I’m back from Afghanistan.
And, I feel kind of silly that I was even nervous about going!
Everything went as planned: I left the office with the team (social mobilizer, geologist, GIS specialists, Engineer and driver), loaded down with supplies (mostly food – because it’s Ramadan and people are fasting in AFG ) and my overstuffed backpack. I still haven’t learned how to pack light.
I can’t communicate with Raja, the head geologist (he doesn’t speak English), but the look he gave me when I showed up for the two day trip with 2 backpacks and a hand-bag was universal.
I mean what do you pack for a trip to Afghanistan?! I brought a pair of long johns, a sweater, two scarves – one to cover my head and one to cover my butt – just in case the pants were too tight. A long-sleeved shirt, baggy pants, a head lamp, two chocolate bars (for the 5km hike), three bottles of water (for after the 5km hike), a sleeping bag (I had learned my lesson on my last field visit – bed bugs…tons of bed bugs). A journal to record every moment and a book just in case I got stranded. Money, passport, cell phone etc. etc. etc. I double- checked my pack for anything suspicious – paranoid I know – but after my experience in Nicaragua with a pack of ferocious-looking dogs sniffing and licking my bags as I crossed the border – it felt warranted.
With the car packed, we headed for the border. I had a huge smile on my face the whole way. It took a total of 20 mins. to get there! About half way there a wind storm broke out. This was my first wind storm – and it was INTENSE. Sand flying everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’d heard that the winds can pick-up quickly in Khorog but I had no idea what that actually meant.
It was nuts.
This man had an air of elegance about him.
I was trying to simultaneously cover my head, grab my bags and hand over my passport to the border guards. Eventually, everyone gave up and took cover in the border station.
Going through customs was amazingly easy. I love working for an NGO. It’s like traveling first class as opposed to coach: the border guards know the organization and the people on the team (the fact that they are from the same area and speak the same language also helps!). They are happy that NGOs are implementing projects in their communities and generally want everything to go smoothly.
Not necessarily the experience that I have had as a traveler trying to cross borders!
I left everything in their capable hands and attempted for the twentieth time to put on my head scarf (Afghan style). Finally, Muni (the social mobilizer) came to my rescue.
Border crossings are funny things. There is always an expanse of no-man’s land between countries where vehicles are prohibited. So, you have to get out the car, grab your stuff and walk the 100 meters or so to the other side. Once there, you are told to halt, hand over your passport and await permission to enter.
At the end of the bridge, we were greeted by the Afghan border guards. Again, friendly hand-shakes, smiles and “Salam Alaikums” all around. Aside from a few curious stares in my direction – things went smoothly. The passports were quickly stamped and we were on our way.
Right away, I noticed differences between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Land shortage is a problem - communities want to keep as much land available for cultivation as possible. Therefore, houses are built on rocky terrain where cultivation isn't an option.
Not in the landscape – both are breath-taking - but in the conditions of the roads. On the Tajik side, the main road built along the Amu river (the river divides this part of Tajikistan from Afghanistan) has two lanes with vehicles driving in both directions. It’s well paved and in the course of a day you’ll see a variety of vehicles driving in both directions – including Mashukas(white mini-vans used by locals for transport within Khorog).
The Afghan side is the complete opposite.
The roads – where they exist -are terrible. The trip wouldn’t be possible without a 4×4. Other than one other vehicle, I saw no form of public transportation. In fact, in certain directions the road doesn’t even extend far enough. Driving to our guest house (we rented a local family’s home for the visit) took about 45 mins., at 20 km an hour – and it was bumpy. On the other side, the same distance would take about 15 min. Vehicles drive at 60 km -80 km an hour – if not faster.
As usual, I had my head hanging out the window – snapping everything in sight.
And there was a lot to take in:
- Red-haired children dressed in simple cotton clothing, running after the vehicle as it passed. At first, I thought that perhaps people in the village were very closely related – I mean red hair is not a common trait. But I soon discovered that the people here enjoy using henna (a dye) to colour their hair (the men do it as well) It’s quite fashionable.
- Women, head-covered, working, combing their children’s hair, or picking fruit.
Children playing in the field.
A big sister holding her younger sister’s hand.
The women in Tajikistan do not carry things on their heads. The women here do.
A girl cleaning grain - note the label on the bag: World Food Program.
A co-worker with the Afghan team.
- Men, in traditional Afghan dress ( white cotton pants and top and colored vest), walking along the road with donkeys in tow, harvesting their fields – often by hand- or lounging in their stalls’ in the bazaar.
Interesting fact: Women aren’t allowed in the bazaars.
International women are exempt from this social norm. My friend David describes the space that international women occupy as a “third gender”. I thought that was interesting and quite accurate – at least in this part of AFG.
Respecting the culture and traditions of the people is important to me. But in this case, I had no choice. The road to the village we were visiting had been wiped out by a combination of rock fall and flooding. And the only way up to the village was through the bazaar. It was a 5 km hike to get to the village.
And it was worth it – a truly beautiful hike.
Once we reached the village, I was exhausted. Due to a fairly rigorous daily work-out routine with my neighbor/roomie Rachel – I’m in fairly good shape. But the air is very thin at this altitude so even a short hike can be exhausting.
Or at least that’s what I told myself…
I had on $200 hiking boots, a visor, sunblock, sunglasses, a bottle of water, nuts and sweat proof everything and still couldn’t keep up with my Afghan colleague -(the woman pictured earlier)- she was wearing platform boots (SERIOUSLY!) and a dress/pant combo (Afghan style) and that’s about it.
