Shock and despair have gripped me since I returned from Afghanistan
a few weeks ago to find that war looms dangerously close over
the country. Caught once again in the midst of international
crossfire, ordinary Afghans enter a new and terrible dimension
of their 23 year nightmare. For two decades they have endured
conflict, drought and relentless poverty - now up to 8 million
people face severe food shortages or starvation, and the end
is nowhere in sight.
Over the last six months I had been working to raise awareness
of the Afghan crisis, and assumed that I was somewhat familiar
with the situation. I could not have been more mistaken. Nothing
could prepare me or my companions for our journey into this
Our journey began in September with a flight from Peshawar,
Pakistan. Beneath the plane, the mountains of Afghanistan
lay spread in silent majesty. I thought to myself - if these
mountains could speak, they would speak volumes, the real
life stories of millions of men, women and children who fled
their country in terror.
The drive from Kandahar airport to the office unfolded scenes
of tragedy. Virtually every wall in the city, every building,
every landmark, had been hit by shells. We were all in shocked
disbelief at the scale of devastation.
The next morning, we set off to view Islamic Relief projects
in the Hilmand province, one of the areas most severely affected
by drought. The six hour drive through the desert was treacherous.
Our weak bodies, moulded by comfortable lifestyles, were not
suitable for the brutal journey through miles of endless desert
and dried-up river beds.
Severe drought and a ban on poppy cultivation have left farmers
without a means of livelihood, causing widespread poverty
and misery. Islamic Relief's 'Food For Asset Creation' engages
community members in improving the agricultural infrastructure.
Locals take part in regenerating an ancient underground water
irrigation system, once a lifeline for the community - in
return for daily food rations. Many people who would have
been forced to leave home are now able to stay and work.
One of the villagers involved in the activities, Haji Abdul
Kabir, generously welcomed us into his humble dwelling with
a meal of unimaginable proportions! He was ill, but had journeyed
for days to the Pakistan border city of Quetta and back, just
to buy a 75 cent bottle of medicine.
This is just the beginning of the programme, and the sad
reality is that if Afghanistan is further crippled by war,
the victims will be innocent people like Abdul Kabir and others.
They will once again feel betrayed and forsaken by the likes
of us who represent the international community.
As we drove from this fertile oasis I asked the driver to
stop, so that I could step out and take a photograph of the
tranquil village. The Qur'anic ayah echoed through my mind:
"we made from water every living thing" (21:30)
Suddenly, a shout came from behind, "Stop! Minefield!"
Our lives flashed before our eyes, as we remembered that this
was the most heavily mined region in the world. We made it
safely back to our vehicle, but for the local population such
incidents are a part of everyday life. Exploding landmines
claim 25 victims a day, on average. You never know if your
next step will be the last.
The following day we set off for Kabul, on an unforgettable
journey. Never had I experienced anything like this eighteen
hour drive. The so-called road was little more than a series
of huge potholes, bumps and remnants of a highway destroyed
by tanks. Already weak with sickness and nausea, I thought
of the 15 or so remaining hours of the journey, and my willpower
was starting to break.
As a timely reproach, Dr Hany El Banna, IR President's words
returned to me: "How can we work for the needy if we
cannot endure their conditions for even a short while?"
Lying flat and incapacitated in the front seat of the car,
I prayed intensely for a smooth stretch of road, to give my
battered body some respite. A van drove past in the other
direction, full of men, women and children - stacked like
cattle inside and on top of the vehicle. Plodding behind was
a donkey with a sleeping baby strapped to it, tossed from
side to side. I felt ashamed that I, as an adult in my own
car, and my own seat, was complaining to the Almighty.
The following morning, we toured Kabul. Looking at the city,
you would have thought the war had ended yesterday. Buildings
were demolished, and children played in abandoned tanks on
the roadside. Every existing structure had been shelled to
pieces. Shrapnel impact had become part of the city décor,
and people went about their business as usual, numbed to the
devastation that surrounded them.
We visited the old Russian Embassy, which now housed over
5,000 refugees. Disease was rampant, and most children were
suffering from malnutrition. The air was saturated with an
unbearable stench, caused by the lack of sanitation. The Afghanis
had actually fled from starvation to end up in this miserable
We witnessed a project for street children, run by a local
organization called HIFA. Educational and recreational activities
included drawing, painting and handicraft skills. I was amazed
by the creativity of these young people…if only the children
of Afghanistan were given an opportunity to fulfill their
potential, we would see their talents surface.
Sadly, politics has kept the international community away
until now, when we have seen more images of starving children
in the last week than in the last decade. The suffering is
relentless, but a sign hanging in an office serves as a quiet
'Life without struggle and effort is like dying before death.'
Stoical after years of endless suffering, courageous in the
face of the horrors to come, the people of Afghanistan dream
of a day when their struggle abates, and the light of peace
stretches over the horizon.