Jalalabad, Afghanistan―As 10 children from the same family were walking to school last year, they came across an unexploded mortar bomb―a common sight in Afghanistan, where war still rages between the Taliban and US-backed national forces.
Not realizing what it was or the dangers it posed, the curious kids picked up the device and took it to show to an aunt.
And then it exploded.
Three children and the older relative were killed, and the remaining seven lost at least one limb each.
The explosion in Jalalabad, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, was yet another horrific moment illustrating the burden borne by civilians across Afghanistan, which has been at war in one form or another for four decades.
“I feel very sad when I see other girls walk towards school and I cannot walk like them,” 10-year-old Rabia Gul, who lost her right leg in the blast, told AFP during a recent visit to her family’s home.
“I was happy when I had legs, but after losing one of my legs I am not happy in my life anymore.”
According to the United Nations, 3,804 civilians―including more than 900 children―were killed in Afghanistan in 2018, with another 7,189 wounded.
It was the deadliest year on record for civilians in Afghanistan, where decades of conflict have left the battered nation strewn with land mines, unexploded mortars, rockets and homemade bombs.
Rabia was sitting on a bench outside her simple house as six other amputee siblings and relatives, ranging in age from six to 15, placed stockings over their stumps and wriggled into their prosthetics.
“We hope that the Taliban comes and makes peace with the Afghan government, and security will be better in Afghanistan so that no one gets killed or wounded in this country,” said Shafiqullah, 15, who lost both his legs.
For the most part, the children are now tutored at home, where walls have been pockmarked by stray bullets from fighting.
But sometimes they must walk to school for exams—a painful journey owing to blisters that develop where artificial limbs rub against skin.
Such stories are common in Afghanistan, which accounted for nearly half of all civilian casualties in a list of six countries at war, the UN said this year.
In Kot district in Nangarhar province, 70-year-old grandmother Niaz Bibi lost three sons and three grandsons in two separate attacks by the Islamic State group, which has a growing footprint in the region.
Now Bibi is left taking care of their surviving offspring -- about 40 orphans in total.
“I always ask neighbors and other people to donate some food and clothes to feed them,” Bibi told AFP, deep lines etched into her face attesting to her unbearable loss.
“I have got this weapon to guard my grandchildren against any possible attacks,” she added, as she clasped an AK-47.
Such is the circle of violence, loss and revenge, it is hard to see how Bibi’s family can ever break free.
“Though I have lost (so much), if the war goes on like this I will send all these orphaned children when they grow up to serve their country and sacrifice their lives for their homeland,” Bibi said.
After 18 years of conflict, the Taliban are in negotiations with the US for some sort of peace settlement. But a resolution still seems far off, with the two sides struggling to agree on several key points.
Despite losing tens of thousands of fighters in the years since the US-led invasion of 2001, the call of jihad against foreign forces remains a powerful draw.
Young men join up for any number of reasons: sometimes it’s the only way to make a living, sometimes they have no choice.
Jalalabad resident Rahim Jan, a television actor, first learned his son, Afzal, had joined the Taliban when the phone rang one day in 2015.
The man on the other end of the line said: “Afzal has been martyred, congratulations to you,” Jan told AFP.
Jan, 60, has no idea why his son had decided to become a suicide bomber. He had got married just three months before leaving.
In a short video Afzal sent his father, the 19-year-old son said: “I’m with the Taliban, and I’m happy.”
When Afzal joined the Taliban, he gave the militants his family’s contact details. Fearing for his younger son Wasim’s safety, Jan sent him to Turkey.
He has since been deported and returned to Afghanistan, but plans on fleeing again.
“The Taliban have started calling me again, saying come and follow your brother’s way and do jihad,” Wasim says.
“I will once again try to go abroad at any cost, because it is very difficult for me to live here.”