It’s hard to imagine a happier face. But it’s a bittersweet story.
A joyful video of a 5-year-old Afghan boy, Sayeed Rehman, has gone viral. He had just been fitted with a new prosthetic leg, and he couldn’t stop dancing while flashing a wide smile.
He said he was happy to have a leg that fit him because he had outgrown his older ones — and happy he could dance again with the new prosthetic.
The video, taken last Saturday by one of his therapists at the ICRC Orthopaedic Center in Kabul, resonated with many in Afghanistan and around the world
Sayeed Rehman’s own story is much like that of the tens of thousands of Afghan children affected by the years of conflict.
“He was injured when he was only 8 months old,” Sayeed Rehman’s mother, Raesa, told NPR over a phone call from their home province of Logar, some 40 miles from the capital city. “We live in an area where the Taliban are strong and there are lot of battles between the Afghan forces and the insurgents.”
The family was caught in one such attack close to their house. Sayeed Rehman and his older sister were both injured, while Raesa’s brother and nephew were killed, she said. She rushed the injured children to a clinic in the district center. They both survived, but Sayeed Rehman’s right leg had to be amputated.
The boy was hospitalized for a month and a half. “[He] came to our center in Kabul in December 2013 when he was approximately 10 months old,” recalls Dr. Alberto Cairo, head of the ICRC Orthopaedic Center in Kabul and one of Sayeed Rehman’s doctors.
The boy learned to walk with the use of a prosthetic and crutches over the years. “The mother did very well to bring us the child when very small,” Cairo says. “At that age the prosthesis becomes part of the body without the child almost noticing, which is an essential step for a regular physical and mental development.”
Since he was first brought to the clinic, Sayeed Rehman has had six artificial legs to fit his growing body, “including the last, the one he is dancing on,” Cairo says. “As he grows older, he will need a new prosthetic per year for the next few years, and eventually one every two or three years,” Cairo says. “We expect he will receive a total of minimum 35 during his life.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross says that it treats 500 to 600 cases of Afghans who need prosthetics every year, of which at least 30 are children.
But the number of children injured is much higher, according to reports from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
So far this year, of the 1,773 civilian casualties recorded by the U.N. agency between January and March, 582 were children — 150 deaths and 432 injured. This is a steep rise from 2009, when the U.N. started documenting civilian casualties in Afghanistan and reported 345 children killed due to conflict that year.
Heather Barr, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, hopes that Sayeed Rehman’s video will force viewers to consider the larger issues affecting children in Afghanistan. “This video is so joyful and also so poignant. I want people to watch it and see a beautiful child having a moment of happiness — but not without also understanding the violence, pain and suffering Afghans are experiencing every day,” she says.
She is also concerned by World Bank figures showing a drop in aid to the country: “The survival rate — and quality of living — for children who are injured due to the conflict is directly connected to what type of health care and rehabilitation services are available to them, and there is real reason to worry that Afghanistan’s already extremely weak health care system is growing weaker.”
Indeed, providing constant medical attention to Sayeed Rehman has been a challenge for his mother. The prosthetic is provided at no cost, but she says she’s in heavy debt due to other medical expenses.
And she’s the sole supporter of their family. “I work in the fields and look after Rehman and his siblings, and their ailing father who is unemployed. We are barely surviving with the income we have,” Raesa says, adding that she’s had to carry him in her arms to his medical appointments because he can’t walk all the way with his prosthetic leg. “I am physically and mentally worn out, but who else is there to look after us?”
Raesa has high hopes for her son’s future. “He is such a happy child who is always running, dancing and making other people around him so happy. I want to send him to school so he can grow up be a powerful man,” she says.
The child’s doctors agree with Raesa. “The physiotherapists working with him say that he is a very easy patient, fast in learning, doing whatever he has been asked to. He is a happy and sweet boy,” Cairo says.
But Barr worries that even a viral video won’t be enough to keep the world’s attention on Afghanistan. “Afghanistan and its civilian casualties feel very forgotten,” she says. “And no one wants to be reminded that people are still dying in the war daily.”
Casualty reports, published regularly in The New York Times, back up her assertion. Just this week, while the viral video was eliciting smiles, this report was listed for May 8: “A home in the Torachina area of Tarinkot District was hit by airstrikes from a foreign aircraft during a joint operation, killing six members of the same family. Two women and four children were buried under the collapsed home.”
Ruchi Kumar is a freelance journalist reporting from India and Afghanistan about conflict, politics, development and culture stories. She tweets at @RuchiKumar
Hikmat Noori is an Afghan journalist based in Kabul who covers the intersection of culture and politics in South Asia. He tweets at @noori1st