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Monday, September 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Witnesses to a shattered land

Seattle Times staff reporter

The pictures flash on the computer screen, one by one:

A man with a hole blasted in his calf by a land mine — big enough to fit a fist through.

A child, back curvy and caved in, bone ravaged by tuberculosis.

A young mother, 14 years old, looking 60, body so malnourished she couldn't provide milk for her newborn.

Scenes from a devastated land.

For Marvin Taylor and Dr. Elizabeth Taylor, a war with Afghanistan is not an abstract thing fought against nebulous people. It's action that would be taken against people they know and have served.

The Sammamish couple founded Health Emergent International Services, a faith-based nonprofit providing medical care to economically developing countries in South Central and Eastern Asia. They've made several trips to Afghanistan, most recently six months ago on a mission with a budget of $500,000.

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For more information about Health Emergent International Services, see www.heis.org.
The Taylors say they can't tell us what it's like to live there day to day, only what they saw, the scenes from a shattered land they bore witness to.

For nine days in March, they opened a clinic in Rostag, in a territory run by the Northern Alliance, a loose group of formerly warring commanders who oppose the Taliban, which control 90 to 95 percent of the country.

The Taylors tell of a people suffering deeply from years of fighting: a nearly decadelong war against the former Soviet Union; struggles against and between fighting warlords; civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

"I went in and found a country that, whatever you think poor is, bring it down 10 steps," said Marvin Taylor, a former administrative-law consultant. "The biggest concern of a majority of the people is where their next meal is coming from."

Diseases, afflictions commonly caught early and easily fought in the West, were flourishing in Afghanistan because of lack of supplies, care and food. Needles in Rostag were rusty; anesthesia nonexistent, Taylor said. Meals consisted mainly of rice, mutton, naan — a flatbread. Many eat only one or two meals a day. Many Afghans suffered from infections; others from polio, tuberculosis, goiter. Most were anemic.

As soon as the Taylors and their team — seven female and two male medical providers from four different countries — opened their clinic doors, thousands lined up, snaking in a line up the desert road.

The team focused most of its time caring for women. Under current Taliban law, women may be seen only by their fathers, husbands and sons without their head-to-toe veils, Marvin Taylor said. Most women stay home all day. And most had received almost no medical care all their lives.

"They were so desperate, they grabbed you with all their might because they hoped as you got whisked into the clinic, they would be too," said Elizabeth Taylor, who is a family doctor based in Issaquah.

Marvin Taylor documented it all with photographs:

• The 14-year-old mother — fourth of a townsman's four wives — who gave birth to twins but because she was so malnourished, could only provide enough milk for one. She was forced to choose which baby would get her milk, and which got cow's milk, which is unsuitable for newborns.

• A boy with chronic malaria, which led to an enlarged spleen and liver.

• Child after child, heads bald, covered in scaly patches, hair fallen out from lice and infection.

• Babies with burns on their bodies because they had crawled near the fires in their families' one-room mud huts.

The Taylors' team saw more than 4,000 patients and worked from sunrise to sunset because the town had no electricity.

They would walk on roads made bumpy by townsfolk who dug up mud with which to build the walls of their homes.

They passed by a patch of land in which donkeys milled — the town's parking lot. Donkeys and walking were just about the only forms of transportation. "Horses are considered sports cars," Marvin Taylor said.

Fruits and greens grow only two months of the year — July and August — and his hosts scrambled for two cucumbers for their guests, he said.

Despite the poverty, the Taylors found much to value there.

In Afghanistan, "you have to know the barber and his family before you get a haircut. You have to know the baker before you buy his bread," Marvin Taylor said. "We've lost something in America of how to relate to people."

The Taylors aren't saying that America shouldn't take some kind of action against Osama bin Laden and his followers in Afghanistan.

"There comes a point if you don't stop what happened at the trade center, you're enabling" terrorism, Marvin Taylor said. But, he added, "I'm absolutely crying inside and also praying that no innocents get hurt."

One of the last videos Marvin Taylor shot in Afghanistan shows his medical team leaving in a helicopter, each member silent, crying. The men in town came to see them off.

On the computer screen, the helicopter blades start whirling, faster and faster, stirring up the dust, until it swirls around, enveloping the townsmen until they can't be seen.

In the helicopter, Elizabeth Taylor was crying too — which she's never done upon leaving a country.

"It was the tragedy of what I was leaving there," she said. "You had to be there to know what it felt like to see them disappear that way. There was something symbolic about that. The dust just swallowing them up. It was a lost, lost land."

Janet I. Tu can be reached at 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com.

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