Mon, Jun 07, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Learning medicine the hard way

DESPERATE MEANS Lacking the cash to buy medical skeletons, students in Kabul have been forced to dig up graves to continue their lessons on anatomy


A student of Kabul University's medical institute, right, studies anatomy on Saturday.


Armed with shovels, bags and flashlights, five students creep through a dark Kabul cemetery on a gruesome midnight hunt they hope will help them in their studies.

Lacking cash to buy medical skeletons, the medical students have been forced to extreme measures in order to continue the lessons they hope will turn them into Afghanistan's next generation of doctors.

With more than 80,000 people killed in the 1992-1996 civil war, many of the victims were hastily buried in this west Kabul cemetery and it is their bones the students search for to help them learn anatomy.

"It was a scary and risky thing to do," one of them said. "But we had no other choice, we were told we could not attend the next anatomy lesson if we didn't have skeletons.

"We knew we would have few facilities or permission to work on bodies for autopsy at our university, but at least by digging up graves we can find skeletons," he said.

Much has changed in Afghanistan since the fall of the hardline Islamic Taliban regime in late 2001, but for medical students, procuring a skeleton remains a major problem.

The Japanese government recently donated some much-needed anatomical models to Kabul University, including a male and a female skeleton and models of musculature and other organs.

But medical students still need to buy or otherwise obtain a skeleton for use during their course, an academic at the university's Medical Institute who requested anonymity said.

Lacking the funds to buy a set of bones, many students are forced to turn to desperate means to supply their need, second-year student Saleh Ahmad confirmed.

And outside the capital the situation is similar in medical schools in places like eastern Nangarhar.

"I still have my skeleton that me and my friends got from digging in Nangarhar province," first-year medical student Mohammed Rafi said. "Most students still have to provide skeletons for themselves."

Mohammed Shafi, who took part in a midnight skeleton grab four years ago, said then their institute did not have a single skeleton and they had little choice but to rob a grave and risk heavy punishment if caught by the Taliban.

Apart from the risk of being caught, their efforts were sometimes in vain.

"First we opened three graves and that was a useless effort -- they were too old and the bones had all worn out so we had to open several others," said Mohammed Homayoon. "Then we opened four graves and managed to get four sets of skeletons," he said.

Some of the bones bore the scars of the war-ravaged country's violent past.

One of the skulls they dug up was totally blackened, indicating the victim had been burned, he said.

"God knows how cruelly he was killed by fighters in the civil war," he said.

Once they had the bones in their possession, the students then had to clean, sterilize and varnish them. Without professional skills or equipment they undertook the grisly task in their homes.

"I was not aware that this boiling skeleton would make a terrible smell," Shafi said.

"My mother came out to the backyard and saw the skull and bones boiling in the pan with this terrible smell and when saw me and my friend standing there she immediately fainted."

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