BAMIAN, Afghanistan — When Mirza Hussain Haidari swung his white Toyota taxi into a police checkpoint, a startled officer immediately fixed on Mr. Haidari’s gear shift, wrapped in blue tape and attached to a metal contraption sprouting wires and cables.

“What is this?” the officer demanded, clearly suspecting a jury-rigged bomb.

“I was wounded in war,” Mr. Haidari explained. “This is the way I manage to drive.”

Mr. Haidari, 25, lost both legs to a land mine five years ago, when he was in the Afghan Army. Now he earns his living in a taxi, which he has fitted with a homemade mechanism that allows him to drive with his hands — or what’s left of them.

The mine also blew off four of the fingers on Mr. Haidari’s left hand, leaving only his thumb. His right hand is intact but damaged.

Thousands of wounded combat veterans like Mr. Haidari have become fixtures in Afghan society. Some are objects of admiration, others of pity.

On the streets, they limp on prosthetic legs or crutches. In hospitals or rehabilitation centers, they learn to walk or dress themselves again. Some are cared for by families. Others survive on military pensions. A few beg in the streets, or sell trinkets or phone cards.

Mr. Haidari, 25, a calm man with a solemn demeanor, has chosen to resume his life in a very public way. He is a fixture in Bamian Province in central Afghanistan, hauling fares in his retrofitted Toyota, driving between his taxi rounds and his squat brick home in the hills.

Sometimes people mock Mr. Haidari or recoil at the way he looks, he said. Some fares have abruptly climbed out of his taxi after realizing they were about to ride with a driver who had no legs.

“Sometimes when people make fun of me, I wish I had been killed by the bomb, because it’s a lifetime torture,” he said, perched on a cushion in his home as he prepared for a day of driving.

Mr. Haidari said he had been deeply hurt when no one from the army called to check on him after he was wounded. Since then, he said, he has received a small government stipend, which helped cover the costs of building his wheelchair-accessible home a year ago, but he still feels abandoned.

“I served the Afghan Army and my country, but now I’m no one to them because I can’t do anything for them,” he said. “They don’t care that I lost my legs because of the war.”

Even so, he is determined to persevere. When he saw a legless army veteran in Kabul using his hands to drive a retrofitted car, it inspired him to design a similar device.

He said he took his hand-drawn plans to a mechanic in his hometown, Bamian, but the man refused to help, saying the task was impossible. But Mr. Haidari hectored him, and he relented.

The two men rigged a contraption that lets Mr. Haidari guide the steering wheel with his intact right hand and the accelerator with his left thumb, which controls a lever. He also uses the thumb to apply the brakes, by pushing a blue-taped knob. The retrofit cost him 5,500 afghanis, or about $70.

Mr. Haidari spent three years fighting the government before it supplied him with the motorized wheelchair. He also receives a portion of his soldier’s salary. He now ekes out a living, he said, but regrets that his 11-year-old brother has to work in a bakery rather than attend school because the family needs the income. Mr. Haidari lives with his brother, sister and mother.

“When I was disabled, my family paid the price,” he said. “A single bomb ruined my life — and my family’s life.”

But with the support of his family and friends, he said, he has found a measure of fulfillment in his post-military life.

He finds solace behind the wheel of his taxi. He plays in a wheelchair basketball league and works out at a bodybuilding club to keep himself in shape.

“Physically, I’m disabled, but mentally I’m O.K.,” he said. “I’ve lost my legs, but not my mind.”

So Mr. Haidari plies the bumpy roads of Bamian in the snow, trolling for fares, watching the expressions on the faces of people who flag him down. Will they accept a ride or turn away?

At the end of each day, he steers the taxi back up a paved road, then a dirt track, to his home atop a barren hillside.

There, he opens the car door and pivots. In one fluid motion, he is out of the car and seated in his waiting wheelchair. Then he guides the chair up a concrete ramp to his front door, back to home and family.

But even after five years, Mr. Haidari remained haunted by the memories of the morning when he led his squad on a patrol in Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, where the land mine awaited.

“I’ve lost everything,” he said. “But still, I don’t regret joining the army. I served Afghanistan and fought for my motherland.”

He paused, letting the memories wash over him.

“I would never regret it,” he said finally. “But I sometimes wish the bomb had killed me.”

Source link