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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Amputees bear cost of conflict in Pakistan

PESHAWAR: Fourteen-year-old Asmit Ali has no hands — they were blown off while he was playing with a piece of unexploded ordnance 10 days ago.
The Pakistani schoolboy, his face dotted with scars from the explosion, sits on a plastic chair outside his ward at a field hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

His body is limp, his abdomen and the stumps of his hands are bandaged and he is barely able to speak.

‘He found something — it looked like the cap of a thermos flask — and brought it home and he was playing with it when it exploded,’ says his father, Shaukat Ali, whose four-year-old daughter was also hurt.

Ali and his family returned to their home in Maidan in the Lower Dir district this month after fleeing the area in April when the Pakistani army began an offensive against Taliban militants.

For three months, they lived in a rented room in Peshawar, the main city in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, waiting for authorities to tell them it was safe to go back.

When they did return, they wished they had not.

‘These things should have been removed before we were told it was safe to return,’ says Ali, who was a jeweller before the conflict began, but who now has no business with his shop looted and home damaged in shelling.

‘Blood everywhere’

At the ICRC Surgical Hospital for the Weapon-Wounded, there are scores of victims of the conflict with similar tales.

In a female ward, Rubaihat Said, 33, weeps as she uses her scarf to cover the stump where her left leg used to be.

‘We were sitting in our home when the shelling started and within a few minutes, there was an explosion,’ says Said, a mother of two from Matwara village in Buner district. ‘I could see blood everywhere.’

The tented hospital has treated more than 450 patients, most wounded during the latest phase of violence. Most of the wounds are caused by shelling, bomb explosions, landmines, unexploded ordnance and gun shots.

Most patients say they do not know who planted the mines or where the gunfire or shelling came from.

‘About 70 per cent of the patients we have treated are men and about 15 per cent women and 15 per cent children,’ says Sabahat Jamal Gailani, assistant hospital project manager.

‘Unfortunately, there have been about 25 patients who we could not save.’

There has been no independent verification of the number of civilian casualties in the conflict, but the Pakistani military insists that there were few.

The conflict also forced more than two million people from their homes but most have gone back in recent weeks.

Back to school

Amputations are common at the 91-bed hospital — which is equipped with X-ray facilities, an intensive care unit and an operating theatre.

Patients can spend up to three months at the hospital recovering from an amputation, before being referred for the possibility of an artificial limb.

At the Pakistan Institute for Prosthetic and Orthotic Sciences in Peshawar, five-year-old Zakia sits on her father's lap, squeezing in close to his chest, self-conscious of her newly fitted artificial leg.

Her home was shelled in May and she lost her right leg, said her father, Mohammad Sher, a wheat farmer from Kabal in Swat district.

Too emotional, he breaks down, unable to speak when asked about how he sees his daughter's future.

Staff at the institute say this kind of prosthetic limb is vital for a patient's self-esteem in a society where much stigma is attached to disability.

‘This is vitally important for them as there are a lot of societal issues attached to disability of this kind where people can be ostracised or shunned in a community,’ said Philip Morgan of the ICRC.

‘People need to get back to work, children need to go back to school. It's important that they be accepted in their communities when they go home after the conflict.’

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