Wounded Afghan Sisters Find Hope in U.S.

Friday, August 10, 2012 - 2:25pm

It began as a celebration but in a terrifying instant became a slaughter. And Fatima and her sisters were caught in the middle of it all.

The suicide blast killed at least 70 people and wounded close to 200 last December. The bomber detonated himself in a street full of worshipers celebrating the Shiite Muslim ceremony Ashura in Kabul.

It was a moment of devastation for Afghanistan - and for one family who had gone to the colorful festival for relief and alms. But thanks to two charities and dozens of dedicated volunteers, the three sisters have not only received medical treatment for their wounds but have been also able to recover from the trauma of the event with a six-week stay in the United States.

Tamima, 11, Fatima, 10, and their sister Gulmina, six, were flown from the desperation of life on the streets of Kabul to the comfortable security of homes in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Before their almost unimaginable journey, the three girls were understandably nervous. They quietly finished packing their small schoolbook bags with a change of clothes and a few mementos. That's all their family could afford to send them on their way. They fretted over each other's hair, trying especially hard to comb out the knots from little Gulmina's shaggy cut.

But finally it was time to say goodbye to everything they knew. Fatima, Gulmina and Tamima hugged their father while their mother, covered head to foot, wished them well with some whispered advice: "Take care of your sisters and remember your ways."

CNN is only identifying the girls by their first names to protect them and their family from possible retaliation by the Taliban.

The horrifying moment of the blast was caught on tape in video obtained by CNN. Among the victims bloodied by the attack were many children, many like Fatima and her sisters who had simply gone to the festival seeking handouts or alms to help their poverty-struck family.

Photographer Massoud Hossaini won a Pulitzer Prize this year for capturing the anguish in the moments after the bomb exploded. From the cover of Time magazine to front pages around the world, all eyes were drawn to the terrified scream of Tarana Akbari, who has come to be known as "the girl in green."

But if you look carefully, you can see Fatima with blood streaming down her face on to her yellow dress and Gulmina is piled among the victims in the background.

UNICEF estimates that there are 50,000 to 60,000 children in Kabul just like the sisters who earn a pittance selling food products and trinkets on city streets. So when thousands of people were crowding the streets to listen to music, eat, socialize and witness the faithful Shia men whip their bodies as a sign of devotion the family saw opportunity both for an exciting day out and a chance to bring in a little money.

The girls have never spoken about the blast outside their family until now. And that came only after weeks of slowly learning to trust the families and their new friends.

"It was after noon...we were in front of the mosque when the bomb exploded and then, the next thing I know, I was bleeding," says Tamima. "Fatima was there, laying on top the bodies of other people."

Gulmina remembers little. "There was a woman behind me, she was screaming. Then I fainted. They took everyone to the hospital and everyone was screaming."

Fatima was in shock from the blast and struggles to explain the minutes after the blast.

"When the bomb exploded, my brother and father were searching for us," she whispers. "There was me and Gulmina and my uncle. But Tamima was lost."

Tamima was wandering, nearly unconscious on her feet, before falling to the ground among the corpses of dozens of other victims.

"A guy came and took me, thinking I was dead," she remembers now. "He zipped me up in a plastic bag and put me down with a lot of other dead bodies."

It was only at that last moment that a U.S. serviceman realized Tamima wasn't dead -- just unconscious and pulled her out of the body bag.

All three sisters were wounded, along with another cousin that lives with them. Tamima was deafened from the blast, the others had nasty gashes and their bodies were peppered with shrapnel.

Hundreds of wounded Afghans flooded into the local hospitals and clinics, quickly overwhelming the ability of doctors and nurses to do anything beyond simply keeping the victims alive.

The girls were hastily stitched up and moved out, leaving huge jagged white scars and bits of bomb fragments scattered through their bodies.

Politically, the mass-scale sectarian attack on Shiite worshipers was unlike anything the country had seen in its decade-long war -- in contrast to Iraq, where violence between Shiites and Sunnis was a major feature of the conflict.

But personally the attack left emotional craters as well. It happened just a short walk from where the charity Skateistan had set up an indoor skateboarding facility where the sisters were among the most frequent visitors - learning English and crafts as well as how to grind a board.

