, gripping his walking frame while his cousin attaches the leg braces. He wraps a Velcro strap around a urine bag so it doesn’t bounce when Mohamad walks. Mohamad sees Aziz, and they embrace.
“Salam,” Aziz says.
“Salam,” Mohamad says.
He tells Aziz to press his hand against his foot, instructing him to press hard and then harder after that. Aziz squeezes his foot, but Mohamad shakes his head.
“I feel nothing,” he scolds Aziz. “Only when my foot is squeezed hard do I feel it.”
Mohamad grips the walking frame and pushes himself off the edge of his bed to a standing position. He moves forward a few inches, rests the walking frame on the floor, arches his back and swings his right leg forward. Then he brings his left foot forward. His cousin steps beside him.
“Try to walk,” his cousin says.
“I am trying.”
“Right and then left.”
“I don’t have power.”
Mohamad’s arms shake.
“I’m dizzy,” he says.
Physical therapist Zabel Ullah watches Mohamad struggle. Zabel lost his left leg to a mine. Only a slight limp suggests he wears a prosthetic. In 1996, he was weeding the garden of his father’s house and planting pink geraniums. Zabel stood up to stretch, stepped forward. When he put his left foot down, the ground exploded.
Zabel and the other physical therapists tell the paraplegics that their recovery may take a long time. Still, impatience abounds. They insist on travelling to India or Pakistan or some other place for treatment. Then Zabel tells them the truth. “Look,” he says, “this other doctor you want to see, he will tell you what I am going to tell you now. Don’t waste your money. You won’t walk again. You have your life. Praise God you have that much.”
In the amputee ward, the Colonel examines a boy’s prosthetic leg. The boy’s name is Raholla, and his clothes hang on his narrow frame like a scarecrow. Baz-Mohammad, his stern-looking father, stands beside him.
“Walk back and forth,” the Colonel instructs Raholla. “You’re a little lopsided. Your leg is short. You’re growing. You’ve outgrown your prosthetic. We will fit you with a new leg. How old are you?”
“Fifteen,” Raholla says.
“How did his injury occur?” I ask.
“In 2007,” Raholla says, “I was with my brother, taking six sheep to pasture. As the sheep grazed, my brother Juma found some metal. The metal was round with two holes on either side. I told him not to touch it. It might be bad. He said it’s just metal and hit it with a stone. I tried to stop him with my hands but was too late. He was lifted into the air and pieces of him hit me. He died. I lost my right leg and the fingers of both hands. Four sheep died. The grass burned. The air and the ground shook. I lay on the ground afraid my father would beat me because Juma played with a mine. I shook him, but he didn’t move. I crawled on the ground, my leg stayed behind me. A bus driver saw the explosion. He stopped and took me to the army hospital in Kabul.”
“Let’s try this new prosthetic,” the Colonel says. “Put this sock over your stump. Now fit your stump into the socket of the prosthetic. Stand up. Stand straight. OK, sit. Take it off. It’s a little high, a little long. Where do you live?”
“Hyat Khan Village in Logar province,” Baz-Mohammad says. “We came by bus.”
“Where were you when your sons were hurt?”
“I was in Kandahar,” he says. “My uncle called and told me Raholla was injured from a mine. He didn’t tell me Juma had died. When I saw Raholla, he was in a coma. He woke up two days later. He said, ‘It wasn’t my fault. Please don’t beat me, Father. Juma hit it.’ I was crying. If you saw your son bleeding and lying in a bed, would you not be crying? I think the mine was left from the Russian time. A Russian checkpoint was near our house. There may be other mines, I don’t know. Sadly, one found Juma and killed him. I am afraid to even touch a stone now.”
I shake Baz-Mohammad’s hand and wish him well. Aziz and I step outside, and he lights a cigarette in the shade of a tree dusted with the diesel fumes of passing trucks. The sight of so many war-wounded men reminds him of the time he worked as a police statistician in Parwan province, not far from Kabul, at the height of the war between President Najibullah and the mujahideen.
One day, his commander said that headquarters had too many officers working behind desks. He ordered Aziz and 15 other officers to meet in an adjoining room. The commander then asked which of them would volunteer to fight on the front line. No one moved. After a long, uncomfortable silence, two men said they were ready to fight. The commander sent them back to their desks. Aziz and the remaining 12 men were driven to a barracks and told they would be sent to the front the next day.
At 2 AM, Aziz asked permission to leave the barracks. He told the guard a fellow police officer was asleep in his car, parked outside the base. Aziz said he wanted to wake him so the officer would not miss the convoy to the front. Permission granted. Aziz left the barracks and caught a taxi to his parents’ house in Kabul.
Five days later, Aziz called his commander. “I can’t fight,” he said. “I can’t shoot other Afghans. My job is in the office. Kill me now. I’ll never go to the front.” But the commander said, “No. We need you. You are Pashtun. I am Pashtun. All the other officers are Tajik and Hazarra. You are the only one I trust. Come back. You can stay in the office.”
Aziz returned and spent the remainder of the war at his desk.
In this way, Aziz says, he survived the fighting.
Aziz stubs out his cigarette, and we get in the car and begin the drive back to the hotel. We have not gone far before we get stuck in traffic at a roundabout. Drivers blast their horns and jockey for what little space exists between the stalled cars. I crane my head out the window. A policeman storms back and forth in the road, waving a Kalashnikov. Other officers approach him, but he waves them away with his weapon. He screams “America!” but the rest of what he says is drowned out by all the honking. He points the Kalashnikov at the stopped cars sweeping left to right, and Aziz and I drop down in our seats.
