Disabled Vent Grievances

Fed up with the way they're treated, scores of disabled take to the street to demand a better deal from the authorities.

Disabled Vent Grievances

Fed up with the way they're treated, scores of disabled take to the street to demand a better deal from the authorities.

A workshop for Afghanistan's large disabled community in Kabul last week turned into a heated protest as angry amputees wheeled themselves across to government offices to demonstrate over their treatment.

Some 300 disabled people shouted down the minister of martyrs and the disabled, Abdullah Wardak, as he was addressing the gathering on December 3, forcing him to leave by a side door.

Representatives of the protesters later met officials to discuss their grievances, warning that if the government failed to meet their demands by January 10, they would call new, more radical demonstrations.

High among their grievances was the non-payment of 500 afghanis (30 US dollars) they said the ministry was supposed to give each of them to mark the end of the Muslim Eid festival. They also complained of a lack of money and employment opportunities, a shortage of artificial limbs and a general feeling of neglect by the authorities and society at large.

"There are two million disabled people in Afghanistan, but the government has forgotten about us," Haji Amir Mahmood, President of the National Union of Disabled of Afghanistan told the December 3 gathering. "We need the love of our government and of our own people."

Afghanistan is estimated to have the highest proportion of disabled in the world, as many as 10 per cent of the total population, after over two decades of warfare. According to the United Nations, between 250 and 300 people are killed or injured every month by land mines left over from the fighting.

The three-day workshop, timed to coincide with the Day of the Disabled, was aimed at coordinating the activities of the various national and international bodies dealing with the problem. The head of the National Commission for the Disabled, Arif, said his department had launched a survey on all disabled in Afghanistan and also planned to set up a national database.

Those attending the workshop - which also offered the opportunity for aid agencies to display equipment they have provided and for many of the disabled to show off handicrafts they have made to supplement their meagre benefits - all had heart-rending stories to tell.

Gul Khanem wept uncontrollably in her wheelchair as she told of losing both her legs in a land-mine explosion as she was taking food to front line Islamic mujahedin fighters battling occupying Russian troops in 1982. Several years later, she lost her husband, and now has nobody to prepare food for her and her 12-year-old daughter.

"Nobody is helping us. I don't have anyone who can take me to the doctor," said Gul Khanem, who also suffers from asthma.

Sediqa, whose body is riddled with shrapnel from a rocket explosion that also blinded her in one eye, said, "The planes were firing rockets. I was with my husband and my child. I was injured and they both died. My husband died in my arms."

Ghulam Rabani, wheeling himself along the street, said he had been reduced to begging after being injured in 1992. "No one is helping my family. When I beg, people sometimes help me, but in order to feed ten members of my family I have to sell off my household goods," he said.

The problems facing Afghanistan's handicapped were poignantly illustrated by Ali Ahmad, paralysed in both legs, who was waiting outside the National Disabilities Office for someone to carry him up the five steps to the front door, so that he could register for benefits. Once inside, he faced the even more daunting task of getting to the third floor, where the benefits office is located, without a lift.

Wardak said in response to questions that the disabled were receiving between 80 and 110 afghanis a month, adding that the ministry was unable to give any more as it had barely enough funds to pay its own staff since its offices were looted of everything in them by the Taleban.

Accusing the Taleban of ignoring the rights of those disabled during the Najibullah regime which collapsed in 1992, the minister said, "We have to understand that all these disabled people are Afghans, and part of Afghan society. We should forget about which regime they were associated with."

The minister told the Kabul meeting that the government was trying to find more money for the handicapped, and was planning to issue coupons so they could buy basic necessities. "We also have in mind to teach the disabled skills such as computing, carpet-weaving, carpentry and tailoring, so that they can support themselves," he said.

However, a special budget promised by the government for the department had yet to materialise, and aid from abroad, including special cycles from China and machinery from Germany adapted for the disabled, had not yet arrived, the minister added.

Haji Amir Mahmood said that the country's disabled - 60,000 of whom are located in Kabul - were not receiving any help from international welfare organisations. The International Committee for the Red Cross had provided assistance for them in the past, but no longer offered it, he said.

Dr Mohammad Daud, of the International Red Crescent Society, said it provided financial assistance to the disabled in wartime, but not once hostilities had ceased. "At the moment, we are not giving aid to the disabled in Afghanistan," he told the Kabul meeting. "We are only providing artificial legs and hands, special cycles and instructing people about the dangers of mines."

For Shah Jahan, a former army officer who lost both legs in battle and is providing food for his family of six by working as a painter, all this provides small comfort. "Nobody is helping us," he said. "I don't know what to do. Should we leave the country? And where could we go if we did?"

Habib Rahman Ibrahimi and Ahmad Shifaee are independent Afghan journalists.

China, Afghanistan
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