Skateistan's Rhianon Bader said: "I was shocked when the first photo I saw from the blast was of Tamima with blood rushing down her head. We had to do something for them."

The group set about helping the family cope with first the girls' immediate medical needs, and later with surviving the frigid temperatures of Kabul's coldest winter in memory.

With 11 children and many more adults living in the simple mud home -- and only a few windows with glass panes -- it became clear that more needed to be done.

Skateistan was able to raise $4,000 from online donations from around the world to help. They were also able to link up with a specialized charity based in the U.S. state of North Carolina which could really get the medical help the girls needed.

That's where Patsy Wilson picked up. The Charlotte-based executive director of Solace for the Children was in Afghanistan the day of the blast and felt an immediate urge to help.

Solace has been working with Afghanistan since 1997 to bring more than 150 children in need of urgent medical help to the U.S. The charity finds host families and works with hospitals and doctors who volunteer their time and resources to help heal the children.

Wilson says that Solace has found that it's best to bring groups of children to the U.S. for help because of Taliban threats of revenge against families seeking help from western doctors and the danger medical volunteers would face if they went to Afghanistan.

Sometimes it comes up with elaborate cover stories for the families to tell their neighbors back in Afghanistan to explain the missing children. Perhaps it's a son going to study the Quran, or a daughter visiting cousins. But it's all to fool the Taliban.

"We still see the reaction "I would rather see my daughter dead than step foot in America,"" says Wilson. "But more often than not when you appeal to a parent's sense of love for their children and their deep need to see their child healthy and well, they can put aside almost anything."

About one- third of the children are like Tamima and her sisters, suffering from wounds they got from gunshots, IED blasts or, increasingly commonly, acid attacks tied to Taliban insurgents.

In many cases the biggest problem for doctors is that the children usually have far more shrapnel still in them than doctors in Afghanistan are able to find or remove.

Wilson says the medical teams frequently provide cosmetic surgery as well, to mask the disfigurement that is shameful in Afghan culture.

"They lose eyes, they lose hope. They are left with, particularly the girls, huge scars that we can diminish in some cases," Wilson explains. "That becomes so important particularly to the girls because if a girl in Afghanistan is disfigured she's lost a lot of the value to that society and family as a woman and future wife."

Of the group that came to Charlotte this summer, many had never been on an escalator, let alone a flight halfway around the world. And the sisters were apprehensive that for six weeks, each of them would be cared for in a separate home. They had never had a bed of their own or spent a night without a room full of family.

Solace has placed roughly 150 children in host homes in the past five years. They've learned much about how to get families ready to cope with the inevitable culture clashes such as making them aware about Islamic Halal food laws. And no matter how hot it gets in North Carolina the girls won't be wearing short swimsuits.

The charity also told the families not to take the children out to Independence Day celebrations. The fireworks could be far too frightening for many of the Afghan children - who associate sudden explosions in the night with death and not fun.

Lori and Lane West did all they could to prepare their spacious and neat home near Lake Norman for their new little guest Gulmina. The executive with Energizer and his wife have no children of their own, but turned a room in to what they half-jokingly call "a Disney Princess dream land."

Gulmina bonded strongly and quickly with Lori, but it was hard for her to warm up to Lane.

"Many Afghans see Americans as 'the enemy' and girls are taught not to trust strange men," says Lane. "Just look what happened to them at the hands of that bomber. Who can blame them?"

The three sisters had dozens of trips to doctors, dentists, surgeons and physical therapists during their six weeks in the Charlotte area. Gulmina and Fatima were given extensive treatment to help them deal with the pain that still plagues them, and made huge progress.

Tamima had the most care, with surgery to remove tiny shards of shrapnel. Surgeons were able to get most out, but some were too dangerous to cut out and Tamima will have to live with the fragments in her clavicle.

But in the end, the biggest change for the girls may have been the sense of safety and fun they were able to experience in their temporary homes.

Gulmina will take home some of the hot pepper sauce from the local chicken restaurant that she would greedily pour over everything at each meal.

Fatima went on her first boat trip, and loved movies and getting her fingernails painted.

Tamima can laugh about it all now, cracking up as she says: "We got fat! We got healthier!"

In six weeks, they've been able to put behind them much of the physical and psychological damage done that winter's day on the streets of Kabul.

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