THE HEALING POWER OF BICYCLES

Landmines have crippled hundreds of thousands of Afghans. For many, hope now comes on two wheels. Words and pictures by Nick Danziger
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The Independent Culture
THE CYCLISTS bump and weave insouciantly through a crush of lorries, cars, armoured personnel carriers, sheep, camels and motorised rickshaws. Through the dust, it is easy to miss the most striking aspect of the scene: the cyclists' lack of legs. Some have had a leg amputated below the knee, some above; some have lost both legs. In Jalalabad, no one sees anything odd in this. Here, as in most of Afghanistan, amputees are too ubiquitous to merit a second glance; and, although some of the cyclists seem a trifle unsteady on their wheels, they are probably in no greater danger of sudden death than other road-users. Yet their story is worth hearing; for they and their bicycles have become a symbol of the inextinguishable creativity of the human spirit.

Sixteen years after the Soviet invasion, and six years after the Soviet withdrawal, life in Afghanistan still tends towards the nasty, brutish and short. Civil war rages in most areas, and, even in zones of relative calm, citizens are rarely more than a step away from mutilation or death, thanks to that deadly legacy of the war: the land-mine. According to UN estimates, more than 10 million of the 110 million mines currently deployed around the world are scattered over Afghanistan. More than 450,000 Afghans have lost lower limbs to mines. In some parts of the country, up to 6 per cent of the population have undergone amputations; perhaps half as many have been killed by mines. Jalalabad is in one of the worst-affected areas, but it does have one thing in its favour: the Shaeed Qazi Nazir Centre.

Based in a small building in the grounds of the town's main hospital, the Centre (also known as the Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation and Recreation Centre) is devoted to making amputees fully mobile, not with crutches, but with bicycles. It was established three years ago, by Howard Williams, a philanthropic Californian cycling enthusiast, and has been developed since then with the help of money from the Overseas Development Agency. The Centre also gives courses in literacy and first aid, but it is the cycles that everyone is interested in. The students begin their practical sessions on a bicycle that is fixed in place. Below- the-knee amputees have few problems mastering the actions required to pedal - and, later, balance - the bicycles; above-the-knee amputees and double amputees tend to take slightly longer. But everyone succeeds eventually, and, in the process, there are other skills to be learnt. The centre also has a mechanic who converts graduates' bicycles into mobile shops, adapted to offer pedal-powered knife-sharpening and candyfloss-making, milkshake- and juice-blending capabilities; so the amputees can not only get about but also support themselves. Their Chinese-made bicycles become as central to their lives as guide-dogs can be for blind people. One graduate, Maboubshah, told me that he supports three members of his family by travelling through the region sharpening scythes and clippers for the local farmers, hatchets and knives for the butchers, and swords. Other graduates readily find work as bicycle messengers and delivery men.

Faiz, a 19-year-old who spent five years in a refugee camp in Pakistan, lost his leg shortly after returning to Afghanistan. He was walking along a mountain path with his brother. "My brother picked up this green plastic thing, then he threw it on the ground. The next thing I knew I was being carried on the back of a donkey. It was a mine." The Shaeed Qazi Nazir Centre could not make him whole; it did give him a future. He now works as a bicycle porter, helping to distribute UN aid.

Demand for the one-month course at the centre is so great that, according to Dr Abdul Baseer, the main administrator, it is fully booked until December 1998. "We have 720 men on the waiting list, although children are accepted immediately. The problem is that because the mines are a long-term hazard, local hospitals continue to receive on average one mine-injured patient a day."

Fund-raising is a constant anxiety. Howard Williams has been encountering "compassion fatigue", and gimmicky activities like the participation of amputees in last year's Cycle Messenger World Championships are beginning to look like the only way of maintaining interest. But the demands on the Centre's resources can only increase. At current rates of removal, it will take more than 4,000 years for Afghanistan to be cleared of mines.

Modern landmines were recently described by a Red Cross official as "the greatest violators of international humanitarian law". Countries which have profited from their profligate use include Britain - a depressing thought, when one sees victims like Asadullah, a bright-eyed 12-year-old maimed for life by an indiscriminately planted mine.

But at the Shaeed Qazi Nazir Centre it is impossible to remain depressed for long. I saw Asadullah again when he had just passed the Centre's road safety test, at the third attempt. "I can't fit into my clothes," he told me - Afghan (roughly) for "I'm over the moon."

! Donations may be sent to Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Recreation and Rehabilitation, ANZ Grindlays Bank, Peshawar Saddar Cant, Pakistan 113-13-80257-051.

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