Lad-sar-Jangal Winter 1989
Qurban’s wife, Masooma, had taken their two daughters to Pakistan to visit her parents, who had not yet seen their grandchildren. She was expected to return with Jon when he came to collect me. In the evenings I sometimes joined Qurban in his room where we talked late into the night catching up on news.
Qurban had spent much of his life in Karachi and was eager for news of friends there, and to reminisce about his days at the leprosy training centre and hospital. Although I had known Qurban quite well during his student days he had never talked much about his early childhood in Afghanistan. During one of our late night sessions he told the story of the horrors of those days when, at the age of about seven he contracted leprosy.
He had known of the disease as his paternal uncle had leprosy. In those days, people were terrified of leprosy, believing it to be incurable. As no-one understood its cause all kinds of misconceptions and myths surrounded the illness: it was a curse of God, a punishment for sin. Qurban’s uncle must have done something dreadful to be punished in this way, a bad person, to be avoided. He had been ostracised by the community, forced to build his house far away from the village. He wasn’t allowed to pray in the mosque.
One day as Qurban was returning from the village school he and some friends had stopped to play in the river. A friend pointed to a light coloured skin patch on Qurban’s leg, asking what had caused it. Qurban hadn’t noticed the patch before. When his friend poked it with a sharp stick he felt no pain. In that instant he understood. His uncle had several similar patches with no feeling on his body. Qurban went home but said nothing to his family – hoping the patch might disappear as mysteriously as it had come.
Eventually he showed the patch to his father. ‘It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I didn’t know grown up men could cry. His tears frightened me more than anything.’ His father warned him to say nothing to anyone. They began a round of visits to doctors, healers, mullahs, wise women – anyone who might have the means of making the patch disappear. Nothing – not the ointments, pills nor injections, made the slightest difference. Prayers, visits to nearby shrines and tawiz (a few lines of the Quran stitched into a cloth bag and worn as an amulet) were all equally ineffective.
Despite the misery and fear he felt while his parents searched desperately for a cure, Qurban was still a child, with a child’s resilience and enjoyment of life, delighting in leading his friends in mischief. One day he boasted that he could stick pins in his leg and feel no pain. For a few minutes he had basked in the admiration of his friends at this strange and wonderful feat. Next day his world collapsed.
‘At first I didn’t understand what had happened. No-one at school would talk to me but I knew they were whispering things about me. After school, for the first time in my life, no-one would walk home with me. But a crowd of boys was following me. I wanted to run, but I kept walking normally. Suddenly a stone hit my back, then another and another and the boys were shouting “Leper, leper!” Then I ran.’
Qurban’s school days were over, his childhood had ended.
Band-i-Amir – one of the most beautiful places in Afghanistan
One day Qurban’s father took him to the shrine at Band-i-Amir. This chain of five lakes, or dams, is said to have been created by Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad (PBUH). The waters are reputed to have healing powers. Qurban was excited about travelling so far, convinced that this time, surely, he would be cured.
Wondering whether he was to drink the magic water or wash the patch in it, he heard a splash. Turning, he saw threshing arms and legs churning the water. A young girl, a rope tied about her waist, had been thrown into the lake. He watched, horrified, as she was finally hauled, gasping and spluttering back onto the bank. She lay vomiting onto the shore while the people surrounding her murmured prayers.
Taking to the curative waters. This photo was taken in 2006 when I returned to Afghanistan
Convinced he would die Qurban became hysterical, begging his father not to throw him in the water. His father agreed that they should go first to pray at the shrine before Qurban underwent the “treatment”. The child’s sobs attracted the attention of a stranger who paused and peered at the patch on his leg. ‘That is leprosy,’ he announced. ‘You will never cure it like that – better go to Pakistan. They have medicine for this. My wife’s cousin was cured there.’
The shrine at Band-i-Amir I think that might be my son standing in the foreground!
Qurban had wanted to go immediately. Not realising that Pakistan was another country, he couldn’t understand why his father, although excited by the news, did not seem particularly anxious to set off on another journey to buy the medicine. ‘He struggled for months to raise enough money for the trip,’ he explained. ‘And he had to make arrangements for someone to care for my mother and the land. All this time I hated my father because I thought he had decided not to go.’ Qurban paused, blinking back sudden tears, before continuing: ‘I was seven years old, quite a big boy, but all the way to Pakistan, I complained about being too tired to walk. My father carried me on his shoulders most of the way.’
Even when they reached Quetta their troubles were far from over. Many Hazaras had already settled in the city and they soon made contact with people from their own area – but no one had heard of a cure for leprosy. Soon they were caught up once more in a round of visits to doctors, whose prescriptions were useless and expensive. His savings soon vanished and Qurban’s father had to find work. Not far from Quetta he found a job as a coal miner; back breaking work digging for coal in a series of open cast mines and tunnels running deep into the side of the mountain.
One day their luck changed. They met a doctor who not only recognised Qurban had leprosy, but knew of the hospital in Karachi where it could be treated. He wrote a letter of referral to a doctor there. Within days, Qurban and his father had made the journey to Karachi and Qurban had been admitted for treatment in the large Manghopir hospital on the outskirts of the huge city. His father left him almost immediately to return to Lal.
Qurban grinned, ‘The rest you know – school, training, marriage and back to Afghanistan.’ I realised, however, there was a great deal about Qurban I really didn’t know at all. Although completely cured of leprosy, the memory of those stones thrown by his school friends so long ago had marked him deeply. Those little boys, grown up now, had welcomed Qurban back into the community – showing him acceptance and respect. But Qurban’ feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence made him question what the community really thought of him.
Qurban in dark glasses even with his family.
Convinced everyone who looked at him saw immediately, in his loss of eyebrows, the stigma of leprosy, he had affected the habit of wearing dark glasses at all times, even indoors. He suffered periods of moody introspection, which could last for days, during which he would talk to no one, followed by a sudden cheerful gregariousness. His sudden mood swings left everyone confused. Qurban admitted he could do nothing to fight off the black clouds of depression which descended on him without warning.