Monday, January 7, 2008

Beyond the call of duty

Here is an artcle I wrote way back in 1996 about our work in Afghanistan

Up against insurmountable odds, the staff and volunteers of the Afghan Red Crescent have not faltered in their devotion to duty. A Federation delegate describes how working with them has helped him renew his own commitment to the Red Cross and Red Crescent cause.
When in December 1993 I first visited Abdul Basir, head of the Afghan Red Crescent’s International Department in Kabul, one wall of his office had been blown out by a rocket a few days earlier. Fortunately, Basir was not in his office at the time. A blanket, flapping in the wind, served to keep out the winter cold. All the windows were shattered, which made it easier for destitute women queuing outside to put their heads through to attract Mr Basir’s attention.

As I was talking to Basir, one of his staff rushed in. He urgently needed to make a photocopy of an important document for a young orphan who was travelling overseas for medical treatment. Basir dug deep into his pocket and gave 1,000 Afghanis of his own money to his colleague who walked the 30 minutes into the city centre to make the copy.

At the time the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) must have been one of the few, possibly the only, National Society headquarters in the world without electricity. This meant no lighting, no telex, no fax machine and no photocopier: in short, virtually no contact with the outside world.

In addition, Abdul Basir had not been paid for six months, owing to a collapse of traditional fundraising sources brought about by 15 years of conflict in Afghanistan. But he, along with his 350 colleagues at the ARCS national headquarters, still came to work daily knowing there would be no pay at the end of the month. A number of staff members had to move their families from Kabul to safer parts of Afghanistan or to Pakistan and are lucky if they see them once a year. Those who have chosen to keep their families with them have been forced to move three or four times in the last two years as the conflict switched from one side of Kabul to the other.

Fortunately, through the support of the Federation and the ICRC and the generosity of National Societies, things have improved dramatically since that day in December when I first walked into Abdul Basir’s office. The old generator has been repaired and the once dim rooms are brightly painted and equipped with heaters to warm the winter air. The British Red Cross has built a workshop where a large fleet of vehicles is serviced regularly. Staff now receive an incentive allowance from the Federation in lieu of a salary until traditional fundraising sources can be reactivated.

An exemplary commitment

The lack of modern equipment and conveniences and the enforced separation from their families notwithstanding, the ARCS staff and volunteers provided assistance to 1.25 million beneficiaries in 1994.

“Commitment of this kind is common within the Afghan Red Crescent Society,” said Sakhi Dad Fayez, President of the ARCS. Evidence of it is everywhere. When I visited Samangan in northern Afghanistan, the ARCS clinic there was still operating. Despite the fact they had not received supplies or salaries for a year, Dr Hasamudin Hamnawa was still at his post with two nurses and a pharmacist. When I asked why he had stayed, he replied, “It is our duty. The Jihad (holy war) is over. Now it is up to us educated people to help rebuild Afghanistan.

Similar stories abound and they make Federation delegates like myself question and renew our own commitment to our work. Many times I have asked myself: “Would I still be working in Afghanistan if I hadn’t been paid for six months?” I know the answer.

The commitment is not only evident among the full-time staff in Kabul, but pervades the ranks of the volunteers. “Over the past nine months, up to 150 ARCS youth volunteers have been working in Kabul,” says Farooq Jalalzay, the National Society’s head of Youth. “Most are highly trained first-aiders who work as volunteers in ARCS medical clinics and take part in relief distributions, survey work and social programmes.”

In January of this year, Abdul Habib, a 28-year-old Red Crescent volunteer was killed when caught in cross-fire as he was going to help distribute relief supplies. He left behind a wife and four children under the age of ten. Two months later, an ARCS headquarters staff member from the publications department was killed by a rocket on his way home from work. He, too, left behind a wife and two children.

The heart of a volunteer

Recently I accompanied Abdul Basir on a difficult field trip to the mountain village of Qarluk in Badakshan. The village of 750 people in the remote Hindu Kush had been hit some days before by a monstrous landslide that killed over 350 residents. All except three of the women in the village had been killed, along with a number of children.

As we arrived in Qarluk, the survivors of the landslide, mainly men, were huddled together in an atmosphere of grief and bewilderment. Basir hugged them one by one and then spoke to them with compassion and dignity. He told them that we in the Movement were grieving with them and that they must take heart. Basir, in his humble way, gave those men hope at a time when their whole lives had been plunged into darkness and despair.`

The next day, after distributing relief supplies to each surviving family, he mounted a borrowed horse and rode over a high mountain pass to two other villages in the next valley of Teshkan, where 7,000 people were under threat from a tottering mass of rock and mud high above their homes. Basir gave the village leaders support and encouraged them to evacuate immediately. Then he walked two hours along a path on the precipitous mountainside before regaining the track and his horse.

A simple man, sporting peasant clothes, a bushy beard, sparkling eyes and an ever-ready smile, Basir’s heart is too big for his own good. At the beginning of May, Abdul Basir travelled to Seoul, South Korea, together with a young ARCS volunteer, Zaheer Shah, to represent the ARCS at the Asia-Pacific Volunteer Convention. When he was invited to go, he said, “I shouldn’t be going. I am not a volunteer.” I laughed, answering, “You may have a full-time position, but you weren’t paid for six months. I think you qualify as a volunteer.”

Bob McKerrow

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