I tell Aziz we should get out of the car and lie facedown on the road, but Aziz thinks the car offers more protection.
“On the ground we’d be low and mobile,” I say.
“Too many stray bullets may hit us,” he says.
“We could roll under cars for protection,” I say.
Aziz and I argue, sinking deeper in our seats, our eyes just level with the dashboard.
The policeman lowers his Kalashnikov, gives one long angry look and storms off. The other policemen watch him go. After a moment, they start waving traffic through.
That night, back in my room, I feed the cat and think about Aziz and how just hours before, he and I had a calm, rational disagreement about how best to avoid getting shot.
Unable to sleep, I listen to BBC Radio. A new police recruit had shot and killed two Americans in western Afghanistan. He was still in training, had just been assigned a gun. Hours later in Kandahar, an Afghan Army soldier fired on international troops, wounding two. Another day in Afghanistan.
The next morning, back in the paraplegic ward, Mohamad asks Aziz whether I fast.
“Yes,” Aziz says. “As a Christian, he fasts 40 days every year in the spring.”
“Does he pray?”
“How does he pray?”
“On his knees. And he prays only on Sunday.”
“Jesus Christ is his prophet?”
“What does he call his God?”
“His God has no special name. Sometimes they call him Jesus Saviour.”
“Jesus was sent by their God?”
“And he believes this?”
“At least he believes in God,” Mohamad says.
A physical therapist stops by Mohamad’s bed to examine his legs. Aziz and I leave for the amputee ward, where we meet Afghan soldier Mansoor Kohistani. Mansoor stands next to his friend and fellow soldier Moor al Haq. An ambulance from Kabul Army Hospital brought Moor to the centre. He lost both his legs in May when he stepped on a mine in Helmand province. He lies on a gurney, the lower half of his body covered with a sheet, still wearing the green tunic of his uniform. The Colonel raises the sheet to inspect Moor’s stumps.
“How is it in Helmand?” the Colonel asks.
“Some places there’s fighting, some places are quiet,” Moor says. “There are mine explosions every two or three days. It is usually mules and civilians who are injured.”
Mansoor stands off to one side. He enlisted in 2011, after graduating high school. He trained for six months and was commissioned as a first lieutenant, after which he mostly fought in the mountains. In the eastern province of Nuristan, Mansoor saw two Afghan soldiers blown to pieces by an IED. Their families were given $1,000 each and enough food to last for three days of mourning.
“You have an infection,” the Colonel tells Moor. “Most of your right buttock is gone and has not healed. There is nothing we can do until the infection clears.”
“Then I can stay here?”
“If we have room.”
The Colonel pushes Moor’s gurney back to the ambulance. Mansoor follows, his face downcast. In his mind’s eye he can still see the RPG that struck a Humvee and cut an Afghan driver in half. Then there was the Taliban boy who was maybe 14 years old. He was alone and shooting at them. Mansoor told him to surrender. He kept shooting, so Mansoor called up a sniper. Afterward, he gazed at the boy – so young and so dead – sprawled on his back behind a rock, and Mansoor knew he would remember him, too.
My last morning in Kabul, I pack my duffel bag and feed the cat one last time. It doesn’t want to leave my room, and I have to nudge it outside with my foot. It sits by my door as I walk down the stairs. Aziz meets me outside. I tell him I feel a little guilty about leaving the cat. I probably should not have fed it and given it false expectations. Aziz waves a hand. He can’t be bothered. He compares the cat to Afghanistan: It was surviving before I came; it will survive after I leave.
On our way to the airport, we make our final visit to the Orthopedic Center. Inside, the Colonel speaks to a man on crutches. He says he’s had a prosthetic leg since 1998, when he stepped on a mine near the Iranian border. But last night he was cold and had no fuel, so he burned his artificial limb to warm his room.
In the paraplegic ward, Mohamad lies on his bed and tells Aziz that one of his uncles died and his cousin left him late last night to be with the family. Because there are not enough doctors and nurses to provide him with the help he needs, Mohamad is being discharged.
“What about my bedsores?” he asks.
“Clean them every day,” Zabel tells him. “Don’t sit on them. Use your walking frame.”
“On the road, if I have problems there will be no one to help me. The road is very long.”
“Take the number 303 bus. It goes straight to Helmand.”
“There’ll be no one to feed me,” Mohamad says.
“If you find someone to stay with you here, you can come back to the centre.”
Mohamad sits up and reaches for his walking frame. I can’t imagine how useful it will be to him on the pitted, uneven roads he is about to face.
“Will you visit me in Helmand as you have here?” Mohamad asks Aziz.
“Inshallah,” Aziz says. God willing.
“You can bring your American journalist,” Mohamad says. “I will invite him into my house. His face does not say, ‘I will shoot you.’ He doesn’t carry a gun. He’s an American but not a fighting man.”
I shake Mohamad’s hand. The look in his eyes betrays his anger, fear and sadness. All that he is he is at this moment: a young man alone, paralysed from the waist down, who hates the United States and has no future.
Aziz hugs Mohamad and then shouts for Wasim, instructing him to help Mohamad with his leg braces. I follow Aziz outside, and we cross the street where his car is parked, open the doors and lean on the roof as we wait for it to cool off inside.
Aziz reaches into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes.
“Do you think he meant it?” I ask.
“Mohamad? About you?”
Aziz thinks for a moment, taps out a smoke and shrugs.
“He meant it here,” he says.
The world is hopeless. Read more about it from our December issue: