From battered lives, a love story

Despite violence and land mines in Afghanistan, an injured couple finds fresh promise in their lives.

Mahmuddin remembers the first time he set eyes on Zahra about three months ago. He was an amputee who had lost his legs in a land-mine incident, waiting in line at the Afghan Ministry for Disabled People to demand compensation. She was an amputee working at the ministry, hearing requests from men like Mahmuddin.

From the time she lifted her burqa to reveal coal-black eyes and a kind smile, Mahmuddin was smitten. (Like many Afghans, he and Zahra use only one name.)

Zahra does not recall their first meeting as vividly. But last month, after a brief but persistent courtship, the two got married: two Afghan war victims rebuilding their lives, thinking of starting a family, and hoping for an Afghanistan where minefields, rocket attacks, and lawlessness will be a thing of the past.

The love story of Mahmuddin and Zahra is a rare bright point in a country where land mines, unexploded bombs, and random violence are constant threats.

Land mines are a particular problem. This silent, hidden enemy has killed thousands, maimed 700,000, and continues to kill or injure men, women, and children each day. It's a problem that this country has precious few resources to combat, which makes the work of foreign-funded demining agencies a race against time.

But in the meantime, it is Afghan citizens like Zahra (who was wounded in a rocket attack) and Mahmuddin who are steadily picking themselves up, and relying on their own skills, strength, and hope to make better lives together.

"Unfortunately, couples like this are quite common in Afghanistan," says Helge Kvam, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul, which provides prosthetic limbs for amputees "There are three or four [land-mine] victims every day, which is a drop from six or seven [daily] victims last year, but it is still a major problem."

More than 90 percent of these victims tend to be civilians, he adds. More than half are children. The implications are stark for this already impoverished country. How to rebuild the country, if so much energy is required to look after the 5 percent of the population who are maimed, many of them needing constant care?

Despite the rising danger for foreign humanitarian workers, Mr. Kvam says, "I foresee that we will have to stay on for quite a while. I don't think it is realistic to say that we can scale down or hand over these activities in a few years' time. This is a country in great need."

Sitting in his small shop near a large apartment complex riddled with bullet holes, Mahmuddin is a curiously optimistic man. Selling candy, pens, and laundry detergent, Mahmuddin makes about 30 Afghanis a day (65 cents), just enough to buy bread and vegetables for himself and his wife and to pay the rent on his second-floor apartment.

It's a far cry from 11 years ago, when Mahmuddin appeared to be on the way up. An intelligence officer for the communist government of Dr. Najibullah, he was happily married. His wife and young son shared the same apartment he lives in now in the southeast part of town.

But in 1994, fellow intelligence officers placed a land mine in a staircase outside his office. His colleagues, all hard-line communists, suspected that Mahmuddin, a Pashtun, was sympathetic to the Pashtun guerrilla group, Hizb-e Islami.

Doctors at a military hospital removed both legs, even though one leg was merely broken. Mahmuddin says 35 doctors were subsequently arrested for the mishap, but by then it was too late. Mahmuddin had joined the growing ranks of mine victims.

His troubles didn't stop there. In the autumn of 2000, a rocket slammed into Mahmuddin's apartment. The blast immediately killed his son and mortally injured his wife, who was eight months pregnant. The baby girl was born and survived, only to die three years later of a sudden illness.

"I was really upset, I couldn't understand why all this was happening to me," Mahmuddin recalls.

On the other side of town, Zahra was a single woman living with her brother in a small house in an industrial neighborhood. She was home when a rocket from an Islamic guerrilla group tore into her home. Doctors removed her legs at a military hospital.

Abandoned by her brother, she moved into the home of her sister and brother-in-law, and did what she could to help out. But she had no schooling, no job skills. Without the help of a nephew, she couldn't, for a time, even get around the house, let alone move through the streets.

Following the Afghan tradition of arranged marriages, Mahmuddin approached Zahra's family rather than Zahra herself to ask for her hand in marriage. It is a tradition designed to protect an Afghan woman's virtue, but the result is an arrangement that leaves the woman with only one power, to say yes or no.

"Honestly, the first time I [really] met him was 19 days ago, at our marriage," she says with a smile. "Before that, my brother-in-law told me, 'There's this nice guy who wants to marry you. Have you ever met him before?' "

But, Zahra says, there were so many men in the office that day they first saw each other. "How could I know which one he was?"

Zahra had had three other suitors before, but Mahmuddin was the only one to come back four times after repeated no's.

"There were other men who were not disabled who wanted to marry me, so I refused Mahmuddin," says Zahra, smiling mischievously. "But on that fourth time, I don't know what he did to me, what spell he cast."

Mahmuddin laughs. "Afghan people don't give up their women to just anyone," he says. "Only when you have worn out your shoes will they give up and let you marry. But I don't give up easily, either."

With Zahra learning how to tailor clothes, and Mahmuddin busy with his shop and as a district representative for disabled war victims, the couple say they have no immediate plans for children.

"God is great, so I do wish to have a family," notes Mahmuddin. "Even though there are lots of difficulties in this family, God is great."

Zahra doesn't disagree about God's greatness, but she wonders if having a family is practical. "Don't you see that I'm disabled, that it would be difficult for me to raise children?" she asks.

"No, God is great," Mahmuddin repeats.

Clearly, this is a discussion for later.

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