Decades of war in Afghanistan left a visible mark on its people. Tens of thousands of Afghans lost their legs to landmines. Most make a living by begging. But one group of these mine survivors, as the United Nations calls them, has come up with another way to feed their families. They created a bicycle messenger service in Kabul. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joined them on one of their recent rounds.

M: (Foreign language spoken)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: In this Kabul park that he calls his office, Afghan bicycle messenger Amin Zaki hands out documents to be delivered on this morning.

M: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Fellow bicycle messenger Abdel Sabur tells his colleagues where they'll be working.

M: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Normally, the messengers would also divide up pizza delivery duty. But as it's the holy fasting month of Ramadan, the work on this day is limited to documents. A few minutes later, the messengers get up off the grass and walk to their bikes. One is on crutches, and the others are limping. Each of these men has only one leg, not that they see the loss of the other one as a problem in their line of work, like Abdul Khalil who had his right leg amputated after stepping on a mine seven years ago.

Khalil kicks the kickstand up with his left foot. He then swings his prosthetic leg over the bicycle and climbs on. He rides onto the street, carrying an old messenger bag held together by masking tape. Khalil glides easily among the cars and motorcycles that seem to follow no traffic rules on Kabul's crazy streets. He says it's as easy to pedal with his prosthetic leg as his real one.

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SARHADDI NELSON: Khalil has worked for the Disabled Cycle Messenger Services for nearly six years. He says it's allowed him to feed, clothe, and school his eight children.

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SARHADDI NELSON: At the U.N. Mine Action Center for Afghanistan, Deputy Program Director Susan Helseth says she's happy with the messengers' work. Hers is one of a few foreign agencies that employ the messengers, who charge $1 for most deliveries.

M: The messenger service, I'm positive, has cut down on the use of our vehicles, has cut down on our fuel consumption, and it also has provided employment for these guys that ride around for us.

SARHADDI NELSON: She says the bicycle messengers are more reliable, too, unimpeded by the growing number of vehicles that grind traffic to a halt here.

M: And so we feel quite confident in this service and think that other U.N. agencies and NGOs and commercial companies should be using this. It would probably cut down the number of cars running around Kabul and maybe help with the traffic and even the accident situations.

SARHADDI NELSON: But Amin Zaki, who manages the messenger service, says the men have had a hard time getting clients since splitting last year from their parent group, the Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation and Recreation.

M: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Zaki says they left at the urging of their German donor group which was unhappy with the Afghan parent agency for keeping money it was supposed to spend on the bicycle messengers. Both the donor and former parent agency declined to comment for the story. Zaki says with too little work, they fell behind on the rent. They were evicted from their office and have since met in the park.

M: (Foreign language spoken).

SARHADDI NELSON: His colleague Abdel Sabur says with the weather turning, they won't be able to meet there for long. He doesn't know what they'll do if their business fails. But he says one thing's for sure, he would rather die than have to go out and beg. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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