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Masood, a 12-year-old shepherd with a scarred face and an artificial leg, says he wants to live forever at the hospital in the valley.

"I will never go home," he says. "I'm afraid of another explosion. If I go home, maybe there will be another land mine."

One evening four months ago, while he was herding his sheep on a mountain in northern Afghanistan, the boy stepped on a land mine. The left side of his body, from his foot to his face, was mangled.

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After a two-day journey through the mountains, he arrived at an Italian-run hospital in the Panjshir Valley. His leg was amputated and replaced with an artificial limb. His left eye was blinded.

Masood is one of the estimated 100,000 Afghans disabled by land mines since the 1980s. He still smiles easily as he plays with other children in the hospital. But he never plays war games. He wants to be a doctor when he grows up.

In this poverty-stricken region near Kabul, the cement factory has shut its doors and the textile plant is closed. But one industry continues to flourish in a country littered with millions of explosive devices from 22 years of brutal warfare: the production of artificial legs.

A Red Cross workshop at Gulbahar, near the Panjshir Valley, produces hundreds of artificial limbs each year, sometimes using scrap rubber from abandoned Soviet tanks to fashion the heels. In the past two years it has provided help to 2,000 people, about half of whom were land-mine victims.

There is a relentless constancy to the artificial-leg industry. Year after year, people are still being wounded in the same minefields.

In 1990, a soldier named Abdul Jalal stepped on a land mine while playing volleyball with his army mates at an airport near here. His leg was amputated. Just a few weeks ago, 11 years after the volleyball incident, a soldier named Habib Khan stepped on a mine at the same airport. His leg, too, had to be removed.

"When I see more patients coming here with mine injuries, it makes me sad, but what can we do?" said Abdul Jalal, now a physiotherapist at the Red Cross workshop at Gulbahar.

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"Sometimes we think it is impossible to have a peaceful country here. But I am happy that I can work with the disabled people and help them and be useful to them."

Across Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross has produced more than 37,000 prostheses since 1988. More than 350 Afghans are employed in the industry. All of the 16 staff at Gulbahar are amputees with artificial legs. Their experience helps them teach new patients how to walk.

"We understand their problem," said Abdul Jalal, who has no surname. "We encourage them to get a prosthesis. We tell them that they can work independently, they can take care of their family, and they shouldn't be sad."

When his leg was amputated in 1990, he thought he would never walk again. But today he supports a family of nine with his earnings from the Red Cross.

"At first I thought it was impossible, but now I walk for several hours a day and I don't even think about it any more," he said.

"I can do everything except play football."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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