Injured Afghan girl's joyous homecoming
- 11 April 2014
- From the section Asia
A fairy princess tiara sat wonkily on her head when I first met Shah Bibi, quite by accident, more than six months ago.
I had been in a neighbouring ward interviewing a female politician who had been shot nine times and whose young daughter had been killed in a Taliban ambush.
As I made my way out, little Shah Bibi caught my attention.
The full force of a grenade had ripped off part of her right arm, torn through part of her mouth and blinded her in one eye.
She sat propped up in an oversized chair in a corridor, fiddling with a little red flower that her father had given in an attempt to cheer her up.
But when I talked to her, all this seven-year-old could whisper was, "I want my arm and eye back."
Shah Bibi had been airlifted to hospital from a remote part of eastern Afghanistan after picking up a discarded grenade in a patch of land near her school.
It is a region where the Taliban and Afghan army are frequently involved in skirmishes, and the villagers living nearby find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Shah Bibi's father, Sadak Khan, a man with a thick, black beard and kind eyes, described how one day when walking home from school with her brother, his daughter noticed a "brightly coloured beautiful thing" and thought it "would be a nice present for her mother".
She picked it up and it exploded in her hand.
She had been brought to a military hospital to be patched up and sent on her way, just like thousands of other children in Afghanistan, injured in this long war.
We lost contact and life moved on until I resolved to trace the child and tracked her down to a hospital in Los Angeles.
Captain Sam Austin, a mother and trauma nurse from California, was so moved by Shah Bibi's case, that she tracked down a charity that offered to help.
Within weeks, the Children of War Foundation, a small medical charity, had flown Shah Bibi and another child out of Afghanistan for treatment in the US.
"It just seemed the right thing to do," said Captain Austin, who was struck by how tenderly Shah Bibi's father, Sadak Khan, attended to his young daughter.
She has helped arrange the medical evacuation of seven children in recent months. They are the fortunate few.
Seventeen hundred children were killed or injured during the conflict in Afghanistan in 2013, according to the UN. Add to that the number of women who were injured or died and last year was the worst since 2009.
Months after undergoing treatment in the US, leaving her parents behind, Shah Bibi headed home to be reunited with her father in Afghanistan.
"I'm so thrilled, it is like walking on air," beams Sadak Khan, as he greets his daughter with a kiss on the cheek at a safe house in Kabul. He knows that his precious daughter is one of the lucky ones.
After delicate surgery to remove shrapnel, and treatment to her arm, she has now been fitted with an artificial limb which she proudly shows off to her doting dad by shaking his hand and drawing with crayons.
Allegory for Afghanistan
In the years to come, Shah Bibi will be offered the chance to return overseas for further surgery. But for the time being, she is content to have had a glimpse into another world.
It is a world where, as well as receiving modern medical care, she has learnt to count in English, made friends with children of other nationalities and acquired a passion for pizza - although the Afghan family she lived with ensured she did not forget her mother tongue, Pashto.
"One, two, three, four, five," Shah Bibi says, counting the bangles on her arm in English, as she sits on her father's lap.
She switches to her native Pashto to say she wants to "teach her mother, brothers and sisters to write" when she finally reaches home.
Shah Bibi may appear like any other little girl, exposed to a new culture and given the chance to make new friends.
But behind the smiles, she is still deeply traumatised and still has horrific nightmares, according to those who looked after her in the US.
Shah Bibi returns to an Afghanistan with a troubled past and an uncertain future. The results of landmark elections are still to be announced and security remains tight, with the Taliban threatening to disrupt the vote which could still go into a second round.
Like many other Afghans who live in the turbulent east of the country - where two Western journalists were shot just last week - her father worries about Taliban attacks on fledgling Afghan forces and about what will happen when foreign troops finally leave.
He may describe himself as just a "simple man", but Sadak Khan feels that in some small way his daughter's story serves as an allegory for the foreign military footprint here.
"In the way that my daughter's health has been restored by people from abroad," he says, "I want the same to happen to Afghanistan."