KABUL (Reuters) - Abdul Saboor rides his bicycle as far as 18 miles a day through the dusty streets of Kabul delivering packages. Most people might be daunted by such distances but not Saboor who peddles through the hilly streets using his only leg.
Thirteen years ago Saboor had to have his right leg amputated after stepping on a landmine near his house in western Kabul. It happened during the civil war when the city was subjected to regular rocket attacks, shortly before the Taliban took control in 1996. Many of the roads were riddled with landmines.
Saboor, now aged 35, had already moved his family to the relatively safer northern part of the city but from time to time he would check on his old home, and it was on one such trip that he lost his leg.
According to the United Nations an average of 60 people every month are killed or wounded by landmines or explosives left over from war in Afghanistan and an estimated 270 square miles are still contaminated with explosive devices.
But that has not stopped Saboor from earning a living, albeit a hard one. He and his fourteen colleagues work for Afghanistan’s first and only bicycle messenger service, the Disabled Cycle Messenger Services (DCMS). They deliver letters and packages between offices in the city.
“Of course it’s hard work, even for an able bodied person,” says Saboor, leaning on his crutches.
“But the fact that I can work and I don’t have to sit on the side of the road and beg for money and can provide food for my family gives me a big sense of pride.”
The concept is simple and has been employed in large cities such as London and New York for many years, as cycle couriers can often guarantee a faster delivery time than other vehicles as they are not held up by traffic.
Kabul’s roads often come to a standstill due to the sheer amount of cars but also because of the numerous security barriers that have sprung up in the city which restrict the flow of traffic and are a great cause of complaint from residents.
Saboor is different from the rest of his colleagues in that he chooses not to use a prosthetic leg, opting for crutches instead. His leg was amputated high above the knee making it more difficult to use a prosthesis, he says.
“I used to use a prosthetic limb but it caused me a lot of discomfort,” he says, as one of his colleagues massages his own stump.
Asked if he uses an artificial limb when he cycles, Saboor quickly rejects any doubt over his abilities.
“No, I use my one leg! If you want, I can carry you all the way to north Kabul. I’ll show you!” he says strapping his crutches to the bicycle frame and using his only leg to pedal effortlessly around the mud courtyard of the DCMS office.
He and his colleagues use heavy Chinese manufactured bicycles costing around $50 used by Afghans all over the country.
DCMS was set up by an Afghan NGO in 2002 but two years ago disagreements over pay caused them to break away and go it alone. With the move went the donor funding and much of their client base. They have been struggling ever since.
“We’re taking our last breath,” says Mohammad Amin Zaki, the director of DCMS who is also a mine victim and messenger.
“We have 20 days until the rent is due and after that we don’t know what will happen.”
The company’s struggle reflects the wider economic instability of a country ravaged by almost three decades of war. Unemployment is at least 40 percent.
“The financial situation is bad throughout the country so people usually prefer to deliver things themselves,” says Zaki referring to the lack of business.
Each of the messengers earns a meager $10-16 a month depending on the amount of work; well below the national average. On top of this they receive around $10 from the government in the form of disability allowance. All the men work other jobs.
Zaki works in the evenings as a laborer, mixing concrete while Saboor helps his son sell rubbish bags by the side of the road. Another makes bricks.
“We don’t have breakfast or lunch. Usually we wait and have dinner together with the family because we don’t have enough money for food,” says Saboor.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world with half of its 25 million people living below the poverty line. The country has also been hit hard by the rising global food prices.
But despite the odds, Saboor remains pragmatic about his future. Asked what he will do if the business shuts down, he says: “I will definitely get another job. I don’t like not working. If I lose this job I will find another one somewhere else.”
Editing by Megan Goldin