Crippling legacy of interminable civil war

As Afghanistan's conflict goes on, a young boy becomes its latest victim. Tim McGirk reports
Kabul - Ghulam Sadiq, 12, had gone without even a piece of naan bread for a day and a half when he left his mud-walled home in the cliffs above Kabul and went in search of firewood for his family.

Running along the sewage-filled ravine, Ghulam passed the cemetery, where many of his neighbours and relatives lie buried, killed by stray rockets during Afghanistan's interminable civil war. Silver tinsel wreathed their muddy, fresh graves.

Further down the hillside, friends of Ghulam who were carrying buckets of water from the well watched him amble across the stone bridge ("Built by the English," Afghans say proudly). There, on the opposite bank of the Kabul river, beside the zoo where most of the animals have died of hunger or been eaten by the ragged mujahedin fighters, stood several gaunt trees maimed by shellfire. It was there that Ghulam sought to find some branches that would bring a few minutes of warmth for his family.

But the boy stepped on a buried mine. It was not a big mine, not big enough to kill him outright. Instead, the mine blew off Ghulam's foot just below the shin, and it sprayed shrapnel up his chest and into his head, blinding him in one eye.

The thudding boom of a mine exploding is a sound that everybody in Kabul knows and dreads. Foreign sappers have discovered 52 minefields in and around Kabul. Every changing tide of battle between the rival mujahedin factions has left another minefield in its ebb. After one big skirmish a year ago, in which President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government forces chased out a rebel faction in the southern flatlands of Kabul, more than 500 people who returned to the neighbourhood stepped on mines. Nearly all were civilians. Most were women and children.

The explosion brought a militia commander, Said Mahmud, running over to the howling, bleeding boy. Plenty of children die from mines in Kabul, but this commander, a strapping man in his twenties with a beard, decided it wasn't going to happen to Ghulam. The militiaman picked up Ghulam and carried him out into the road, where he halted a taxi. For carrying the injured boy to hospital, the taxi driver demanded 20,000 Afghanis (pounds 3), or three-quarters of his militiaman's monthly wages. Said paid up.

The hospital had no blood for Ghulam. With so many daily casualties, coupled with an Afghan superstition that giving blood saps a man's strength and virility, few Kabul hospitals have enough blood stocks for even routine operations. "By Allah, I'll give all my blood to save this boy," Said told the doctors. They proceeded to drain 700ml from Said, nearly twice the amount usually taken from donors.

It was a rare opportunity to get blood for the hospital staff; until an injured person's relatives arrive to give their blood, nurses make do by taking donations from a few beggars sprawled on the hospital steps like sleeping dogs. "Their blood is as weak as tea," one nurse complained about the beggars. "They have no money for food." One French relief agency, ACTED, is trying to break the taboo on blood-giving by offering donors a 140kg sack of coal.

Ghulam was moved to the Indira Gandhi children's hospital. Cold as a morgue and without electricity, the hospital at least had a few bandages for the boy's severed leg and his eye. Ghulam was given painkillers and put in an unlit room with other injured children. His voice was hardly a whisper, like the hissing of a punctured tyre in the darkness. "Please turn me over. It hurts so much. I'm going to die," Ghulam wheezed.

An orderly in a dirty smock bent over Ghulam. "Tell us where you live. We'll fetch your parents," he insisted. Ghulam winced. "I'm not going to say where they are until you turn me over. Please," the boy begged deliriously. The hospital had run out of antibiotics, so a contribution was taken up and somebody dispatched to a chemist for penicillin. The boy was not only torn by shrapnel but also by dirt and stones blasted deep into his wounds.

Back in the boy's neighbourhood, word had spread fast that Ghulam had stepped on a mine. Someone at the well had raced up to tell his mother, Asifa. Shocked, she sat by the door, fearing the worst. Ghulam was the family's second casualty. Another son had been injured in a mortar attack on Kabul, a barrage so intense the family had been forced to flee their home.

Donning a turquoise burqaa like a sheet that hid her face and entire body, Asifa hastened to the hospital. She wept under her burqaa. "He'd had no lunch and dinner since yesterday, and when I offered him some bread this morning, he said, 'No thanks, Mummy. I'm full.' I tried to get him to take one kiss from his brother, but Ghulam just went rushing off."

At her son's bedside, Asifa lifted aside her burqaa and caressed and soothed her son. After she saw to it that he was taken to a room with a few rays of pale winter sunlight, she drew the burqaa back over herself and, cocooned in her grief, she slumped down in the hospital corridor like a pile of dirty laundry. "Somebody here in the hospital has stolen his money," Asifa cried out to nobody in particular. "He had 7,000 Afghanis [about 75p] this morning, and now there's only 1,000 left."

At this children's hospital in Kabul, they said it was an easy day. Only one mine injury. Usually, rockets are falling on the city or battles are being fought by rival militias, and this one child's misery in Kabul is magnified a hundred times.