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Afghanistan’s ‘father of amputees’ condemns land mines

October 10, 1997

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ In the dusty bazaars of Afghanistan’s shattered capital, one-legged men and children hobbling along on homemade crutches are a common sight.

It is there that people affectionately refer to Alberto Cairo as ``the father of amputees.″

For six years, the Italian physiotherapist has directed the International Red Cross’ four orthopedic centers in Afghanistan, which have treated thousands of amputees _ most of them victims of the estimated 9 million to 10 million land mines planted around the country.

Every single employee at the orthopedic centers _ and there are hundreds _ are victims of mines in a country that the United Nations says has more anti-personnel mines than any other.

An unassuming man with speckled gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Cairo knows the reputation he has gained in Afghanistan.

``This man looked at me and said, `This man is mother and father of us’,″ Cairo recalled. ``But it’s not me doing all the job. My workers, without them I cannot do anything.″

In the 11 years since the Red Cross began its orthopedic work in Afghanistan, it has registered 23,601 patients, all of them amputees and 83 percent victims of mines.

``It is something that still shocks me,″ Cairo said of the land mines buried during 20 years of factional fighting. ``It is so crazy to have these mines. It stays there for a long time waiting for a victim. ... Some of them are going to last for years, for generations.″

In August alone, 99 new patients came to the orthopedic center in Kabul.

``I have legs, but I know now what it means to lose a leg. For many of these, they are between 20 and 35 years old and their lives are ruined,″ Cairo said. ``They are civilians. They have nothing to do with war.″

The world’s most heavily mined city, Kabul became the front line in a bitter war among rival Islamic guerrilla movements that threw out a communist regime in April 1992 after a 14-year insurgency.

``They left booby traps everywhere _ in the middle of the kitchen, in playing fields. It is terrible,″ Cairo said.

An employee of the orthopedic center was twice injured by land mines in Kabul.

``The first time he lost one leg. The second time he lost one arm and one leg. What do they want, his other arm?″ Cairo asked in frustration.

Inside the orthopedic center in central Kabul, young men, little boys and small girls struggle with new limbs, learn to walk straight, sit down without stumbling, move with confidence.

As Cairo gently held his hand, 8-year-old Abdullah strained to put one artificial foot in front of the other along a narrow steel pipe. The return journey along the pipe was done alone.

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