Climbing the rickety metal staircase is precarious enough if you aren’t on crutches, but it’s simply dangerous if you are. At the top is the office of Janbazan-e-Mayhan, one of many social councils for disabled Afghans. Men missing arms, legs or hands sit around the small room.
Afghanistan isn’t an easy place for anyone to make a living. But for those with disabilities, it’s a downright hostile environment. Tens of thousands have been maimed and disabled during decades of conflict. Jobs are scarce, and there’s almost nothing that’s handicapped-accessible.
Activists like Hussein Karimi, head of Janbazan, are demanding change.
Earning A Living
Karimi lost a leg during the decade-long war against the Soviets in the 1980s. He says he couldn’t find work, so he started the council to help some of the more than 100,000 registered war-disabled Afghans. He says that among other services, the council helps provide vending carts to its 200 members. That way they can earn money, rather than beg for it in the streets like countless amputees across Kabul.
“The government doesn’t provide elevators, ramps or roads that help us,” Karimi says. “But we can’t worry about these issues, because we have to focus on feeding our families.”
Haji Amarullah, 45, lost his lower legs to a land mine during the Soviet war. Because he is uneducated, he couldn’t find a desk job, and because of his prosthetic legs, no one would hire him for any unskilled work.
Amarullah says he registered for the government stipend for those with war-related disabilities. The annual $350 is about what the typical Afghan makes in a month. If you’re one of the nearly 1 million Afghans the government says are disabled from birth or by an accident, you get no financial support.
Until now, it’s largely fallen on private nongovernmental organizations like the Red Cross to care for the disabled. At their orthopedic center in Kabul, men hunch over drill presses, lathes, and molds to make nearly 2,000 prosthetic limbs each year. They also provide thousands of physical therapy sessions a month.
Najamuddin Helal is the head of the center and is himself disabled. He lost his legs to a landmine in the ‘80s. He says disabled Afghans face barriers everywhere they turn.
“Even the private clinics, private hospital, they are not accessible,” he says.
And good luck finding elevators, ramps or handicapped-accessible bathrooms in Kabul. The Red Cross makes it a point to hire people like Helal. He says that Afghans are accepting of disabled people, to an extent.
“They think they should be in a corner, just they are sorry for them,” Helal says. He says the disabled aren’t allowed or encouraged to express their potential. “There is not a feeling of the right of the disabled,” he says.
Taking It To The President
Hundreds of disabled Afghans took to the streets of Kabul earlier this month. They were mostly aging Mujahedeen fighters who limped and crutched their way toward the presidential palace to demand their rights.
They carried coffins — one was to symbolize a man who died at a government clinic while waiting to be treated. The protesters with empty coffins said if the government wasn’t going to help them, then the police should simply shoot them in the streets.
Among their various chants, the protesters called for the government to pass a law protecting the rights of the disabled.
The demonstration achieved its initial goal: President Hamid Karzai agreed to hear their demands. Activist Mohammad Daud Sayar attended the meeting with the Afghan president.
“We have visited President Karzai 25 times, but this time he treated us very differently, the meeting had a very friendly environment,” Sayar says.
He says Karzai was receptive to their list of demands, including seats in Parliament, more health and education services, a higher stipend and housing. Sayar says for now everything is on paper, but he says Karzai gave orders to the ministries to act.
“We take it as a good sign and hope all our demands will be met,” he says.
The Government’s Limits
Dr. Suraya Paikan is deputy minister in the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled. She says that the country must respect the rights of the disabled and provide all the services it can. But, she says, the disabled community must be realistic in their demands.
“They want free land, they want free house. It is impossible,” she says.
Paikan says some of the demands would require constitutional changes that are unlikely to happen. Plus, the government needs help from the international community, she says, because the government doesn’t have the money required to address the problem.
“Big money [is] needed, $200 million needed because all these people are poor people, they don’t have any income,” Paikan says.
She knows well the challenges ahead, as her ministry still struggling to get a working elevator in its own building.
NPR’s Aimal Yaqubi and Sultan Faizy contributed to this report.