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Afghanistan: Fund Shortage Could Close Leprosy Shelter That Survived Taliban Killings

Edda Dohm is a 66-year-old German nurse who is trying to keep a leprosy clinic and shelter running in central Afghanistan. Most residents fled the area around the "Zuflucht" shelter in Bamiyan Province during January 2001 when the Taliban began mass killings of ethnic Hazara residents. The Taliban also burnt part of the Zuflucht compound to the ground. But they left two women leprosy patients alone there in the ruins. Today, those women still live in the compound along with other leprosy patients who have nowhere else to call home. But Dohm says a shortage of funds and qualified health workers may force the shelter to close.

Prague, 3 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The "Zuflucht" leprosy clinic and shelter was set up in the remote Yakaolang District of Bamiyan Province in 1992 -- mostly with private funds.

Six leprosy patients now live within Zuflucht's simple walled compound. Nestled beneath a towering mountain range, there is one mud-brick house, a vegetable garden, and one medical professional to help them -- a 66-year-old nurse from Darmstadt, Germany, named Edda Dohm.

"In the beginning, we did mainly health education to the community, going to the villages and taking care of the untreated leprosy patients," Dohm said. "But finally, it became necessary to make a home for patients who really were on the road and who had no place to stay."

One of those patients is an ethnic Hazara woman with leprosy named Fatima who moved into the compound seven years ago. Fatima was at the Zuflucht shelter when Taliban forces seized control of Yakaolang District in January 2001 and carried out a brutal campaign against the Hazara civilian population

Researchers from Human Rights Watch have documented how the Taliban went on house-to-house searches through Yakaolang -- gathering together men for mass executions and leaving their bodies piled up near several relief agencies. Human Rights Watch researchers say the Taliban executed seven men at a crossroad near the Zuflucht leprosy clinic one afternoon.
Statistics from both the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Afghan government show that Bamiyan Province has the highest number of leprosy cases in the country.

Because of their disabilities, Fatima and another woman with leprosy named Zuhra were unable to flee with others. Fatima still remembers the killings. "It was really hard living during the time of the Taliban," she said. "They were beating everyone and I was really scared because whatever was happening, we couldn't say anything. We were scared. They shot some people right there. We were shocked."

Although the Taliban burned part of the Zuflucht compound to the ground, they left the two women there alone. Dohm said it was their disease that, ironically, saved their lives.

"They were forced to stay here. They could not leave as quickly as the others. They just had to stay. But one good thing for them was because of people's fear of leprosy -- especially those who look [disfigured]. Although [the Taliban] was not afraid of them, they left them alive. They did not kill them," Dohm said.

Leprosy is one of the world's oldest recorded diseases. The Health Ministry in Kabul says there are 15 to 20 new cases diagnosed in Afghanistan every year. Statistics from both the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Afghan government show that Bamiyan Province has the highest number of leprosy cases in the country.

Since many leprosy patients become outcasts, they often require long-term social care as well as medical treatment. Dohm tries to offer both -- and since the collapse of the Taliban regime, Zuflucht has become a refuge for four other leprosy patients.

Zuhra said her own daughter was repulsed by her disease and left her alone more than nine years ago. "We will stay here for as long as it is open," she said. "This lady has kindly taken us in here. And we don't know of any other place to go to."

But the clinic and shelter are facing new challenges that threaten their existence. After decades of work in Afghanistan and at refugee camps in Pakistan, the 66-year-old Dohm says the physical task of taking care of leprosy patients is taking its toll on her. "Younger people should take over. I was waiting, actually, for help," she said. "I'm the only foreigner here. And in this home, the main responsibilities are resting on me, actually, which I honestly can say has become too much."

And although Zuflucht regularly gets some assistance from United Nations groups like the World Food Program and UNHCR, Dohm says funds for day-to-day operations are running out.

"I have several times said to our people here , 'I'm very sorry. I think perhaps I must send you home.' But they don't have a home. [I have said,] 'I think I have to send you away and we don't have the money anymore.' It's just impossible for them. They don't know where to go and it is impossible to send them out on the street," Dohm said.

Still, Dohm concludes that without a fresh influx of funds and at least one medical worker to take over the job when she retires, the leprosy shelter that outlasted the Taliban regime will be forced to close.