Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Letters from Afghanistan

27 April 1995

After 16 years of war, including five years of bloody civil war, Kabul is peaceful. The fighting ceased on 21 March as Government forces drove the Taliban faction out of rocket range of Kabul. How long this peace will last is unclear, but the government in Kabul is looking very strong at the moment. During the last three weeks it has sunk in to Kabulis that there is peace. Countless number of shops have opened, a daily newspaper has started, music, onced banned, is now heard in restaurants. Women from wealthier families have cast aside their drab clothing and bright pink, red, yellow and blue clothes are starting to be seen.

It is strange for me having only known Kabul under siege to feel peace and calm. Over 30,000 people have been killed in Kabul and countless others wounded and maimed for life. But such is their resilience, Kabulis are rebuilding bombed homes and putting their shattered lives together. There are still about 400,000 people who need assistance and in response, 15 NGO's (non-governmental organisations) have got together and formed the Kabul Emergency programme and have a coordinated strategy to feed, restore water supply, improve sewage and rubbish collection etc. Although we (the ICRC and Federation) have not joined because we have to remain neutral and impartial because of our mandates, we work closely with them. It is a very difficult time nation wide for the Red Cross, Red Crescent movement, because we must strive to work with all factions and not be seen to be giving a disproportionate amount to one factional area in comparison to the others.

Between 11 and 17 April I went to Badakhshan, the remote north-eastern province of Afghanistan which includes the Wakhan corridor where the Pamir mountains join the Hindu Kush. Our main reason was to give assistance to the village of Qarluk which was engulfed by a huge landslide late last month. Over 350 people were killed out of the approx. 750 people living in the village. All the women in the village were killed except three and most of the children. It happened at 11 am so most of the men were out ploughing in the fields.

Due to an ecological disaster facing the whole of Badakhshan, caused by overgrazing by cattle, sheep, goats, deforestation, ploughing and planting on steep mountain slopes etc, many villages are threatened by landslides. We encouraged a number of people to evacuate and rebuild in safer places.

We also visited other districts in Badakhshan. The general situation of the 1 million or so people living here is appalling. The province borders Russian Tajikistan and there is regular conflict on the border. Russian jets have been bombing villages inside Badakhshan killing many innocent civilians. They do this saying that Afghanistan is harbouring Tajik rebel fighters. When I was in Faisabad jets Russian jets flew overhead and bombed a village 6 km away killing 6 people and seriously wounding many others. The following day Russian jets bombed neighbouring Taloquan killing over 100 innocent people. When I visited the district capital of Baharak I saw many houses flattened by Russian bombs and grieving families who had recently lost family members. In the hills behind Baharak, frightened women and children shelter in caves at night to shelter from the Russian aerial bombing. In the northern districts of Darwaz and Shegnan, famine is affecting large numbers of people. Traditional foods such as wheat is in short supply and starving people roam the country-side scavenging the land for wild flowers, tree bark, wild honey which keeps them alive. To replace the wheatflour which is the staple, people are grinding mulberries and making a flour from it. Many women and children have died of starvation and malnutrition is rife. To get news from Darwaz, 13 men from the district came to Kabul. It took them 15 days to fight there way over snow-bound passes to reach Faizabad the capital of Badakshan. It took them a further month to get to Kabul to break the news. The region is so remote and impossible to drive there from Kabul.
We had to wait over a week to get suitable weather to fly. Once there we travelled on mountains tracks for some of the way by Jeep and then walked and rode horses. We have mounted a major relief operation to assist the people of
Badakhshan. We flew in 700kg of medical supplies plus food and key items. I am also awaiting a charter plane from Iran with further relief supplies. In addition, I have sent a very urgent report to Geneva imploring them to inform the international community; governments and NGO's etc.

However, despite the tragedy unfolding, one can't but help notice the incredible beauty of the high mountains of the region. We were in the region north of the Hindu Kush and travelled through the Kohi Xaja Muhammad (range) which goes up to 5000m. As we crossed the high passes the massive bulk of the Hindu Kush was closeby to the south. Huge hanging glaciers spill from the high summits and the jumble of rock, ice and glaciers give this part of the Hindu Kush shape and form unique to the Greater Himalayan chain. Kush.

For the first week of April I was in Nangahar and Laghman provinces in the east of Afghanistan where we have ARCS branches. I think I wrote a little about that in my last letter.

I find that most days while I am working I find something which shocks, saddens or makes me very happy. Today I went with Ahmed Gizo to the Kharte Se hospital in the west of Kabul. On arrival we visited the men's ward which had 80 patients packed in. About 35 of them have had legs blown off during the past week by land-mines. Most of them are in a lot of pain as they have to regularly soak the open stumps in plastic bags of iodine to prevent infection until the final operation is done and the healing takes place. As I was talking to one man who had both legs blown off above the knee just two days ago, a nurse dipped the raw stump which looks as if someone had just chopped his leg off with a meat cleaver exposing bone, muscle and flesh were raw - as his stump touched the iodine he let out a piercing scream and then cried like a baby for some time after wards. I have seen thousands of people of all ages with legs blown off in the last 18 month and I find myself getting very angry with the countries that produce these weapons of destruction, and the armies that use them. However my anger subsided later when I visited the Red Cross orthopeadic centre were artificial legs are made and fitted. My good friend Alberto from the Italian Red Cross runs the centre. He has been doing the job for five years and employs about 150 local staff who do brilliant work producing , limbs, wheelchairs and crutches. There are three other Red Cross orthopeadic centres in Afghanisatm.

Writing these letters keep me sane.

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