Mess Media




Afghan Amputees Avoid Begging With Bike Service

by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

NPR Morning Edition , October 7, 2008

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Most of the tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan who have lost legs to land mines have no way to make a living other than begging.

But one group of "mine survivors," as the United Nations calls them, has come up with another way to feed its families. It operates a bicycle messenger service in Kabul.

On a recent morning, Afghan bicycle messenger Amin Zaki hands out documents to be delivered from a Kabul park that he calls his office. Fellow messenger Abdel Sabur tells his colleagues where they'll be working.

Normally, the messengers would also divide up pizza delivery duty. But as it's the holy fasting month of Ramadan, the work on this day is limited to documents.

A few minutes later, the messengers get up off the grass and walk to their bikes. One is on crutches and the others are limping.

Each of the men has only one leg. But they don't see the loss of the other one as a problem in their line of work.

Abdul Khalil had his right leg amputated after stepping on a mine seven years ago. He kicks the kickstand up with his left foot, then swings his prosthetic leg over the bicycle and climbs on. He rides onto the street, carrying an old messenger bag held together by masking tape.

Khalil glides easily among the cars and motorcycles that seem to follow no traffic rules on Kabul's crazy streets. He says it's as easy to pedal with his prosthetic leg as with his real one.

Khalil has worked for the Disabled Cycle Messenger Services for nearly six years. He says it has allowed him to feed, clothe and school his eight children.

Difficulties Remain

At the U.N. Mine Action Center for Afghanistan, Deputy Program Director Susan Helseth says she's happy with the messengers' work. Hers is one of a few foreign agencies that employ the messengers, who charge $1 for most deliveries.

"The messenger service, I'm positive, has cut down on the use of our vehicles, has cut down on our fuel consumption, and it also has provided employment for these guys that ride around for us," she says.

Helseth says the bicycle messengers are more reliable, too, unimpeded by the growing number of vehicles that grind traffic to a halt.

"And so we feel quite confident in this service and think that other U.N. agencies and [nongovernmental organizations] and commercial companies should be using this," she says. "It would probably cut down the number of cars running around Kabul and maybe help with traffic and even the accident situations."

But Zaki, who manages the messenger service, says the men have had a hard time getting clients since splitting last year from their parent group, the Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation and Recreation.

Zaki says they left at the urging of their German donor group, which was unhappy with the Afghan parent agency for keeping money it was supposed to spend on the bicycle messengers.

Both the donor and former parent agency declined to comment.

Zaki says with too little work, the messengers fell behind on the rent. They were evicted from their office recently and have since met in the park.

His colleague, Sabur, says with the weather turning, the messengers won't be able to meet there for long. He doesn't know what they'll do if their business fails.

But he says one thing's for sure: He would rather die than have to go out and beg.