Asylum inmates left to suffer and die: One man is trying to save patients at a Kabul mental hospital from starvation and marauding guerrilla bands

THE madness of the current Afghan war is nowhere more evident than at the Marastun mental asylum in Kabul's southern suburbs. Fierce battles were fought by rival guerrilla armies inside its walls, with deranged inmates sunning themselves while rockets fell from the sky.

It is not a sane place to be. That is why the doctors and nursing staff of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, which runs Marastun, fled eight months ago and abandoned all 160 inmates. A few lucky patients were reclaimed by their families. Some wandered out of the battered asylum gate and strayed on to the main road, which government militia and rebels had made into a shooting gallery.

Still other inmates remained inside Marastun, alone and unprotected. They scavanged for grains of rice and drank sewer water. Marauding guerrillas stripped the madmen of their clothes, looted their few belongings, stole their meagre food provisions and raped the women patients. Most of the mujahedin are tribal warriors hardened by 14 years of combat, first against the Soviet Union and now against each other. Before coming to Kabul many of them had never seen a woman without a burqa, an ankle-length veil worn in the villages.

It has become customary for gangs of mujahedin to come up from their training camp at a nearby orphanage and stroll through the women's wing of the asylum. They taunted an old woman who sat on a windowsill, naked, with long, drooping breasts. In her lap she fingered a twisted piece of cloth, a skirt, perhaps, as though she had been defeated by the simple endeavour of dressing. Next, the gang drifted into a bare, dark dormitory where they ripped the blanket off a woman, dishevelled and cowering in bed. For the mujahedin it was all hilarious, like a first trip to the zoo.

Testimony of the rapes comes from several watchmen and the blind and war wounded who have also taken refuge in the blasted-out buildings inside the Marastun compound. 'It was shameful,' said one blind man, Mohammed Saghari. 'They came into our rooms at night. First they stole my cassette, my clothes and my blanket, then they dragged us outside into the garden - it was winter - and told us not to move. Then they brought in the women, screaming. They took the women into the rooms of the blind people and raped them. Many times the mujahedin would come in the night and rape them. What could we do?' asked the blind man, helplessly. 'They had guns.'

The torment of the Marastun inmates began soon after the nine Islamic guerrilla factions seized power in April 1992 from the Communist regime. The guerrillas swiftly fell to quarrelling among themselves and Kabul was carved into warring neighbourhoods. The Afghan Red Crescent provided shelter in the Marastun mental institute for war refugees and the blind as well. Its cover of trees, its solid buildings and vantage point on a hill, however, made it a prime military objective when fighting broke out between forces led by the Defence Minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and the rebels who captured the neighbourhood around the asylum.

Not long after the fighting flared, the government sent word to Kaka Wali, a watchman, to hide the inmates in a safe place because that evening the militia were going to lay siege to the asylum. Mr Wali, with the asylum's barber and cook, herded the patients into a cellar. 'But when the soldiers found us in the basement, they thought we were the enemy and began shooting. We were trapped,' said Mr Wali. A woman and her son were killed before the militiamen realised their blunder.

In April, a rocket fell into one of the courtyards, killing 12 mental patients. 'We try to drag them inside when there's fighting, but they just don't care,' said the watchman. He and the barber and cook buried the dead against the courtyard wall. Even the inmates who are murderously insane shun that side of the courtyard.

For two months, the surviving 52 inmates had only a cupful of rice to eat every few days. The other food stocks left by the Afghan Red Crescent were stolen by the mujahedin. 'There was no food, no medicine. Everybody was sick. It was really the lowest point of human life imaginable,' said the blind man. Armed gangs preyed on them. One boy, who came to Marastun after stepping on a mine which tore off his leg and blinded him, said: 'They accused me of being a Communist, but I wasn't. I was only a shepherd. They knocked me over and stole my clothes.'

In late April word of the Marastun inmates' plight reached Dr Armin Kobel, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul. He arranged for essential supplies of rice, potatoes and bandages to be brought across the battle lines to the asylum. But these too were stolen. The inmates seemed doomed.

But then, in what is probably the only democratic exercise that Afghanistan has seen in many years, the miserable inhabitants of Marastun held a vote. Two weeks ago, they elected a half-blind beggar, Mohammed Nassem, as their leader. With a few of the stronger inmates, he cleared an irrigation sluice so the asylum would have clean water. He dresses the patients' wounds. He found a safe place to store the Red Cross food, and now every day at least the inmates can eat potatoes, which are peeled by a crazed woman with cataracts in her eyes and hair like snakes. She never lets go of her knife.

Mr Nassem says modestly of himself that he is 'only half a man'. He has left the asylum because he feared that the mujahedin would rape his young wife, but every morning he walks a perilous six miles back to the asylum across the front line. The Afghan Red Crescent has been shamed into paying him a salary: pounds 3 a month. When asked why he was helping the inmates, Mr Nassem replied: 'The doctors, the nurses, nobody else cares for them any more. I'm the only person who can help.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SEO Account Manager

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SEO Account Manager is requi...

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant - Global Leader - FTSE 250

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: As an Associate Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Representative

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family run school photogra...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - OTE £42,000

£28000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be joining a leading s...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map