Afghan war amputees turn prosthesis pros

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Simon Gardner

KABUL, Sept 10 (Reuters) - Orthopaedic specialist Najmuddin Helal has just one requirement for prospective recruits at Afghanistan's largest prosthetics workshop in Kabul.

Watching staff from technicians to security guards to helpers in the centre's physiotherapy sessions walk past with unsteady gaits, it's easy to spot. They are all disabled, and nearly 80 percent of them are landmine victims.

"We employ only disabled," smiled Helal, director of the International Committee of the Red Cross Orthopaedic Center in west Kabul. "It is a kind of discrimination, but we like to call it positive discrimination."

"There are good advantages. It is a way to give jobs to the disabled. They know the problems (patients face) because they have passed through them, and then they can teach other disabled easily," said Helal, who has 240 staff in Kabul.

The centre is always busy.

There are 60,000 surviving landmine victims in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations. Every month an average of 60 people are killed or wounded by landmines or explosive remnants of war in Afghanistan, which is estimated to have over 100,000 explosive devices still in the ground.

Nearly 80,000 disabled, more than 30,000 of them amputees, have registered with the ICRC centres in Afghanistan since 1988. Seventy percent of amputees who visit the centres are civilians, 30 percent are military.

The main centre in Kabul produces around 4,000 prostheses, such as legs and arms and hooks to replace hands and around 10,000 orthoses each year, as well as walking aids and wheelchairs, distributed to other provincial centres.

In one room, a worker assembles artificial elbow joints with a hammer and tosses the finished product into a box. He is blind.

In the next room, workers with artificial limbs make orthoses, or medical supports like corsets and splints for polio sufferers.

On a board nearby, the products are neatly displayed: Skin-coloured plastic knee and elbow joints, metal braces, hand-replacing hooks in varying sizes -- including small ones for young children.


Sitting on a stool in one of the centre's spotless workshops, 43-year-old former soldier Baz Mohammad carefully measures a stainless steel leg brace.

He is two feet shorter than he should be, having opted for short prosthetic legs after his own were blown off by a landmine in 1989 when the Afghan army was fighting against Mujahideen after the end of Soviet occupation.

With both legs amputated above the knee, having a lower centre of gravity makes walking easier.

"I am happy working here. Not only can I support my family, I am also proud that I have the ability to work here and support other disabled people," he said.

Past the production line of artificial limbs is the physiotherapy wing, where male patients try out their new limbs, treading along yellow and red footprints painted on the floor -- amputees on one side of the room, non-amputees learning to walk with braces on the other.

Behind a curtain, women -- some wearing traditional blue Burqa -- adapt to prostheses of their own. Already a stigma, amputation brings an additional curse for women, who are regarded as a liability when it comes to keeping house and so are spurned for marriage.


Twenty-one-year-old student Abdul Naser has come in for his first prosthesis. His leg was amputated four months ago when he stepped on a mine chasing after his goats on a mountainside north of Kabul.

"I have just received this prosthesis. I hope it will change my life," he said, rubbing the reddened stump below his knee and trying on his false leg.

Over 80 percent of amputees who visit the centre are adult males, because in Afghan culture they walk outside more than women and are the fighters.

The United Nations Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan says it has cleared 300,000 landmines and explosive remnants of war from 1.0 billion square metres of terrain since 1989. That leaves around 700 million square metres still to be cleared.

"The number of prostheses needed remains steady, because they only last 2-3 years and need to be replaced," Helal said. "But the number of new landmine amputees is going down. There are now maybe 2 or 3 people injured or killed by a landmine per day."

It was a landmine blast that pushed 43-year-old Helal into the job in the first place -- when his own legs were blown off at the age of 18 as he was driving along a Kabul riverbed. He was the centre's 34th patient.

He still feels phantom pain, the same burning sensation he felt at the time the mine, possibly an anti-tank mine, blew the bottom of his car from under him.

"I still think after 24 years ... why should I lose my legs? Why can't I fell the grass on the ground with my feet? Why can't I feel my feet in the water of a stream? It's the same with everyone."

"But when I see amputees crawling to the centre on the ground and leave walking, that is something very special for me."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit