In Afghanistan, a wedding engagement, a bomb, and an army veteran’s quest to move on
KABUL — One week before his wedding, on a day when his fiancee picked out a gold-plated necklace, when his father borrowed silverware for hundreds of guests, when his mother waited for her son to return from the front lines, Sgt. Masiullah Hamdard stepped on the bomb that tore off his legs and left arm.
When he regained consciousness two days later at Kabul’s military hospital, no one had to tell him the wedding was postponed. He remembers looking down at his stumps covered in bandages, and wincing.
And then, the 19-year-old howled. “What is there left for me in this country?”
Hamdard was wounded in May, at the beginning of the bloodiest fighting season in the 12-year-old war against the Taliban. The Afghan army had just inherited the conflict that the United States had started, and the hospital bore the proof: two floors full of amputees and a morgue with a stack of plywood coffins. Over the next six months, a dozen Afghan soldiers and police officers would die on average each day.
Even in a country with one of the world’s highest proportions of amputees, the newest generation of war-wounded Afghans has emerged so suddenly that the government is overwhelmed.
Hundreds of American troops lost limbs to bombs placed by the same insurgents. But Afghan soldiers face an even more dubious fate. Will their government support them? Do their sacrifices mean anything in a country inured to war?
Hamdard doesn’t dwell on such sweeping questions.
When he joined the Afghan army two years ago, he had never heard of 9/11. He wanted enough money to support a family and the chance to strike back at the Islamist extremists in his native Konar province — the men with long beards who once slapped him for not wearing a prayer cap.
Now, as he recovered in a hospital bed, a juice carton filled with plastic flowers beside him, as spring turned to summer and then autumn, his questions became highly specific.
“Am I going to walk?” he asked his doctor.
“Are we going to get married?” he asked his fiancee.
‘He wanted a family’
Hamdard has a long, boyish face, a sly smile and shaggy brown hair. He wears an Afghan army T-shirt and a bracelet that reads “I Love Afghanistan.” Before he lost his legs, he was 6-foot-1 and lanky, the star of his platoon’s volleyball team and the man who volunteered for every mission, no matter how dangerous.
“A pioneer,” his platoon commander, Capt. Saped Gul, called him.
The bomb that exploded under Hamdard’s feet was made with processed fertilizer and buried in war-torn Kandahar province. The blast nearly killed him. When he stabilized two months later, he left the hospital for a few days to go to his village. It was time to see his fiancee, Zolfedo.
He had wanted to marry her for as long as he could remember. He thought she was beautiful, but that wasn’t the point.
“She had a sense of humor. She was caring,” he said.
“He wanted intimacy,” said his father, Abdul Raziq. “He wanted a family.”
In a country where marriage is often considered a transactional exercise, a question of financial security and family dealmaking, Hamdard had told everyone that he was in love. Zolfedo secretly had bought a cellphone, and she gave the number to him alone. He read poems in Pashto and sent her text messages with his favorite lines.
Before Hamdard was injured, he said, Zolfedo had tried to persuade him to leave the military. Television had come to Konar, and with it came images of the war. He resisted her entreaties, proud of his uniform and his $250 monthly salary.
But when Zolfedo saw him for the first time after his injury, she stared at his stumps of legs, speechless. He was sitting on the floor of his parents’ house. She was standing in the doorway. As he tried to assure her that he would get stronger, she fled.
He couldn’t move.
So he made a decision. He would become strong enough to walk to her father’s house. Then he would ask to set another wedding date.
More than 1,500 Americans have lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the U.S. government is expected to pay about a billion dollars for their medical care. In Afghanistan, where war has raged almost incessantly since 1979, more than half a million people are disabled. The government offers them almost nothing.
Hamdard soon learned that the Afghan military had no capacity to make or fit prosthetic legs. It didn’t even have an available wheelchair.
If he wanted to learn how to walk, he would have to get a free pair of prosthetics.
That’s how he arrived at the orthopedic center run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a sprawling compound in west Kabul where hospital beds were pushed outside in the afternoon so patients could get fresh air.
