Malek and the landmines: making a difference in Afghanistan
Malek Mohammed (center) was in the middle of a television interview for “Loma Linda 360” when Nawin Azhand (right) came by. During a break in the filming, the library technician at the Del E. Webb Memorial Library at Loma Linda University asked if Malek was from Afghanistan. When she learned he was, she said, “Me, too!” and consented to join Malek and Ayub Mohammed, who served as interpreter for the interview, in a photo.
If you saw only his smile, you would never suspect that Malek Mohammed is a casualty of war.
At 18 years old, he’s bright, good-looking, and optimistic. On his first trip to the United States, Malek finds that people here are accepting and friendly, and he’s enjoying the sights.
He loved being introduced to the ocean last month—they don’t have anything like it in his native Afghanistan—and he savors the dream of returning to America one day to study medicine and become a doctor.
He plans to dedicate his life to helping others.
Things haven’t always been so good. Back in September of 2005, Malek—who was 16 at the time—was walking across a field near the Kabul airport.
The sun was warm; the day seemed idyllic and bright. As the second oldest child in a family of six boys and three girls, Malek was proud to be able to contribute to the support of his family by working after school at a bakery.
Unfortunately, he never saw either of the two landmines that were waiting for him. As he stepped on the first one, it blew him high into the air and blasted his right leg below the knee.
When he fell back to earth, he landed on the second mine. It ripped the other leg at the same point and launched him once more into the air.
After the explosions, Malek wasn’t sure what to think. “There was blood everywhere,” he recalls. “I had little feeling after the second explosion and I was thinking I cannot live.”
Members of the Loma Linda Afghanistan team enjoy the beauty of the looming mountains of Afghanistan. They include (from left) Richard Hart, Sergio Ortiz, Twyla Gimbel, Mohammed Ayub, Mike Mahoney, Randa Sandvick, Michael Smith, Eldee Palador, Emily Smith, Wayne Smith, Tammy Smith, and Cheri Palador.
Fortunately, a group of soldiers and airport security officials heard the successive explosions and came running to help.
They transported him to Emergency Hospital, a facility run by an Italian charitable organization in Kabul, where doctors amputated the remaining fragments of both legs below the knees and removed shrapnel from assorted parts of his body.
Malek spent the next month recovering in Emergency Hospital before being discharged to a private home for extended care.
For the next three weeks, medical personnel visited him on a daily basis to change his bandages and care for his wounds.
During that time, he frequently went to Sandagl Hospital in Kabul for massage and other forms of pain-management therapy.
Malek’s story underscores the tragic reality of landmine accidents. Thousands of victims around the world have been maimed or killed by encountering landmines.
Although the scope of the problem is so large that statistics are difficult to compile, organizations such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) are working overtime to raise public awareness of the dangers landmines pose to ordinary people such as Malek.
Thanks to the efforts of the ICBL, 122 states of the world signed a treaty on December 3, 2007, banning the use, production, trade, and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines.
While the treaty represents significant progress, the ICBL notes that several nations are refusing to join the fight against landmines.
The biggest countries with the greatest potential for helping to end the death and suffering landmines impose—the United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan—have declined to sign the treaty.
The landmines that blew Malek into the air were left over from the Russian/Afghani conflict—the nine-year war in which a determined group of fighters under the Islamic Mujahadeen drove out one of the largest military superpowers.
Malek is visiting America as the guest of Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he is undergoing surgical and rehabilitative care to address several lingering health problems related to the explosions.
He will receive surgeries on his knees, bladder, and reproductive organs to remove bits of shrapnel that still cause pain in those areas.
He is working with rehabilitative professionals at LLUMC’s East Campus to improve his adaptive skills. He will also be fitted for prosthetic devices that will enable him to walk.
For his part, Malek remains incredibly optimistic. He is thankful to God—whom he knows as Allah—for saving his life, and looks forward to getting married some day and having children.
Malek fights to adjust to a new way of life even as he strives to incorporate as many elements of his pre-landmine existence into his new reality as possible.
While he misses his family back home, he’s actively taking advantage of the opportunity to keep his eyes wide open and learn as much as he can about life in the United States.
Apparently, he likes what he’s seeing because as he assesses his goals for the future, he’s pretty certain he’d rather live here than back in Afghanistan.
He also likes music. “He is a very good singer,” says Ayub Mohammad, LLU’s Afghanistan project country director. “He likes to play the piano. He also likes to work with computers. His typing is better than it used to be.”
When asked what kind of music he likes to play, Malek takes a moment to make sure he understands the interpreter’s question.
Then, in the style of air guitarists and other players of invisible musical instruments, he runs his hands up and down an imaginary keyboard.
“Afghani music!” he grins.
By James Ponder