“Afghanistan is a stunningly beautiful country of savage contrasts. The temperature can go from 40 degrees of heat in summer to -30 degrees in winter. It is a land of mountain villages and teeming cities peopled by an exotic mix of tribal groups; Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Mongols, Hazara’s, the nomadic Kuchi and many others. It has been invaded, occupied and attacked many times throughout its history due, mostly, to the fact that it forms a major part of the main trade route from China, the Great Silk Road. The Russian army devastated huge areas of the country and what was left was finished off by the U.S. and UK led the war that started in 2001 and is still continuing today. For the innocents at the centre of this war-torn country, life is a brutal struggle for survival. And yet, everywhere I have travelled in Afghanistan I have been met with a warm and friendly welcome, deeply curious as to why a white man was travelling alone and why I was trying to help. I have had many meetings with village elders or area commanders, squatting with them in the dust of a village to negotiate my way to bringing in the mobile clinics. These meetings can be long, serious and intense one minute, guffaws of laughter the next, usually due to me mispronouncing a word in Dari which meant something completely different from what I intended.
A refugee camp, Kajalwan, is a favourite of mine as I have been visiting them over the years and know the community well. Over 300 people, Afghans, Internally displaced people they are called, IDP’s, refugees in their own country. It is a makeshift camp on the outskirts of a town. Men collect and dig for scrap metal left by the numerous Wars, it’s a dangerous job because Afghanistan was a heavily land-mined country and accidents happen. Women bake large, round, Uzbek bread which is simply the most delicious I have ever eaten and it is baked in underground ovens. Some men work as porters in the market.
Heating and cooking fuel comes from burning burst and discarded rubber tyres. The inside of tents and huts are black, as must be the lungs of the people. Respiratory disease is common in Afghanistan as is diarrhoea and gastrointestinal diseases due to lack of fresh water. Cooking water, by necessity is taken from rivers and aqueducts that are full of waste, animal and industrial, trucks and cars are washed and animals watered in the same water. When I first visited in 2002 there had been a drought for seven years, the rains of the past have still not returned. On each visit, I ask the SA team to organise a feast. We go to the goat and sheep market and choose an animal, usually, a large goat. Buy some sacks of rice and onions and spices, the cooks arrive with huge cooking pots and the boys collect freshly baked naan bread, piles and piles of them. We sit on mats and eat with our hands, there are smiles of joy and contentment in the faces I see around me too intent on enjoying, relishing a hot cooked meal of meat, rice and onions with naan bread than talking. Only the sounds of hungry people eating. In no time at all the huge oil drums we used for cooking are empty as are the bowls of the children.
After the feast, we put up volleyball nets and play the game the Afghans love. To hear the laughter of children and the shouts of young people in this desolate setting is a joy. I sit and talk with the elders, many of whom, with their families, fled their country due to the war with the West and the Taliban. They spent years across the border in Pakistan living, surviving, in refugee camps. They returned after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 to find homes and villages bombed and destroyed, schools, hospitals and vineyards unfit for purpose, arable land poisoned. Struggling to rebuild their lives they, were again, driven out by the threat of the Taliban and have now been in Kajalwan for longer than I have known them.
I really like Afghans, I find them to be very hospitable and instantly curious and now have many I call friends. I admire their courage, not only in doing a remarkable job for Spirit Aid but also in going about their lives with dignity and generosity. I have never met an Afghan who was mean. The strength of and loyalty to the family is at the heart of their philosophy. When I express how the western world views the typical, Afghan Muslim attitude to women, they say, ” Yes, Mr David you are right and slowly we Afghan males are beginning to change but can I ask you if it is true that when your Mother and Father get old you put them in special homes with lots of other old people and you pay strangers to look after them until they die in these homes?…….. This question from a young student among the two hundred or so I was talking with a College in Northern Afghanistan….. and another; …”Our Mothers and Fathers, our Aunties and Uncles will be carried from our homes in their coffins. We Afghans can’t understand how you do that to your parents” Touché, young man.”
Our partners in Afghanistan who have given us invaluable help in the past have been the and , to whom we are indebted.