His new plastic limbs were stamped with a black numeral: 60,217, the number of patients served by the center since its doors opened in 1988.
The head of the orthopedic facility, Najmuddin Helal, was Patient 34, the victim of a Russian land mine in the 1980s.
The sullen, middle-aged man who was being refitted for a prosthesis on the September day that Hamdard formally registered at the center was Patient 9,876, maimed while fighting for Soviet forces. He stared at Hamdard and a journalist and muttered hoarsely: “These young guys are disabled for what? A war we are losing?”
Outside the center, Kabul was full of people with plastic limbs. Hidden under robes, or sticking out from cut-off pants, the legs with the black numerals identified their owners’ passage through the ICRC center.
Patient 168 sold vegetables downtown. Patient 25,650 begged for spare change. Patient 4,101 worked at a bus stop.
Many of them had tragic love stories. At least three amputees had killed themselves after their engagements dissolved in the wake of their injuries, the ICRC orthopedists said.
One jumped from the roof of the Kabul military hospital, three floors above Hamdard’s room. One overdosed on painkillers. Another shot himself.
“For these guys, a broken engagement can be even worse than being crippled,” said Shukrullah Zeerak, the head physiotherapist, who was Patient 6,495.
Like ‘another IED’
In September, Hamdard told his fiancee by phone that he would be ready to walk with her in a month.
An army ambulance had been taking him to his appointments at the orthopedic center, where specialists fit him with shiny plastic limbs stuffed into white high-top sneakers.
On a cool morning, the first day Hamdard was supposed to stand on his new legs, an assistant carried him from the ambulance to his wheelchair and rolled him into the rehabilitation room. About a dozen men on plastic legs were doing laps around the room. Hamdard watched silently.
Then it was his turn. Orthopedists attached the two prosthetics and lifted Hamdard out of his chair. It was a frantic moment. He flailed, as if he were drowning. Then he lurched forward.
“It’s like stepping on another IED,” he screamed, his face contorting. The plastic legs shifted and he grabbed at the air. The orthopedists seized his arm and torso.
Zeerak, the physiotherapist, sighed and said in English so that Hamdard couldn’t understand: “It’s going to be so hard for him.”
Because Hamdard was missing his left arm as well as his legs, he couldn’t use crutches as easily as most other amputees. It made the whole process slower and more exhausting.
As the days went on, his stumps chafed against the prosthetics. Hamdard would walk 10 steps, then rest for 15 minutes. He stared at himself in the mirror and complained about how heavy the prosthetics were.
He called his fiancee. “It might be a year,” he said.
Zolfedo’s father and brothers would make the final ruling on whether the marriage would go ahead.
“Our economic situation is very bad, and given [his injury], it will be very hard,” said Zolfedo’s father, Hakat. Still, he was cautiously optimistic.
The Afghan government has pledged to continue paying disabled soldiers their salaries for the rest of their lives. But the orthopedic center was full of wounded army veterans who were receiving little or nothing.
One day in October, Zeerak approached Hamdard while he rested on an examination table.
“What are your plans after you leave here?” Zeerak asked, sounding worried.
“I don’t know,” Hamdard said.
“How are you going to provide for your wife?”
“I don’t know.”
“You need to think hard about what job you can do with no legs and one hand. Back in your village, it will be hard for us to help you.”
Hamdard stared at the floor.
‘What a pity’
A few days later, Hamdard decided to go to the zoo with a member of his old military unit, Sgt. Abdul Ghafar.
There were groups of girls walking around, enjoying the warm fall afternoon. And because they were young and because he was lonely, Hamdard thought about his fiancee.
He passed a lion and a bear. There was a group of monkeys chewing gum and smoking cigarettes, which Hamdard thought was strange and hilarious.
Out of the corner of his eye, from his wheelchair, he saw three girls looking at him.
“What a shame. He’s such a handsome boy,” one said.
“What do you think happened to him?” asked another.
Hamdard turned. “What is wrong with you ladies?” he screamed.
They scattered, and he asked Ghafar to push his wheelchair somewhere else. They saw the bear again, and the lion, and then the monkeys.
