KABUL -- Recent Afghan history has been marked by war, much of it fought among Afghans themselves on the basis of religious, ethnic, or political rivalries.
So it should come as no surprise that even if they are all under the Afghan flag today, there are few places where onetime enemies can work together -- let alone live under the same roof.
Yet at a shelter in Kabul's old city, the scene of some of the fiercest interethnic and sectarian fighting in the country, a motley crew of battle-hardened veterans is doing just that.
Former combatants, many of them permanently disfigured, leave their differences at the door when they enter the shelter. There they can receive food, lodging, and even financial support thanks to the nongovernmental Union for Afghanistan's Disabled.
Mohammad Isaq, director of the Afghan-run union, says the shelter takes in Afghans regardless of their ethnicity, politics, religion, and past history. Brought together by their common misfortune, an unlikely solidarity has emerged.
"They all face the same pressing problems," Isaq says. "Each has a lot of family members they must provide for. They get around with difficulty. They don't have transport or enough money for medicine. Even the small amount of income that we can provide them is not enough."
Isaq adds that the shelter, which has more than 100 registered occupants, is funded partly by locals and in part by the dwellers themselves, who undertake odd jobs. The work they find depends on their handicap. Some haul building materials for construction crews; others help out in the bazaars; still others do handy work like repairing shoes, bikes, or even cars.
At the end of the day, Isaq says, all the members of the shelter bring back the money they have earned, which is then evenly distributed. The roughly 200 afghanis (roughly $4) they earn every day is then matched by the shelter.
'We Accept All Who Fought'
Bismaillah Wakil, an elderly, fidgety man, sits on a mattress on the ground, drinking tea with several of the shelter's occupants. As he sips quietly, Wakil recalls how he lost his leg during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Fighting under the military wing of the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan party, under the leadership of former warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Wakil says he lost his leg in a Soviet bombardment.
Wakil, however, says he is not bitter, insisting that becoming handicapped and coming to the shelter has freed him of his long-held prejudices and intolerance.
"If we know a man is poor and lost his arms and legs doing what he thought was his duty, we accept him," he says. "That means even if they come from different tribes and groups. I live with mujahedin and those fighting for the government. These are people who have lost their arms and legs because they were looking to survive and have something to eat."
Atiq Wahidullah, a bearded middle-aged man, lies uncomfortably against the wall, scratching what remains of his right leg. He says he lost most of it in 1999, when he was a foot soldier for the former Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban coalition. He says Taliban militants showered the group's base in Panjshir, just north of Kabul, with rockets. One of the rockets landed just in front of him.
Like other shelter members, Wahidullah says he is enraged by the current government's unwillingness to help and says much more needs to be done if it wants to win support. He says he receives an "absurd" stipend of 13,000 afghanis (around $270) a year, an amount he easily spends in a month supporting his family of six.
"We are pleading with the government. When you give the handicapped 13,000 afghanis a year, what can this provide for a family?" Wahidullah says. "Tomorrow, how can I let my children go and fight for the national army and become handicapped? We are asking the government for help because we can't do anything for ourselves."
'It's Here Or The Streets'
Wahidullah is just one of the estimated 900,000 Afghans who suffer from severe disability, according to Handicap International, an independent international aid organization. That means some 3 percent of the Afghan population, estimated to be around 30 million, live with permanent disfigurement. War-related disabilities, mainly the loss of limbs, accounts for the majority of that number, with land mines one of the primary causes.
Sayid Anwar, who is blind, was once a fighter in the ranks of the Hizb-e Islami, headed by notorious former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is now blacklisted as a terrorist by the United States.
Anwar says he stepped on a mine in the early 1990s, during the country's brutal civil war. He lost both of his legs as he and his group retreated from their positions on a hillside outside Kabul. He pays tribute to the shelter, insisting that if it was not for its support he and his family would be begging on the streets.
"The government hasn't given us anything. Everywhere I go now, they say, 'You're handicapped, we can't make use of you,'" Anwar says.
"If I wasn't here at the shelter I would be idly roaming the streets. It's because of this shelter that we get by every day. If this shelter wasn't here, my family would be starving."