From Prayer to Paralysis: Patient Waiting for War's End

Through the Soviet invasion and occupation, the Afghan civil war and now the United States war and occupation, a young man named Zainullah, around 25 years of age, has seen war his whole life. But you'd never know it by his engaging smile and his relaxed countenance. Zainullah currently lives at a paraplegic center in Hayatabad, Pakistan, a suburb of Peshawar, the capital city of the North-West Frontier Province. He is originally from the Helmand province of Afghanistan, which has been one of the most intense battlegrounds during the "war on terror" launched by the United States in 2001.

Zainullah was paralyzed about nine months ago after being struck with shrapnel from a U.S. cruise missile. On the day of the attack, Zainullah was getting ready to start his prayers. He heard a bomb blast, and before he had a chance to realize that he was the target, Zainullah was laying prostrate on the ground with a piece of metal lodged in his spinal cord. Two men from his village carried him to the nearest clinic. There he was given an injection and then taken to the International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) facility in Helmand. Now paralyzed from the waist down, Zainullah spent one month at the ICRC , and then decided to seek more extensive rehabilitation treatment in Pakistan.

With the help of friends, Zainullah was able to arrange travel to Karachi, where he spent 15 days, and afterwards he was transferred to a facility in Gwadar. He spent the next two months in Gwadar awaiting admittance to the paraplegic center in Hayatabad. Given the circumstances, Zainullah is doing very well at the Rehab center. The center provides quality care that stresses independence and encourages patients to reach their fullest capacity possible. Zainullah has a busy schedule which includes daily prayers and going to the campus Mosque, walking with a set of leg braces, life-skills and independence classes, occupation training and socializing with others at the center. In the half year he has been at the center, Zainullah has learned to tailor clothes and has shown considerable progress in his ability to walk with the braces.

Back in Afghanistan, Zainullah was a religious student. Beyond being raised by a Muslim family, his basic inspiration for pursuing religious studies was that there were hardly any other options for youth. Zainullah believes that people in Afghanistan are fighters, but that they did not choose this way of life. He says that Afghanistan has certainly become a place of war, but that the world will not let Afghanistan live in peace. Zainullah longs to see his family back home. He has only seen his father once since the bombing and has not seen his mother. He is missing his family and home especially badly, as he is facing difficult and new challenges being paralyzed.

Zainullah is determined to go back home when he is able, but that may not be possible any time soon with conditions worsening in his region. The ICRC in Helmand has seen increased injuries and casualties since February of this year when the United States and NATO forces launched their military offence in the Marja district of Helmand. The Red Cross also notes that traveling conditions have worsened due to the continued fighting and an increase in IEDs, making it hard for the sick and wounded to reach hospitals. This does not bode well for a paraplegic trying to return and re-integrate into his society. Zainullah thinks that he may have to wait out the fighting in Karachi.

With the United States beginning "major push" in military operations in nearby Kandahar, Zainullah will likely remain in Karachi for quite some time. President Obama recently told Afghan president Hamid Karzai that "there is going to be some hard fighting over the next several months," and U.S. General Stanley McChrystal thinks it will be at least the end of the year before the operation's success can be measured. After the Kandahar offensive comes to a close, Gen. McChrystal will likely face a half-hearted evaluation from the Obama administration and the citizens of the United States. If he fails, he might be dismissed. If he succeeds, he may retain his post and possibly be promoted.

Will the administration or those living in the U.S. take time to measure the loss of mobility in one young man's legs, or the loss of a loved one from a cruise missile fired from an F16 war plane? Zainullah recalls hearing F15 and F16 fighter planes roar above his house night after night. Members from his community have been killed from aerial assaults, and he says that others who have fled to IDP camps have also been attacked while living as refugees.

Faced with such overwhelming violence in his homeland, Zainullah would have every reason to pick up and encourage others to pick up a Kalashnikov and fight the occupation forces. But he is welcoming to Westerners when he meets them at the center. Zainullah is able to distinguish between the U.S. government and the people. And he realizes that not all those living in the U.S. are for the war. He says that he still has much anger about his injury, but he hides it well with a playful smile and a sharp sense of humor. Mostly, Zainullah says he wants an end to the war so that he can return home, make some money and start a new life.

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