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Women wounded by war

I have lost part of my body,
but I have all of myself

Five women at ICRC’s orthopaedic centre in Kabul speak of the unique challenges faced by women wounded by war

Photos and text by Nick Danziger

Photo: ©Nick Danziger


The last memory Wahida has from the day her life was irrevocably changed was the military convoy she saw from the minibus. The next thing she remembers was waking up in the hospital and being told that the minibus took some of the blast when a suicide bomber, in a car packed with explosives, detonated his charge as he drove near the convoy.

Many passengers, including her husband, were killed. Wahida lost both her arms and hands — one arm above the elbow, the other below. She was also blinded in the right eye and has been left with poor eyesight in the left.

Like many women injured or widowed during Afghanistan’s many conflicts, the physical wounds are only one part in a cascading series of consequences that affect the survival of entire families. In this case, the blast took away a breadwinner and left Wahida unable to provide for herself and her children. So she accepts clothes for the family and some money from the ICRC orthopaedic hospital in Kabul.

“It’s not enough, but I cope with the many difficulties. Without the 3,000 afghanis [US$ 60.00] my (children) wouldn’t go to school, we wouldn’t be able to eat, or buy clothes.

Photo: ©Nick Danziger


 For young women and girls, a major war injury can affect everything—education, their prospects for marriage, their ability to work or contribute to their households. “For a long time I could not go to school because I had a leg [prosthesis] that didn’t fit properly,” says 20-year old Farzana. “It was only when I went to the ICRC that I was given a proper leg. But when I did go back to school my mind wasn’t on my studies. So, at fourteen, I dropped out.”

Several years later, Farzana still felt lost. “I was seventeen, feeling depressed. I stayed at home.” When she learned about vocational training in tailoring, she quickly signed up, got trained and then qualified for an ICRC micro-loan programme in which she received 15,000 afghanis (US$30). “I bought a sewing machine for 10,000 afghanis and paid for a desk and some cloth. I paid the loan back in 18 months and then applied for a second loan for 50,000 afghanis.”

Today, Farzana trains other women starting out in the tailoring trade and she owns the shop where she works.  “I don’t pay rent! I have 15,000 afghanis left to pay back. I support my whole family.”

Photo: ©Nick Danziger

Karima and Rahima

The path to recovery—physically, emotionally and economically— is often long, painful and arduous. The gentle yet confident gestures of physiotherapists such as Karima (pictured above) and Rahima help many take important steps back toward normalcy. “From morning to late afternoon we’re all very, very busy,” says Karima, who serves as co-head physiotherapist of the ICRC orthopaedic centre along with Rahima. “Rahima and myself see on average 35-40 female patients a day.”  Karima has a special reason to be empathetic. She was 12 years old when the simple act of crossing the street to visit her grandparents put her and her brother in the path of gunfire. Four bullets pierced her knee, requiring immediate amputation and a prosthesis from the ICRC orthopaedic centre.

Photo: ©Nick Danziger


The busy days for the Orthopaedic Centre’s physiotherapists is just one indication of the tremendous number of people maimed or permanently disabled due to conflict. Consider the case of Haseeba, who can count 10 relatives who have lost limbs to mines — as well as an aunt who was killed. Six of her family members continue to receive treatment from one of ICRC’s seven orthopaedic centres in Afghanistan.

Given that reality, Haseeba is extremely grateful for the prosthetic leg that ICRC has given her. “For 7 years, I had no artificial leg, I used crutches,” says Haseeba, a mother of six who has worked as a cleaner at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Kabul for the last three years.

“It’s the best thing they gave me – a job,” says Haseeba, who was 7 when she lost her right leg in a land mine explosion. Married at 14, she didn’t go to school and meaningful work seemed out of reach. “Now I am independent, I support the family.”

“I felt despair for many years. Now I realize I can do anything: I have lost part of my body, but I have all of myself.” 

Photo: ©Nick Danziger


In the end, its not just about physical and economic reliance. It’s helping people get back the power to fully live their lives — even with limitations. Like many disabled people across Afghanistan, 19-year-old Niloufar spent years without treatment for her spinal chord injury, caused by a gunshot wound. “I was so surprised when I reached the centre to see so many disabled people lived normally! Up to then I was depressed,” she recalls. “I am now another person, not the Niloufar of before. I can do anything. I am strong, I am powerful.”


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