Psychological Warfare

Article excerpt

Retired Gen. Bariali Sabir's body is as disfigured as the Afghan landscape. Today the 53-year-old Army man, who lost his job under the Taliban, is back in Kabul's Military Hospital complaining of severe arthritis from decade-old bullet wounds. But Sabir's spirit is in just as much need of doctoring. "Sometimes I fly into a rage and can't recognize my family members," he says. "I've beaten them countless times. I fear I'm losing my mind." One of his four sons, a shy, freckle-faced 10-year-old named Abid, confirms that his father has often attacked family members. "About a month ago I wanted to ask my father a question, and he just hit me. He didn't even know I was his son," says Abid softly, with no apparent rancor. "I'm afraid of my father day and night."

Even as Afghanistan tries to piece its politics back together, the country faces one of the worst mental-health crises in the world. As a recent World Health Organization report puts it, "Twenty-three years of war have ravaged... the people in Afghanistan. Killing, executions, massive persecution, forced internal displacement, fear associated with living in mined areas, and the latest escalation of violence have left an indelible mark." The corridors of Kabul hospitals echo with grim tales. After her home was bombed, one woman was so traumatized she hasn't spoken since. A man whose wife died in a rocket attack suddenly lost his memory. At Kabul's Mental Health Hospital, a father who lost his son became severely disturbed and had to have his hands and feet tied together--at which point he declared, "I'm a cow," began making mooing noises and tried to eat grass outside the dilapidated ward.

The horrors of the past may also have something to do with the atrocities of the present. "In my opinion, 90 percent of all fighters are psychologically disturbed," says Dr. Mohamad, deputy administrator of Kabul's Military Hospital. In an upstairs ward, 28-year-old soldier Dad Moh has had posttraumatic epilepsy for six years, after being hit on the head by other fighters trying to steal a friend's AK-47. He cannot answer coherently when asked to imagine life without his Kalashnikov. "That would be very abnormal," he says finally. He's been carrying a rifle, he says, "ever since I can remember."

Add to that the psychic burden of poverty. …