The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is what Eid is like in one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces

A patient with a bullet wound to his femur is visited by friends and relatives on Eid. (Holly Pickett for The Washington Post)

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — A baby — naked, with red-hennaed feet and round eyes lined with kohl — screamed in anguish as emergency doctors in this area’s hospital for war victims stitched up a finger-size gash on the side of her tiny head. In a ward down the hall, a young woman had just been brought to the intensive care unit from the district of Sangin. A stray bullet from fighting between Taliban gunmen and Afghan forces struck her while she was sleeping; she bled for eight hours before it was safe to leave for the hospital.

Monday is the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day holiday marking the end of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting, and Afghanistan’s Helmand province is spared no break from the war. At the Surgical Center for Civilian War Victims in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah — which is run by the international nonprofit Emergency — the casualties from the ongoing conflict in the country continued to stream in.

Friends and relatives — who would otherwise be distributing sweets and entertaining guests to observe the holiday — came here instead to visit loved ones. Some of them were unconscious, reeling from injuries even those with access to state-of-the-art health care might not survive. Others were awake but wincing in pain. Their family members pleaded with us — foreign journalists they mistook for trained doctors — to discharge the patients so they could go home.

The battle between Taliban fighters and Afghan forces has been raging in Helmand, a vast province in the south known for churning out much of the world’s opium supply, after international troops withdrew from the area and ceded security control to the Afghan government. The insurgency dedicated hundreds of fighters to a brutal offensive it launched against Afghan forces in Sangin district in June — one that keeps the surgical center’s roughly 100 beds consistently filled.

But as a health-care provider, Emergency is neutral and treats civilians and combatants on both sides. On Monday, members of the Afghan police force brought pound cake and energy drinks for a wounded colleague, Azal Karim, shot in the arm in the nearby hamlet of Marjah. In the next room, a crowd of men wearing black turbans and dark eyeliner — common in Afghanistan’s Pashtun south — gathered around a man injured by gunfire in Marjah. The circumstances under which he was wounded remained unclear.

“This is our Eid,” said Juma Gul, an Afghan medic in the emergency room. “We were just about to drink,” he said, eying a cluster of now-lukewarm cups of green tea. “But now this.”

Seven casualties — including the baby with the laceration on her head and four police officers injured in a firefight the night before — had arrived at the same time after lunch. Doctors could not identify the source of the child’s head wound, though her family members said there had been fighting between the Taliban and police close by.

Once doctors sutured the cut, her father dressed her in new clothes, as is the Eid tradition, and ferried her out to continue celebrations.

Across the room was one of the four police officers, Narim Gul, whose light shrapnel wounds meant he could also leave to enjoy the rest of the holiday with his family. “You will put them on Facebook?” Gul asked a photographer on assignment for The Post as she snapped pictures of his injuries. Then he smiled as a medic quickly wrapped his head in gauze and sent him on his way.