And she didn’t even break a sweat!
At the village, we were greeted by the village council members and directed to have lunch. The governance system in Afghanistan is different from Tajikistan – they don’t have Village Organization leaders (VOs), instead they have a village council system that I’m still not entirely clear on, so I won’t elaborate.
We’d brought some supplies with us for lunch because we didn’t want to burden the community with having to feed us. And many (but not all) members of the community were fasting. This is an Ismaili area and fasting isn’t as strictly adhered to as in other parts of Afghanistan.
For lunch, we ate raw Maple Leaf chicken dogs (ah, a taste of home….), bread and yogurt. There are many types of yogurt here – all homemade. And I’m ashamed to say that I still can’t bring myself to eat it- the lumpiness of it reminds me of sour milk. I loath sour milk. At home, I even struggle to drink milk the day before the stated expiration date on the box.
I’ve eaten a lot of things here. And I’m pretty good about just going with it – but I hesitated with the raw dogs. It’s one thing if it’s foreign food – but something else entirely when it’s from home and you KNOW it’s supposed to be cooked. And let’s face it – the best parts of the meat are not usually reserved for the dogs.
But after a 5km hike I was famished. So, I sucked it up, ate and waited 30 mins. to see what would happen. Thankfully, nothing too out of the ordinary for Tajikistan…
After lunch it was back to work.
My job was to take photos and video of the training. I obviously didn’t understand what was being said so I couldn’t monitor the content of the training. But I enjoyed watching the community soak in the information. They asked a lot of questions about the disasters that we had mapped in their community. The goal of the training is to provide them with concrete mechanisms for survival when –not if- the disasters occur. In Afghanistan and the Pamirs, natural disasters are a part of life.
In Tajikistan, most of the communities are aware of the type of disasters they face: mudflow (from the mountains destroys homes), debris flow (water carries debris to destroy lands and houses), rockfall (huge boulders roll down the mountain taking out everything in their way), under-flooding (under ground water seeps into homes causing extreme dampness which leads to illnesses among other things) avalanche, earthquake, Lake Sarez (this one is insane – if this lake bursts it would flood all of Central Asia!). Some communities that I work in have only 20 minutes to evacuate if the Lake bursts…
Our organization, teaches people what to do in case of a disaster, how to prepare ahead of time and where to go to be safe. We also help the communities form response teams to rescue people that are trapped by the disaster. When we have the funding, we build mitigation projects to protect communities from disasters: walls to guard against debris flow, reinforced schools to protect against earthquakes, irrigation projects to contain underground water and redistribute it for harvesting of the lands, terracing of the land to slow down avalanches and give people a chance to get to safety etc.
This picture puts a smile on my face.
In Afghanistan, the communities are aware of the disasters but due to serious social problems they don’t pay much attention to them. There is certainly a very stong need for development projects here in all sectors : health, education, civil society, rural development – I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few, but you get my point.
The literacy rate in TJK is 99.5%, in AFG it’s 28% (and men are twice as literate as women…). Life expectancy in TJK is 66.3 years and in AFG it’s 44 years (both are too low!); the maternal mortality rate is 100 per 100,000 (live births) in TJK and 1, 356 per 100,000 in AFG… Unacceptable.
Many homes are unstable and decaying. People die here due to their homes crumbling on top of them during an earthquake.
There is no real infrastructure. And the lower level of hygiene is evident.
The Afghans I was fortunate enough to speak with were extremely kind and hospitable. People walking along the side of the road always stop to greet you with one hand across the chest as you drive or walk by. I was invited in for tea on many occasions and accepted as many invitations as I could. It was clear from the weak tea and stale biscuits served that life here is very hard in this village.
And the Afghans are also well aware of the differences in the two countries – even though many of them can’t get visas to cross the border. From the Afghan side you can see the development on the Tajik side- the roads, the cars, the houses, the infrastructure: telephone polls, hospitals, the SERENA 5 STAR HOTEL!
I wonder what it must have been like for the people on this side to watch as the Soviets built roads, schools and hospitals - transforming Khorog from a place that resembled their own country- to a “developed” town.
My colleagues at our partner organization in AFG haven’t been able to get visas to cross into Tajikistan. I was told by one staff member I interviewed that he will have to walk for 2 days to get to a village in another district to conduct a training.
This is because on the Afghan side the road has yet to be constructed that far. On the Tajik side – this same trip would take six hours. If he were allowed to cross the border – he could drive to that district on the TJK side and then cross the bridge over to the Afghan side once there.
It would simplify his life and allow him to do important work in that district. But visas are not given out very easily to Afghan citizens.
Trying to carve a road into the side of the mountain.
I had the opportunity to engage in a few discussions on the Afghan elections and of course the war. Everyone I spoke to had voted and experienced no problems with this process (including the women). One man was quite angry that the Americans ( he associated the war with the US primarily) hadn’t won the war yet – he asked me if I thought it was a conspiracy because war is good for the US economy. He asked me if I knew that it was the Americans that supported the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviets – and that these were the same people terrorizing Afghans now.
We had quite an intense discussion on the Taliban. One of my Afghan colleagues talked a lot about the number of Afghan civilians being killed in the war and how the tide is turning against the Americans for this reason primarily. Not news – but interesting to hear from an actual Afghan as opposed to political commentary in the news.
Tragically, the day following that conversation a NATO airstrike killed 70 people – many were civilians…