As Radio Prague’s series on Czechs in Afghanistan winds down, Christian Falvey leaves the Czech humanitarian mission in northern Afghanistan and reports on the feelings about the future among the people working there, Czech and Afghan alike.
This is the last report from the humanitarian organisation People in Need working in the remote pockets of isolated communities in rural Afghanistan. The aim has been in part to show the personal relationships between these two countries, and in part to glimpse the impact that people from a small country can make on the volatile and often tragic affairs of a big country at the centre of world events.
“We have just entered this clinic, which was built a few years ago by People in Need. As you can see the doctor is not present at the moment, unfortunately for us, because he’s gone to Mazar-i-Sharif to buy medicines, but at least we have the chance to speak with a midwife.”
It looks like a clinic pretty much anywhere in the world I guess.
“It even smells the same as hospitals everywhere.”
So what can she tell me about the clinic? Was there a great need for a clinic in this area?
“She says that they didn’t have an operation room here and that they didn’t have more skilled doctors. The patients sometimes had problems in labour, they could not stop the bleeding, and sometimes they could not treat the children here, they sent them to Mazar-i-Sharif or another place.”
And she’s a midwife, yes? So how many babies has she helped into the world since the clinic was built?
Thirty babies have been born since this clinic was built? And have any been lost?
But mothers died frequently before the clinic was built?
“Eight or nine mothers died every year in labour before the clinic.”
These painful realities are hard for most people to simply visit and then abandon. The experiences of devoted humanitarians from any country working in desperate situations anywhere will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Many find it difficult to return to their former professions, and many do not. Others leave with the feeling that the only “real” world is the one of hardship. And it is not because of the hardship alone, but because of the bonds that one forms with the people. At the end of the day, leaving is a little different for everyone.
Is this the first time you’ve lived in a third-world country?
“In terms of living, yes. I mean I’ve visited third world countries before, but this is the first time I have spent more than a few weeks.”
In the last week we have seen a lot of really shocking things, I’m only here for ten days but you are going to be here for at least another year. Do you think you will come back marked by this experience in any way?
“I guess it’s a very good experience, and I don’t think it’s hurting me. It’s a different kind of life, at a different level of development. But in spite of the shocking things you see, it’s not shocking in a very bad way, it’s quite ok. It’s different, but you get used to it after some time. But I will definitely change somehow, for a bit, I don’t know in what way, but obviously it sort of twists your perception of the world, and of life and of human beings in general.”
And what then of the local people’s perceptions? More than 200 local Afghans work with People in Need, such as Ehsanullah Aseer, deputy chief of People in Need’s Food Facility programme. Ehsan worked with several humanitarian organisations, large and small, over the last decade, and his perception of their work has varied in that time.
“It was really interesting for me, participating in big meetings and hearing the [Western NGO managers] talk about emergency projects; I would ask what kinds of projects those were and they would say ‘trainings’, and those kinds of things. Training people to build their capacities is not an emergency. Afghanistan has passed the emergency period. Afghanistan is now in the period of development. Most of the NGOs would send expats just to do one job, but they gave them a lot of money, which was totally wrong. Writing emergency projects in a period when Afghanistan is in development is totally wrong, in my opinion. And it’s true that most of the countries that are helping Afghanistan get the money back by sending expats who then go back to their countries”
And do you think People in Need is different in this regard?
“Yeah, People in Need as a humanitarian organisation – in the four months since I have joined them – they think about each individual problem and each step of working for the people. I have found a really good environment and a really good management team here, even at the expat level. And we are happy with that. Ever since I was interviewed for the job, I have asked a lot of questions and satisfied myself with what type of organisation it is. And I have found it really interesting that they are just dealing with the realities and fighting for the rights of each Afghan.”
It will now be ten years since People in Need first attempted to provide relief in northern Afghanistan in late 2000 under very different circumstances. Since the permanent mission was established in 2001 it has become the organisation’s largest in any country. Czechs in that time have come and gone – the standard term being 18 months, some stayed for several years, others took positions in Prague where they could have a family but still work with the mission. And the numbers of Czechs in Afghanistan dwindle, because it was never their intent to stay for good. The mission is slowly being put under the complete control of the Afghans themselves, and I am interested to know what they believe the future will bring. Abdul Rahim has just taken up the post of security coordinator, and is the first Afghan in that position on the mission.
Do you have a definite opinion on what needs to happen in order for there to be a lasting peace throughout Afghanistan?
“Well I think – and I’m not a specialist in politics – but my idea is that war is not the way to bring peace to Afghanistan. I think should find another way than war, let’s say like comprising with groups who are not terrorists or fundamentalists; we at least compromise and sit and talk. And the second thing is corruption, because at the moment corruption is creating a gap between the community and the government. And the third thing is that we should find work and opportunities for unemployed people. That is my opinion.”
On this issue, I for one can only report that I did not find different opinions. I did not find a “hard line” stance among Afghan aid workers, citizens or anyone else. Those who do fire the rockets and commit the attacks are quite obviously of a different persuasion, but the prevailing attitude on how to counter them is like the one expressed here by Ehsanullah Aseer, above the omnipresent evening drone of generators in a rural community.
“I would not say that all Taliban need to be destroyed. The Taliban need to solve the problem diplomatically. This is what all Afghans think: that if the problem is solved in a diplomatic way, no one will be killed, no one will be injured. A part of the Taliban – the better part, as we have recently seen in the media – are really trying to solve the problem diplomatically; we hope that everything will be solved in a diplomatic way.”
Even diplomacy is a difficult goal to reach in the convoluted context of Afghanistan. But there plenty of smaller victories that can be won, and for Ehsanullah, whose family was very much harried by war, it is those small victories that are really the most important.
“This is something we have learned since the fighting, since we grew up – because we really grew up in the fighting – and this is the only time that we have seen that ‘no, after the fighting there is another life, one that everyone else is living, and we also have the right to live in peace.’ And this is what we are really trying to build: a small shelter for a really poor Afghan child who can live in peace in this country. But this is really something that needs the strong support of our friends, like the Western people and all the people from everywhere coming here. This is the thing, that they can build a shelter for us, at least the foundation, and bring ten Afghans together so they can study there, live there, feed themselves there and they can see the sky without fighting – just hope. And I really think we can make this happen.”
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