Kabul, Afghanistan – Abdul Aziz Oryakhil sat behind his desk in his office in Kabul. The events of the past few weeks in Afghanistan were nothing new to the 54-year-old firefighter.
Sipping on his tea, he seems relaxed. His walkie-talkie crackles with a male voice delivering intermittent reports. The firefighter claims to have witnessed countless horrors in his lifetime – perhaps more than anyone else in the country, he says – during Afghanistan’s tumultuous past, beginning with the Soviet-Afghan war, through the Taliban era of the 1990s.
But over the past two years Oryakhil’s units have been spending more time cleaning up after the devastating blasts that continue to rock the country than they have spent extinguishing fires.
Blasts such as the one in Deh Mazang have become common since the withdrawal of international forces in 2014. As the security situation has deteriorated, this year the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded the highest number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the agency began keeping track in 2009. In the first half of 2016 alone, more than 5,000 have been killed or maimed.
As he sat down with Al Jazeera, Oryakhil calmly recalled the scene of Deh Mazang square after a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of young protesters – most of them members of the Shia Hazara minority who had been protesting against the planned route of the TUTAP power line.
He describes how, as the firefighters piled out of their trucks on that day on July 23, bodies could be seen lying on the ground – some of them dead, others severely injured, crying out for help. The blast, which was later claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) had left 81 dead and over 230 wounded.
Oryakhail is the operational head of the general directorate of incidents in the fire department of Afghanistan and, according to his own account, has cleaned up thousands of blast sites during his 30-year-long firefighting career.
On the edge of death
With lives teetering on the edge of death, Oryakhail and his firefighters had no time to survey the scene.
“There were so many bodies lying on the ground that I didn’t know which one to pick up first,” Oryakhail says.
Twenty-eight-year-old firefighter Ali Akbar described the horror he witnessed when he arrived on the scene. “The square was filled with blood,” he told Al Jazeera. “There were people missing their hands and legs. Some of the bodies were in such bad condition that their remains had practically disintegrated. There was nothing left of them.”
But with time working against them, the team must push aside any fear, rage or sadness in these circumstances, and work to get the wounded to hospitals – first attending to those who have a chance at survival.
With just two ambulances available that day, Oryakhail says, they were forced to lay victims on top of each other to transport them.
|Ali Akbar, 28, believes mental health services should be provided for Afghanistan’s firefighters [Maija Liuhto/Al Jazeera]|
When those with hope of survival were taken to hospital, the firefighters returned to the blast scene to recover the bodies of those who did not survive the attack, to transport them to the hospital where they would be handed over to the doctors and taken to the morgue.
After this, Oryakhail and his team return to the blast site one last time to remove the body parts, blood and other remains left scattered by the explosion over the square in a gruesome scene all too familiar to the crew.
The bodies in the worst condition after an explosion are often those of the attackers themselves.
“They are torn into pieces,” Ortakhail says matter-of-factly. “Only rarely are we able to locate a body part that belongs to the attackers. When we do find some body part, it is sent to Afghan intelligence for investigation.”
Witnesses to horror
Oryakhail has witnessed some of the worst attacks, including the Shah Shaheed bombing in August 2015 that killed 15 and wounded more than 240 people.
But the firefighters rarely speak in a way that hints at their emotional state. Even as he recounts the most disturbing scene he has witnessed, Oryakhil remains distant and his voice steady.
“Once there was a woman who had been beheaded by the blast. Her three-year-old son was still sitting beside her. He had survived,” Oryakhail says. He pauses for a moment before continuing: “The child was holding his mother’s severed head, screaming her name, ‘Mother, Mother’ …”
His voice trails off. “I have nothing but anger for these attackers,” he says. “What else can you feel when you see someone who has killed so many people?”
Dealing with the trauma
Many firefighters who have worked in these blast sites have reported experiences parallel to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). New recruits have an especially difficult time adjusting to the near-daily scenes they witness in the field.
