World News

One Family’s Toll on a Cruel Day: 7 Children With Amputated Legs

Posted June 3, 2018 6:14 p.m. EDT
Updated June 3, 2018 6:19 p.m. EDT

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Eleven members of the Mirza Gul family, 10 of them children, gathered around an unfamiliar object on the ground outside their home. It was 6 a.m. April 29, and the night before, the Taliban had fought Afghan soldiers nearby.

Two of the smaller children picked the object up, and 16-year-old Jalil then realized that it was dangerous: an unexploded rocket from the battle. He tried to wrest it away from them, but in the tussle, it fell and exploded.

It was a cruel day, even by the standards of Afghanistan’s long war.

By nightfall, four were dead, including Jalil, who had tried to save them all and died at a hospital that night. One 4-year-old girl, Marwa, lost both her twin sister, Safwa, and their mother, Brekhna, who had been nearby making dung cakes for fuel. One of Brekhna’s nieces, a 6-year-old, was also killed in the blast.

Seven survivors — three brothers and four of their first cousins — were left to bear the weight of those losses, and more: Every one of them lost a leg, and two lost both.

Through the next two days, doctors at the Nangarhar Regional Hospital in Jalalabad worked around the clock trying to repair mangled limbs, then sometimes amputated them, after finding they could not be saved.

“I wanted to cry in the OT,” said the chief of the orthopedic service, Dr. Sayed Bilal Miakhel, who was in charge of the operating theater. “We have many amputations here, but this was children and all from the same family.”

Abdul Rashid, 12, remembered when he regained consciousness after the blast. “I tried to stand up and my legs were gone,” he said. His younger brother Mangal, 11, said he hobbled on his knees toward their home after the blast, but passed out and awoke in the hospital.

None of the survivors lost their arms or hands, or suffered head injuries. Most of those with amputations below their knees will be good candidates for artificial limbs. Still, none can be fitted until several months of healing have gone by.

While waiting, the children have had repeated operations to address complications from their wounds, periodically sharing four beds in one hospital room. Some are well enough to go home at night to their village, Fateh Abad, but three need long-term hospitalization.

To distinguish them, doctors have written their names in marker pen on their chests.

“We can save their lives, but for rehabilitation and treatment, if they could be transferred to a well-equipped center, it would be better,” said Dr. Najibullah Kamawal, head of the Nangarhar Public Health Department. “Probably in another country. Every one of them needs one-on-one help. And these are such poor people.”

Shafiqullah, 13, had above-the-knee amputations to both legs, and was begging doctors to let him go home. They said he faces two more operations before that will be possible.

The teenager was particularly worried about his school studies. Exams are about to start for his sixth-grade class, and he insisted that his family bring in his books and papers, which he stashed in plastic bags under his pillow, so he could keep up. “I don’t want to miss my exams,” he said.

Hamisha Gul, 65, is the father of Jalil, who died, and of three brothers with amputated limbs. Brekhna, the adult killed in the blast, was his sister.

He remains proud of Jalil. “He was always No. 1 in his class, from first grade through eighth grade,” Gul said. “He was learning English. He was so smart he was always tutoring his little brothers.”

Those three younger brothers are 12-year-old twins, Abdul Rashid and Bashir, and 11-year-old Mangal. Although Gul is an illiterate farmer, his boys are all academically ambitious.

In his hospital bed, Bashir, who lost his left leg below the knee, had an exercise book in which he regularly practiced his writing in Pashto, his favorite subject. One passage read, “May God be merciful on me and bring me better health.”

His twin, Abdul Rashid, who lost both legs below his knees, said he hopes to be a doctor when he finishes school. Mangal, who lost his right leg below the knee, is aiming at becoming an engineer, he said.

Gul’s eyes brimmed with tears listening to them.

“Until now they don’t understand they can’t walk,” he said. “They don’t want to talk about it.”

Their futures are full of daunting obstacles, in a country where a large part of the war’s casualties are civilians, many of them children, and government and aid groups struggle to cope.

Many aid groups have greatly cut back operations in Jalalabad in the wake of a brutal attack in January on the Save the Children office here, although the International Committee of the Red Cross has an orthopedic center in the city that makes prosthetic limbs.

The unpaved paths in the children’s village are far from wheelchair friendly. But for those with above-the-knee amputations, a wheelchair is the only near-term prospect for mobility, the doctors said. So far, hospital officials and family members said, they have not had any offers of outside help.

“We have not received anything from anyone yet, or even been approached by anyone,” said Mohammad Hanif, 30, whose son Aman, 5, lost his right leg.

The two girls who survived — Marwa, 4, and her cousin Rabia, 7 — writhed in pain on their hospital beds, trying to find a comfortable way to sit or lie with their bandaged stumps. Their aunt, Lol Pora, who was also Shafiqullah’s mother, sat consoling them in the hospital bed they shared.

As they cried, the other children began crying as well. Some wanted to go home, some were in pain, some said they were hungry.

The family’s home village remains on the front lines of the fight between the insurgents and the government. The district police chief, Abdul Rahman Khalizay, said the rocket the children picked up was fired by the Taliban in the encounter with the Afghan National Army.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, blamed the Afghan police. “This incident had nothing to do with us,” he said. “We don’t have any spare shells to leave lying around.”

The family, living between the two sides, is reticent on who is responsible.

“It just goes on,” Gul said. “We don’t know whom to blame.”