We had just driven through the village of Jorm, a huddle of mud-brick houses surrounded by trees in an upland valley in northern Afghanistan, when we saw about fifty people running towards us in a sort of bewildered panic.
As they grew closer we saw that two of them were carrying children, their faces covered in blood, on their backs. We stopped and asked a man beside the road what had happened and he said a mine had exploded – one of the thousands of devices that litter this land after two decades of war.
Just outside the village people, almost all men, were milling about in ineffective confusion. Even in this emergency Afghan women did not leave their houses, apart from one old woman who was cradling a boy's head in her lap. She was wailing and rocking to and fro, but she had not even wiped the blood off his face.
We found that three small boys, not just the two we had originally seen, were injured. One of them, Barot Mohammed, aged 10, lay on the stony ground, bleeding heavily from wounds in his right leg where pieces of flesh had been torn away by the blast. His left hand was wrapped in a sodden brown bandage, but whatever it covered looked too small to be a fist. The boys were so drenched in blood that I could not see how badly they were wounded. One of them was half sitting up, clutching his stomach. None of the men, some armed with sub-machine-guns, seemed to know what to do.
Through our driver, Daoud, whose knowledge of English is limited to about twenty words, we asked where was the nearest hospital. They replied that it was in Baharak, a market town about an hour's drive away, but they had no car or truck.
I was with two other correspondents, one from France and the other from Spain, with whom I had driven in a sturdy Russian-made jeep through the mountains from the Panjshir valley north of Kabul. None of us knew much about first aid, or had any bandages, but it seemed possible that, unless the boys received help soon, they would bleed to death.
My two colleagues volunteered to stay behind in Jorm to make room for the children in the small jeep. We lifted them in, wrapped in blankets. None of the three cried out or made any sound other than a whimper, either because they were in shock or because Afghan boys are expected to endure pain without complaint.
Two older men also crammed themselves into the jeep. One, with a grey beard, was the boy's uncle. He said the boys were brothers. Barot Mohammed was the oldest and the other two were called Rajab Mohammed, 7, whom I had seen clasping his stomach, and Najmaddin, 5, who did not seem quite so badly hurt.
It was a horribly bumpy ride to Baharak. Daoud is a highly skilful driver and the dirt road, by Afghan standards, not too bad. But even so the boys were jolted up and down as he nursed the jeep across deep gullies where streams cut across the road. Rajab's eyes, deep-set and very dark those of like most Afghans, kept closing and his head falling sideways, so I thought he was dying.
The hospital in Baharak, a typical dusty market town, represented the best hope of safety for the boys. There were no lights inside. I walked through several rooms shouting for a doctor. I saw two women in the distance and explained about the mine explosion. They clucked sympathetically, but did nothing, presumably because they were not wearing veils. Finally a man appeared who said he was an assistant doctor. In a cluttered room with two operating tables he began to treat Najmaddin.
Another doctor called Dr Suleiman arrived and a German nurse called Mathias, an energetic looking man with long brown hair, offered to come and help.
With three doctors and nurses treating the boys I became more hopeful. When I asked the assistant doctor how they were he said "good, good" in an absent way. He and Mathias were working on Barot's right arm, which had deep cuts in it. But when they gently removed the blood-sodden bandage on his left hand, I saw that only the little finger was left.
Barot must have been holding the mine or shell in this hand when it exploded. It had ripped away four fingers, leaving white tips of bone sticking out of the flesh. "I'm afraid we'll have to cut away the whole hand," said Mathias, sadly shaking his head.
A little later Dr Suleiman revealed that Rajab had a puncture wound in the abdomen. He said both boys would have to go for surgery to a proper hospital two hours' drive away in the large town of Faizabad. As we left, Dr Suleiman was saying he would look in the bazaar for somebody with a car.
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