Sayed Jaffar Ahmadi, professor of psychology at Kabul’s Kateb University, believes that the nature of work that these firefighters engage in can directly result in mental trauma. “[Their work] is one of the most difficult jobs to handle psychologically,” Ahmadi says. “PTSD must be very common among the firefighters in Kabul, because there is no counselling available.”
Trouble sleeping, flashbacks of the traumatic event and nightmares, Ahmadi explains, are common. Sometimes, simply being reminded of the event can trigger these symptoms. In the firefighters’ case, their job itself can become a constant trigger.
Because of this, Oryakhail hosts a regular support group for all the firefighters.
“We discuss the things that they face out there,” Oryakhail explains. Though no mental health professional is present in these meetings, Oryakhail ensures that the firefighters have a secure environment to share their experiences. “I try to encourage them. I tell them that sometimes, these things just happen.”
Even the veteran Oryakhail has trouble returning to work when the attacks strike too close to home.
He describes a time when a bus carrying police cadets was targeted on the outskirts of Kabul by the Taliban last June, killing 27 people. He couldn’t leave his house for two days, he says.
“The cadets were so young. They worked in the same field as me,” Oryakhail says, shaking his head.
Other firefighters have had similar experiences. Thirty-two-year-old Shafiullah Karimi remembers an attack on a foreign convoy in May 2013 particularly well.
He describes in great detail haunting scenes from that day. “I was trying to lift a victim’s body. He had been so badly burned by the blast that my hand went right through him.”
The experience left Karimi traumatised; he couldn’t sleep or eat properly for a week, he remembers.
Although the Ministry of Public Health in Afghanistan has made the provision of mental health services one of its top priorities and much has improved over the years, there is a general lack of public awareness on the importance of dealing with trauma.
According to the Ministry’s spokesperson, Wahid Majrooh, the government has not allocated enough funds for mental health and there is still a stigma associated with psychological problems.
Majrooh points out that the Ministry of Interior, under which the fire department operates, has its own military hospital where psychological counselling is provided. Nevertheless, there are no specific trauma counselling programmes available.
None of the firefighters seem to be aware of this counselling, however, and very few of them seek professional help after traumatic experiences.
“I do think therapy is necessary for everyone who works here,” says Ali Akbar, who has worked as a firefighter for 10 years. “We witness terrible incidents on a daily basis.
“I study at the university, and we have a psychology lecturer there. I tell him about my problems, and it has helped me.”
According to Ahmadi, “the most important thing is for the patients to be able to discuss what they have experienced. Firefighters can also be dealing with feelings of guilt, if they have not been able to rescue someone, for example,” he explains.
Despite the lack of professional mental health services, most of the firefighters seem to have adjusted to traumatic events and remain committed to their work.
“This is the situation our country is facing, unfortunately. It is our job to serve the people and I just have to tolerate the things I see,” says Emam Khan, 37. He says he has never felt the need to seek out therapy, but he acknowledges that the job is not for everyone.
“There are many who have had to quit because the job proved to be too difficult. When we see that someone is not able to cope, we get him transferred to our security unit,” Oryakhail explains.
Ahmadi points out that becoming desensitised to traumatic events is also not a healthy sign.
“When a person detaches himself entirely from these things, the consequences will spill over to other areas of their lives, and their families will suffer.” According to him, emotional numbing must be addressed as well.
For the vast majority of the firefighters, being able to help others far outweighs the sacrifices they make. “It doesn’t matter to me whether it is a fire, an earthquake or a suicide attack,” Karimi says. “I only hope to save people’s lives.”
Though Oryakhail himself lost his left eye while trying to rescue people during an attack on an arms depot in the early 2000s, he has never considered quitting. “This is my country. If I don’t work for it, then who will?”
But the growing insecurity has made him more pessimistic, and he does not think things will improve in the near future.
“When I go to a bomb blast site and see human beings just lying there on the ground, I compare my country with other countries in the world; how other people are living in peace and how we are facing these things every day. It really hurts me,” he says.
As the attacks continue, more Afghans feel compelled to leave the country. But not Oryakhail.
“I will leave when I die,” he says.