Afghan shrines last resort for Afghan mentally ill

May 16, 2012, 5:00 PM

Associated Press

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AP) – The young man sits nearly naked in a small concrete room, a thick, heavy chain fastened around his ankle and bolted to the wall. Flies swarm around a wound on his wrist where shackles have rubbed the skin raw. His own waste has pooled in the corner, turning the dirt floor into a pungent mud.

This is no jail, however, and 23-year-old Jalaludin has committed no crime. The Mia Ali Baba shrine in eastern Afghanistan is a holy place, and those who care for it say that spending 40 days here will, God willing, free Jalaludin from his personal prison: mental illness.

For 300 years, the shrine keepers here have been taking in the mentally ill. They say they are upholding the legacy of their ancestor whom the shrine honors, a holy man by the name of Ali Baba who was known in this area outside Jalalabad city for caring for the mentally ill when they were shunned by others.

“This is an obligation for my family, but it is also an honor,” said Mia Subadar, one of the shrine’s current guardians. “Since I have been here, hundreds of people have come here and become healthy.”

Shrines such as Mia Ali Baba are frowned upon by health care professionals and other critics who say they are ineffective and that those who run them prey on vulnerable people’s religious beliefs and superstitions to make a profit.

But in Afghanistan, wracked by poverty and decades of war, many don’t have access to even basic health care, let alone facilities for the mentally ill. With the government saying that more than 60 percent of Afghans suffer from psychological disorders from anxiety to depression, that leaves a huge void to be filled.

Frustrated families often turn to places like Mia Ali Baba, hoping for a miracle.

The prescription is drastic.

Those sent here are chained to the walls of the small, windowless rooms. They are fed only water, black pepper and bread. They are not allowed to bathe anything except their faces, hands and feet. Speaking with others is prohibited.

If a shrine keeper decides their situation is improving, they may be unchained for a few minutes so they can pray, walk outside or visit a proper bathroom.

Mohammad Sadeq, 40, said he was sent to Mia Ali Baba by his brothers. He said he doesn’t know specifically what is wrong with him, but he has wild mood swings.

“I am a normal person, but whenever I come out of the house in my village, the children start shouting ‘Look at the crazy man’ and they throw stones at me,” he said. “And then I don’t know anything and I really do become a crazy man. I don’t even know if I am human.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Afghan shrines last resort for Afghan mentally ill