Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Guest blogger: Rebuilding Afghanistan, Part 1 

In the occasional series, I invite guest bloggers to share with the Chrenkoff readers (Chrenkheads? with apologies to Rush's dittoheads) their interesting personal perspectives on current events. Today, the first of three parts of a report by Rob, Regional Director of Central Asian Free Exchange (CAFE), who has spent the last three years making the difference on the ground in Afghanistan. His is an invaluable first-hand, sleeves rolled-up, account of the work being done to transform one of the poorest and most unfortunate countries in Asia.

Welcome to Afghanistan

In December 2001, shortly after the Taliban were driven out of northern Afghanistan, I ventured across the Friendship Bridge connecting Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. This was my first glimpse into my new home for the next 3 years. The 85 kilometer trip from the bridge in Hairaton to Mazar-e-Sharif the principal city in northern Afghanistan was a quick introduction to what I would find in Afghanistan.

The first impression was the smiling, welcoming faces on all of the customs personnel on the Afghan side. I couldn’t have felt more welcomed by the people who were happy that foreigners were now allowed back in to help them rebuild their country. On the drive in we passed what could best be described as a tank graveyard, strewn with the remains of tanks and other armored vehicles from the war with the Soviets. The reminders of war were everywhere.

Next we turned south and headed through the desert towards Mazar. After traveling a few kilometers we came to a large section of the road that had been overtaken by the desert’s sand dunes. Old, useless earth moving equipment from many years ago sat their mocking motorists trying to navigate the sand without getting stuck. This was to be the principal road for bringing aid and assistance to the north and at this time most trucks would not be able to pass.

After we successfully navigated the desert we came upon a few empty shipping containers in the desert which were riddled with bullet holes. I was told as we passed that the Taliban locked their enemies in these containers and left them in the desert to bake to death. The enemies of the Taliban had also returned this favor to them when they had been kicked out of the north 3 years earlier for a short time.

As we got a bit closer to the city we came upon a massive internally displaced persons (IDP) camp some 15 kilometers from Mazar. You could see that it was alive with activity and I was made aware that at the time there were 2,500 families calling this patch of desert home. They were being totally cared for by the Afghan staff of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) that had remained active throughout all of the fighting. When I arrived 47 of these camps existed in and around the city housing hundreds of thousands of very vulnerable people.

Finally we reached our destination, Mazar. It was hard to tell what the city even looked like because as far as the eye could see everything was mud. I had somehow been transported to the early 20th century. The cars on the road were outnumbered by the donkeys, camels and carts pulled by men. Most of the vehicles that were on the road were pickup trucks loaded with at least a half a dozen men armed to their teeth with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket propelled grenades. I went in to a couple of stores to see what was available and besides a few soft drinks from Iran, there wasn’t too much available. One thing that was plentiful was music blasting out of cars and stores for the first time in 3 years.

At the gracious offer of another NGO worker we slept at their guesthouse for the night. Their place had been totally looted when the Taliban were driven out and not expecting guests I had to sleep on a thin layer of carpet laid on top of concrete with no blankets. The temperature was below freezing and I doubt I slept 10 minutes that night. Mazar had no electricity at this time and being in December our day ended quite early. Shortly after nightfall the darkness exploded with the noise and flashes of light of gunshot, rockets being launched and a few sounds which could only be tank or heavy mortar fire. I stepped outside to see what was going on, and it seemed that from almost every house you could see rockets being launched. My travel companion smiled and said, "Welcome to Afghanistan". I just wondered what I had gotten myself into.

Dawlatabad District, Balkh Province in Dec. 2001

I had been researching Afghanistan for months by then and was ready to get started setting up a regional office for CAFE in Mazar. Being a new NGO to Afghanistan and having less financial resources at my disposal than some larger NGOs, I had chosen to concentrate our projects in a district where other NGOs were not active. The district of Dawlatabad is located 45 kilometers northwest of Mazar and at that time had been hard hit by the 3 years of drought plaguing the region. Dawlatabad was said to have a population of about 77,000 people located in 52 villages and had been deemed to be an area of acute food insecurity by the World Food Program’s Vulnerability Assessment Mapping (VAM) study of 2001. They had determined that 80% of the families living in Dawlatabad would only be able to meet about 25% of their nutritional needs for the year.

Besides the famine brought on by the drought, Dawlatabad was rife with needs and opportunities. Being an area largely controlled by the mujahadeen during the war with the Soviet Union, in most of the district, education had been largely non-existent, for 20 plus years. Most of the schools that had existed years before had been torn down by the mujahadeen or had just crumbled from years of neglect. In the whole district in 2001, there was between 1,000 and 2,000 students at school.

Access for villages to the district center and to Mazar-e-Sharif presented another huge problem. During the winter rainy season the road to both the district center, the site of the only clinic in the district, and to the provincial center, Mazar, was impassable for several days at a time. In a good 4x4 truck the 45 kilometer journey was a bone jarring 3 hour drive. Since the local citizens don’t have 4x4 vehicles it was even more difficult or maybe even impossible.

Many people had fled the district over the years because of drought, fighting during the Soviet occupation, mujahadeen war and the lack of jobs or dangers during the Taliban rule. Dawlatabad was one of the districts in the north with largest amount of refugees in Pakistan and Iran at the beginning of 2002. Many families that were left by this time had sold off all of their possessions, fallen into great debt to feed their families and had no resources available to start their lives again. This was the general picture of life in the district when I arrived.

Stay tuned for the other two parts soon. In the meantime, if you want to contact Rob directly, email txtrain2004 "at" yahoo "dot" com.


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