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A Journey Through Tragedy
(03 September 2003)
The people of Afghanistan dream of a day when the light of peace stretches over the horizon
Jehangir Malik, IR Programme Coordinator, witnesses the plight of the Afghan people facing the outbreak of war shortly after September 11.

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 forsaken land.

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 place.

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 reminder:

'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.

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