Malek Mohammed was gathering firewood to heat his family home when he stumbled across a remnant of Afghanistan's turbulent past that was buried in the earth. The landmine he stepped on severed his right leg and flung him into the air. His left leg was severed when he landed on a second one.
Malek was 11 at the time and was convinced in his young mind that, even though he had survived, his life was over. The doctors treating him were used to seeing the suffering inflicted by the country's wars but even they said these were among some the worst injuries they'd had to deal with.
Seven years on, the former baker's boy is striving to make it into his country's team for the Paralympics in London, spending every hour he can practicing the sport he hopes to qualify for, swimming. His adversity, he said, has become his strength: "I try not to think about what I have lost, but what I have gained. Of course, it will be my dream to go to London. But just trying to make it to the games has been exciting."
Nothing is easy for someone like Malek. His original plan was to aim for track and field. But the prosthetic legs he was fitted with after being flown to the US now need adjustment and repair, and the technology for that is simply not available in Afghanistan. He has had to ration the time he spends walking, let alone running, to protect his artificial legs as much as possible.
So he has focused on swimming, although the conditions for this are hardly ideal either. Malek does not have access to regular training, and the pool in Kabul he is using is small and not suitable for someone aspiring to take part in an international event. On many days his parents – who have eight other children – do not have the fare for the taxi Malek needs to take him the ramshackle sports complex.
"We are poor, so it would be unfair of me to ask that the money every day should be spent on taxis. Also we live in a very poor country and there are people far worse off than I am," he said. "I sometimes wonder what kind of facilities others, in rich countries have for the Olympics, but there is no point in moaning about it. But just to take part would be great not just for me, but for Afghanistan, I think. It'll show others what can be achieved and that one should not give up."
Earlier this year, the United Nations announced that in 20 years of strife it had dismantled more than 500,000 anti-personnel mines, 22,000 anti-tank mines and 15 million unexploded munitions. These "legacy" weapons killed or wounded 375 children, women and men in 2011 alone.
Last year, homemade bombs planted by the Taliban along roads and ditches killed another 1,200, and several dozen civilians were killed in air strikes by Western forces.
Malek is now waiting to hear whether the International Paralympics Association will invite him, along with half a dozen other disabled Afghan athletes, to the Games this summer. He has heard reassuring noises from his government, but nothing is certain.
Kabeer Khoshbeen, another athlete, who has had to have an arm amputated, stressed that Malek's dedication should be rewarded. "I have not seen anyone else work so hard. If he gets to London, he has a good chance of getting a medal. That will certainly encourage people like me. But it is very important to get foreign help in this. There are so many problems here that organising our team for Paralympics is not a priority for the authorities."
Malek has received encouragement from others, including a supporter who wrote and signed a message on the back of a photograph of the two together: George Bush Snr. The former President wanted to meet the Afghan boy while he was receiving treatment at a medical centre in California where he had been taken by USAID, the US government's humanitarian aid agency.
Malek said he does not like discussing politics. But he continued: "I am very proud of this photo. He was a very important man and he took the time to see me and I am very grateful.
"I can joke with my friends, 'look you too can meet presidents, all you have to do is just lose your legs!'. If we get to the Olympics, maybe we shall meet some more important people. We can tell them about how difficult it is for people in Afghanistan. I can tell them my story."
Malek's memory of the blast is still vivid: "There was so much blood that I thought, 'I will have no more blood left in my body'. I cannot describe the pain. I screamed and I screamed."
His mother, Sabza Gul, fainted when she saw him in hospital. "He did not even look human, it was my son and he been so badly hurt, his body has been torn in half. I did not think he would live through it," she said.
Malek was very nervous of going into the water when he first arrived at Lorna Linda University, near Los Angeles, in 2007. He had been taken there for treatment and physiotherapy. But, having been persuaded that swimming would be a valuable part of his therapy, he took to it with determination and, the next year, won a local competition in San Diego.
"No one thought that was possible. So why can't he go to England and win something there as well?" his mother wanted to know. "No, he has taught us, anything is possible."
Suicide bombers leave 22 dead in Kandahar
At least 22 people were killed yesterday when three suicide bombers blew themselves up in a marketplace in the largest city in southern Afghanistan.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, said the group carried out the attack in Kandahar that injured an estimated 50 civilians. The explosion occurred about three miles from the main gate of the massive military installation run by the US-led coalition and close to an Afghan military base.
The first suicide bomber detonated a three-wheeled motorcycle filled with explosives. Then, as people rushed to assist the casualties, two other suicide bombers on foot walked up to the site and blew themselves up.
Eight private security guards were among the 22 killed along a main road on the east side of the city. Mohammad Naeem, a 30-year-old shopkeeper, said he was selling soft drinks to a customer when the first blast occurred. "I dropped to the ground," he said.
"When I got up, I looked outside and I heard people shouting for help." APReuse content