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U.S. must join mine ban convention, land mine survivor says

April 4, 2012 |  4:30 am

Land mine survivor Firoz Ali Alizada

When he was 13 years old, Firoz Ali Alizada lost both his legs to a land mine while trying to take a shortcut to school north of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Sixteen years later, he is the campaign manager for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which marks the International Day for Mine Awareness on Wednesday. The Times asked him to share his story.

What happened after you stepped on the mine?

I did not expect to survive. We were about three hours' walk from the main road. It took me about six to seven hours to get first aid. We had to go to the home of the doctor because it was late and there was no clinic. He just tried to stop the bleeding with a tourniquet. Then we went to the proper hospital, which was [about 40 miles] away.

On the way to the hospital I lost consciousness. I didn’t know what happened. Later they told me the Taliban was very close to the hospital and they were approaching, and everybody was running away. It was difficult to keep the doctors. My brother had to pay a lot of money to the surgeon for him to do the operation. The next day, around 4 o’clock, I woke up and discovered that they already did the amputation -- my right leg below the knee and the left above the knee.

I was kind of surprised that I was still alive. When I was in the hospital, I saw another person who was close to me and he died in front of my eyes. Not because he was severely injured but because nobody was taking care of him.

Before you were injured, what did you know about land mines?

We did not receive any kind of proper education about land mines. Since I grew up, from the very beginning I used to see -- not land mines per se, maybe because it was all hidden -- but I used to see the sub-munitions, unexploded ordnance and all types of explosives that [remained from]  the war. I used to play with some of them; it looked quite attractive when I was around 7 or 8 years old.

Now I know it’s called BLU-97, a ... cluster bomb. My family used to say, “You have to be careful, don’t touch these things.” But nobody told us, “Don’t go in this place because it is contaminated by land mines.” People were not scared or anything until there was an explosion or an accident. It was a kind of part of people’s lives. People would see it as very normal.

How did your injuries affect your life?

It totally changed my life. I used to be a very naughty teenager. I was with a bunch of friends, always out, playing around the village, volleyball, football. But all those things were taken away.

I could not return to my village because it wasn’t physically accessible for me....   Since '96 I have been there only three times. They operated on me seven times because the first operation was not done properly. For a while I could not go to school.

We had to leave our place because Taliban came, and I am from a minority and we were targeted. We immigrated to Peshawar, Pakistan. My family had to spend whatever they had on my operation and my recovery. Everyone was just thinking for me to survive. My brother had to leave his job. He was doing agriculture. My father had to quit his job. It was all because of this accident.

Even after we recovered economically, still my family remained psychologically affected because I think people with a disability are seen as a burden. You’re a cripple. One reason that I’m in Geneva is because of this discrimination.

What had you dreamed of doing when you were young -- and what did you end up doing?

When I was young I had totally different plans. I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to be a police officer. Now I’m happy with my life. I think I overcame a lot of challenges thanks to the support of my family. The International Committee of the Red Cross helped me a lot, providing me a leg and wheelchair. Then I got a job with Handicap International -- as soon as I had a job I felt the difference in my life.

Now I work with this campaign. I’m one of the luckiest among the survivors. I’m married now and I have a kid. All of this makes me feel happy. But when I think about tens of thousands of other survivors living in mine-affected countries and other people with disabilities living in these countries, I really don’t know when the situation will change for them. The problem is so huge.

What needs to be done to help survivors?

Most survivors you ask, what do they want? They’d say a job, some way to feed their family or to feed themselves. It is very important that the states should think about better ways of creating job opportunities for survivors and make sure that they are an active part of the society.

Only 9% of the funding that goes to mine action went to victim assistance, which is not enough. Most of the money goes to get rid of land mines, which is great. I’m not saying they should take money away from mine clearance. But there is a need for more assistance.

What more could the United States and the rest of the international community be doing?

It will be a huge thing if the United States joins the mine ban convention.There are 37 countries that did not join the mine ban convention, which means they may have a stockpile of mines. [Under the Mine Ban Treaty, countries agree not to use, produce or transfer antipersonnel mines, to destroy their stockpiles within four years and to clear any mined areas in their territory within 10 years.]

Some of them think they might need to use them at some point. Some say, “Because my neighbor did not join I am not joining.” We are hoping for a world free of land mines in our lifetime. That’s not possible without having these countries join the convention.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Firoz Ali Alizada speaks at the Cartagena Summit on a Mine-Free World in December 2009. Credit: Giovanni Diffidenti / di+ onlus

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