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Disabled Often Carry Out Afghan Suicide Missions

There have been at least 110 suicide attacks in Afghanistan this year, more than in any other country except Iraq.

Most of the Afghan bombings are linked to the Taliban, but the identity of the recruits is often a mystery.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his security officials claim the attackers are foreigners, often from Pakistan. But a recent United Nations report says that bombers who were caught before they could carry out their attacks were overwhelmingly Afghan.

Whatever their nationality, many of the bombers have one major thing in common. A senior Afghan doctor who examines their remains finds that most of them were disabled or sick.

In his classroom at Kabul Medical University, Dr. Yusef Yadgari keeps the eyeball of a suicide bomber in a glass jar. Attached to the eye is a tumor that, Yadgari says, left the attacker partially blind.

It is one of many ailments the Afghan pathologist says he has found while autopsying the remains of bombers who carried out attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the past three years. Some were missing limbs before the blasts. Others suffered from cancer. One had leprosy.

80 Percent Have Physical, Mental Disabilities

Based on such autopsies, Yadgari estimates that at least three of every five bombers suffer from a physical ailment or disability. Adding those who suffer from mental illnesses, the number of sick and disabled bombers climbs to more than 80 percent, he says.

"They are probably resentful because in Afghan society they are outcasts," Yadgari says. "They hold a grudge because many of them can't get a job. So, to make money for their families, they agree to become suicide bombers."

Yadgari says guessing the bombers' motivation is easy, but identifying who they are is a lot tougher.

Police say the bombers never carry identification, and their remains are rarely claimed.

Christine Fair, who co-authored a United Nations report released in September on Afghanistan's suicide attacks, says there are other factors that make it difficult to figure out who the bombers are.

She says Afghan investigations into suicide bombings leave a lot to be desired.

Afghan Gen. Nik Mohammed Nikzad, who heads crime scene investigations here, agrees. He complains that by the time his team is permitted to enter the scene, evidence has often been compromised or removed — sometimes by Western soldiers.

Afghan Bombers Not Celebrated

Fair says another obstacle is that Afghan suicide bombers are not celebrated like their counterparts in other Arab nations. Afghan bombers are not featured on posters or in videos as martyrs, and their remains are not carried through town in raucous funeral parades.

"Many parents don't even seem to know that their child or their relative blew themselves up in this act," Fair says.

She says there is another difference between bombers in Afghanistan and other countries. A bomber in Afghanistan kills an average of three victims, compared with an average of 12 elsewhere. Also, United Nations interviews with would-be bombers in Afghanistan have found that most are young and poorly educated.

"So, the good news is that they are not as lethal as they are in other theaters. The bad news is it's not really clear what it would take to get the campaign of suicide attacks to abate," Fair says.

University student Qais Barakzai believes there is nothing that could have stopped his friend from blowing himself up two years ago in Kabul.

Barakzai says Qari Sami was a brooding loner who was upset about the Taliban's ouster.

Barakzai says his friend grew a Taliban-style beard and wore traditional baggy tunics and trousers, shunning the Western jeans and shirts preferred by other university students.

"He was depressed. He would fight with people. He was emotional, especially when it came to religious issues," Barakzai recalls.

He says his friend took antidepressants daily, but they failed to lift his mood.

Sami talked of joining the Taliban in waging holy war, or jihad, after graduation, but never said he had been recruited as a suicide bomber, Barakzai says.

In May 2005, the young man walked into the Park Internet café and blew himself up. He killed a U.N. worker from Myanmar and an Afghan customer and wounded five others.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Morning Edition
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.