KABUL, Afghanistan — Alberto Cairo, a young Italian lawyer-turned-physiotherapist, arrived in Kabul in 1990 as the American-backed guerrillas besieged the capital city of the communist-backed government.
He stayed ever since — becoming the beloved “Mr. Alberto” who has fixed limbs and given hope through a war that never ceased entirely, and continues to kill and maim in record numbers.
On Wednesday, the physical rehabilitation program of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which Mr. Cairo has led through several governments, commemorated its 30th anniversary. The program has cared for nearly 180,000 patients and built about 200,000 artificial limbs — numbers Mr. Cairo tallies with a deep breath.
But for Mr. Cairo, now 66, it’s not just about prosthetic legs and wheelchairs. As he often reminds visitors, it’s about dignity.
“When you lose a leg, you don’t just lose a leg — you lose a piece of heart, you lose a piece of mind, you lose a piece of self-confidence,” Mr. Cairo said on Wednesday at the center in Kabul, one of seven rehabilitation centers that he leads across the country. “All this has to be restored, and all together it makes dignity.”
Mr. Cairo, who grew up in Turin before moving to Milan, had studied to be a lawyer. But drawn to relief work, he retrained in physical therapy. One of his first postings with the I.C.R.C. took him to a Kabul that was under siege. What has kept him here, he says, is the daily reward of empowering people ostracized for their disabilities.
Ferozuddin Feroz, Afghanistan’s minister of health, said he first ran into Mr. Cairo when he was finishing his residency as a surgical medical student. He repeatedly referred to Mr. Cairo as a hero.
“He has dedicated himself to Afghanistan, and for us it is about how can we learn from him,” Mr. Feroz said.
When Mr. Cairo first arrived in Afghanistan, the program catered exclusively to war victims. In a country where 3 to 5 percent of the population, by the health minister’s count, suffers from some disability, Mr. Cairo quickly realized that was not fair. The program expanded in the mid-1990s to include anyone with a disability affecting their mobility.
“Every day, we would have 50 patients — let’s say 15 were war victims and we were telling them ‘come in’ — and there were 35 people we were telling ‘go home, we cannot do anything for you,’” Mr. Cairo recalls.
“It was impossible. It was a discrimination,” Mr. Cairo said.
Mr. Cairo said that the shift required tremendous development. Treating a war amputee might be straightforward, but tending to patients, often children, with cerebral palsy or congenital diseases requires other specialized skills.
In the past decade, the rehabilitation centers have taken in about 10,000 new patients annually, about 1,500 of them war victims, the rest stricken by disease or accidents. Roughly 100,000 of the patients return once a year for checkups and visits.
In 2018, the number of new patients hit a record high, with more than 12,000 seeking help. The increasing demand has come just as Afghanistan has turned more dangerous for aid workers, who have faced repeated attacks.
The I.C.R.C. has faced several of those attacks. The Taliban once put out a statement lifting a safety guarantee it had provided the group (one that was restored after quiet talks). In one of the most gruesome attacks against the I.C.R.C., one of Mr. Cairo’s physiotherapists, a Spaniard named Lorena Enebral Perez, was fatally shot during a therapy session by a polio patient who had smuggled in a gun.
The I.C.R.C.’s chief in Afghanistan, Juan-Pedro Schaerer, paid tribute to her during the anniversary ceremony on Wednesday, with Mr. Cairo next to him, his head lowered in remembrance and grief.
Mr. Cairo said nearly all the 750 staff members at the seven rehabilitation centers are former patients with disabilities. “This is for the disabled, run and managed by the disabled,” he said.
Wednesday’s event was held at a gymnasium where about 500 disabled athletes play sports daily.
One of those athletes, a wheelchair basketball player named Mohammed Saber, 28, was born after Mr. Cairo arrived in Afghanistan. When Mr. Saber was 3, a cousin was playing with an unexploded ordnance in their village on the outskirts of Kabul and it went off. It killed the 8-year-old cousin and cost the young Mr. Saber his legs.
Mr. Saber vaguely remembers Mr. Cairo fitting his first prosthetic legs when he was about 5. After about a decade living as a refugee in Pakistan, where he grew but didn’t have a chance to get new prosthetics, Mr. Saber returned to Afghanistan as a teenager and got a second pair.
Around 2012, Mr. Saber heard the center was offering sports in a newly built gymnasium. He went with a friend and joined. Now he is part of Afghanistan’s national wheelchair basketball team and has toured several countries, most recently returning from a tournament in Lebanon. And he has a job at the rehabilitation center, where he trained for two years to work with polio victims.
Sometimes, Mr. Saber says, he asks Mr. Cairo if he remembers his first visit as a baby, for his first pair of legs.
Mr. Cairo has treated thousands of amputees over three decades and, as Mr. Saber recounted, could say only, “‘Maybe, you were very little.’”
At the ceremony, Mr. Cairo said people often asked if 30 years was a long time.
“I tell them I hope to stay 30 more years,” he said. The reward of helping disabled people see that they can do things, that they can go from crawling to walking, never gets old, he said.
“That reward is piling up,” he said. “To compare what I give and what I take — I am getting much more.”
Orignially published in NYT.