- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan Legs line the shelves and arms hang from hooks, each one a portrait, in molded propylene, of the human tragedy of Afghanistan.

Take the shepherd girl Tawsana, whose sheep led her onto a land mine that exploded and blew her leg away, leaving her dragging herself across her nomad family's floor.

Or take Moshala, who as a 6-year-old ran terrified with her father from the Russian bombs and straight into a minefield. First, one mine killed her father and took her left hand. Then the girl stumbled across another. It took her left leg.

Then there's Sabara, who couldn't outrun the American bombs one midnight last fall, when six family members were killed on a road lined with refugees. Next week, in a bittersweet homecoming, she finally returns to her five children, with a leg of plastic and steel.

An uneasy peace may be settling in, but the tragedy of Afghanistan lingers on, nowhere more poignantly than among a white cluster of buildings on a Kabul hillside where, for 14 years, the International Committee of the Red Cross has produced artificial legs, arms, feet and hands that have helped 20,000 Afghans overcome the disabilities that war has inflicted on them.

This week in Kabul, international activists, diplomats and Afghan officials are gathering to draw new attention to what is probably the world's most mine-afflicted country. The new Afghan leadership took the occasion to announce its acceptance of the 5-year-old treaty banning land mines, a global pact signed by 143 nations.

At the Red Cross orthopedic center, 80 percent of those with amputated legs or hands are land-mine victims. For them, the meaning of a treaty outlawing these indiscriminate weapons is felt in the daily pain of an amputee's life.

"Those who use land mines are very bad people," said Mahmoud, 55, whose left leg was lost to a mine 15 years ago. "They don't realize they can kill their own brothers."

Boys on crutches crowded around the gray-bearded Mahmoud as he spoke with a visitor to the Red Cross center. Nearby, other amputees slowly moved up and down a shaded exercise ramp, trying out their newly fitted limbs, studying their unsteady strides in strategically placed mirrors.

In a small therapy ward nearby, a young man, newly arrived, lay on his stomach on a bed, the stumps of his two arms dangling over the sides. In the next bed, a 10-year-old boy massaged the stump of his left leg, readying it to be fitted. "This boy actually never learned to walk, because he was 2 years old when shrapnel from a rocket severed his leg," said Shukrullah, a physiotherapist.

Next door, 13 technicians with sheets of plastic polypropylene, an oven and an array of forms and tools turn out custom-made legs and arms at a rate of up to 200 a month.

After being fitted, patients undergo a week or two of rehabilitation. Growing children must be re-equipped every six or 12 months, and adults over several years.

Many victims are outpatients, but the center also has a 50-bed dormitory for those from the provinces. Over the years, some have returned as staff members 80 percent of the center's 300 workers are disabled.

"They're motivated," said center Director Najmuddin, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "They can learn and teach others easily. It gives hope to the disabled."

The most inspiring model may be the boss himself. Najmuddin, a 38-year-old physiotherapist, lost both legs to a mine 20 years ago.

During the American bombing of Kabul last October and November, Najmuddin's staff at times had to evacuate their disabled charges from the dormitory and examination wards to a crowded cellar shelter. The anti-Taliban attacks were often pinpoint, but sometimes misguided.

One night during the air campaign, Sabara, 27, was fleeing with her extended family from their homes in Gardez, a city under bombardment in southeastern Afghanistan. "The Americans were attacking vehicles, so we were on foot," she said.

A plane bombed her group, she said, killing six and wounding eight, including Sabara, whose severely damaged right leg had to be amputated.

"I'm trying my best," she said as she slowly drew her new artificial leg forward, trying to match the painted footprints on the center's exercise floor. "My children are waiting for me."

Her face was clouded with pain, and perhaps with some bitterness or lingering disbelief.

Across the room, Tawsana could hardly stop smiling, as she bounced up from her bench to exercise on her newly fitted left leg.

For five years after her sheep led her tragically astray, the young nomad woman had to pull herself across the floor of her family's mud house, dragging her good leg. Eventually, she got a crutch, but still felt helpless. Now finally she had a leg.

"I can stand, and walk," Tawsana said. She'll never tend the livestock again, "but I can do work around the house." She smiled once more. "Another week and I'll go home."

An estimated 200,000 Afghans have been killed or maimed by land mines in 23 years of war.

When he was told of the treaty banning mines, Mahmoud, leaning on a metal crutch, nodded approvingly and clearly spoke for millions of his countrymen.

"Look at me. I lost my leg. We don't want our children losing theirs, too."

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