Photos and words by Andrew Quilty
An American plane called a Warthog that fires bullets the size of large carrots—more than fifty every second —and was designed to disable armoured tanks.
A yellow plastic container that once carried cooking oil, but was later filled with homemade explosives and buried beneath the surface of an alleyway. Something four siblings found and mistook for a torch in an abandoned house near their town. These are what maimed these children.
All of them are from Helmand, in Afghanistan’s south. And all of them lost parts of themselves to weapons that were designed to kill or maim someone else. In the first nine months of 2019, according to the United Nations’ Afghanistan mission, 8,239 civilians were killed or wounded as a result of the war in Afghanistan. Of those, 2,461 were children.
Ehsanullah was at home with his extended family in November last year when two Taliban fighters ran inside and fired on a passing American military convoy hundreds of metres away. Ehsanullah’s father begged the fighters to leave—he worried that whoever they were firing at would shoot back. The soldiers inside the armoured vehicles didn’t need to. Instead, they called in air support. The American warplane made two strafing runs over the house. The fighters had gone. The rounds that hit the house left watermelon-sized holes in the roof. Ehsanullah’s father and one of his brothers were killed instantly. The rest of the children—eleven in total—and their mother, were sprayed with fragments from the ceiling, concrete floor and the disintegrating bullets. For a second, the room they were in turned into a giant blender.
One of Ehsanullah’s eyes was torn from its socket. The other was ruptured and had to be surgically removed. Three of his younger brothers each required a laparotomy to remove the shrapnel that had pierced their torsos and lodged in their stomachs and chests. Without sight, Ehsanullah’s hearing has become increasingly sensitized, and the sound of aircraft terrifies him. ‘I’m always scared of the aircraft now,’ he says. ‘I’m scared they’re going to target us again.’ The U.S. military claimed only four civilians had been injured in the incident. None, they said, had been killed.
Shamsullah was eleven when, returning home from the bazaar in Sangin with his father, he triggered an improvised explosive device. ‘After the explosion, I thought I was dreaming. Then I realised it was reality,’ he said, three years later. His father was uninjured. Shamsullah spent six months recovering from a double amputation in hospital. ‘I thought I’d be depressed forever,’ he said, ‘but then someone told me about prostheses.’ When he was discharged from hospital, the International Committee for the Red Cross provided him with a wheelchair and later fitted him for prostheses, which he prefers, unless he has to travel long distances. Now, unable to manage manual labour like the rest of the boys from his village, he recognises education is his only hope, so he studies twice as hard at a private school in the mornings and a government school in the afternoons.
Ghulam Rassoul was exploring an abandoned house with his siblings near their home in Baghran. They found what they thought was a torch of some sort and were trying to work out how to switch it on when it exploded in their hands. Ghulam Rassoul lost both his hands. His brothers and sister were blasted by thousands of tiny fragments of steel. In hospital, their faces were spotted with hundreds of tiny spots of dried blood, like freckles. They visited their brother who was in another ward for patients with more acute injuries. With no hands, he was unable to feed himself. His brothers and sisters would sit by his bed and feed him with their own. Ghulam Rassoul has barely spoken since the accident.