Often, when people stared at him, Hamdard would smile, knock on his plastic legs and say, “Well, at least the dogs can’t bite me now.”
This time, though, he kept quiet. Out of his earshot, others were talking about him.
“What a pity. He is in this state at this young age,” an older man said.
“Looks like a mine victim. Well, we have many of them in this country,” another said.
Ghafar had been sent by the army to help Hamdard stand or sit or use the bathroom. Hamdard asked him to do one more loop around the zoo before the sun set. He stared dully at the lion, the bear and the cigarette-smoking monkeys.
“I’m ready to go,” he said.
Visit from a general
One night in October, in a room labeled “post-operative patients,” Hamdard and his two roommates ate plates of rice and lamb in their beds.
After dinner, four young men joined them, hobbling in on crutches and maneuvering through the door in wheelchairs. Hamdard passed around his cellphone, which showed photos of dark-haired actresses in low-cut shirts. All the men giggled like boys. New technology has brought foreign films and pop songs to Afghanistan, but it hasn’t changed the very traditional relationships between men and women.
He and Zolfedo have never kissed or held hands or mimicked any of the romantic gestures he’s seen in music videos. All of that is on the other side of marriage.
When the Afghan army’s deputy medical commander, Gen. Abdul Baseer, walked into the room, the patients all sat up a little straighter.
Baseer is one of his country’s most respected officers, a man with a booming voice and a famous sense of humor. Hamdard mentioned his engagement.
“My plans had to change,” he said.
His stumps were hidden in a pair of soccer sweatpants. When he showed Baseer what was left of his legs, the general turned somber, his big eyes drooping.
Three years ago, U.S. military officers took Baseer to what was then the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. What really got to him — the memory that still brings him to tears — was how, in each room, American wives and children were gathered around the injured men.
Now, he tries to articulate his gratefulness and sympathy to Afghan amputees. They are almost always alone.
“However much I tell you that I’m sorry, I can’t change what happened,” Baseer told Hamdard.
And then he walked away, wondering aloud what would become of the 19-year-old. “I wish we had more resources to help him,” he said.
Going home for good
During his last week of treatment at the hospital, Hamdard started getting nervous.
His fiancee’s family had heard that he was walking again.
“Thank God, his condition is better than before,” Zolfedo’s father said. “If it’s God’s will, the wedding will happen soon.”
But Hamdard knew that Zolfedo and her father had not seen him yet.
He still had to be wheeled almost everywhere. In the city’s sprawling bazaar, he searched in vain to buy a handicap-accessible toilet to bring to his village.
One day, he texted Zolfedo a line from a Pashto poem: “To be in love, you have to be crazy.”
She didn’t respond.
Hamdard decided he would arrive in his village at night, “so no one can see me in the darkness.”
The day before he left, when a friend mentioned a local girl he’d been communicating with, the kind of remote male-female friendship that has emerged with the spread of cellphones here, Hamdard begged futilely for her number.
“If we only talk on the phone, she won’t know that I’m disabled,” he said, at least for the moment shrugging off the fiancee who did know.
On a rainy November afternoon, a black Toyota Corolla taxi with a bumper sticker reading “Catch Me if You Can” pulled up near the hospital to take him back to his village for good.
Hamdard had said his goodbyes.
“Remember to wash your stumps,” his physiotherapist had said.
“You are walking like a lion,” his roommate had said when Hamdard stalked into their room for the last time.
“You look normal,” a nurse said, after Hamdard replaced his hospital sweatpants with a traditional, flowing shalwar-kameez that covered his prosthetics.
His friends lifted him into the taxi with his bag. It was packed with two books of Pashto poetry, socks that would disguise his prosthetics and an embroidered $40 outfit he had bought for his still-unscheduled wedding night.
And he left for home.
Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report. Kevin Sieff, The Post’s Kabul bureau chief, spent eight weeks following Masiullah Hamdard as the Afghan officer grappled with the loss of his leg. This article is based on that reporting and on interviews with Hamdard’s doctors, colleagues and relatives.