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The Afghan way
by Nick Danziger

"We all agreed our priority was life."

The bombardments did not stop Shahnaz, a staff member of the Afghan Red Crescent, from carrying on her work to assist the residents of a mental health institution near Kabul.

From September to November 2001, Afghanistan suffered under the effects of the US-led bombing campaign, ongoing civil war and drought. Nick Danziger reports on local efforts during this period to continue the work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The evening was extraordinary; the partygoers were ecstatic, the clock was soon to strike two in the morning - many couldn't tear themselves away even though it was several hours past the curfew. The music had been loud and the dancing wild. It seemed as though the revellers hadn't let loose for years. Three months before, the revellers would have been arrested, questioned and imprisoned for playing and listening to music, for dancing, for not sporting beards and for simply having fun.

The party was to bid farewell to Olivier Martin, the head of the ICRC's Mazar-i-Sharif delegation, but also to thank the Afghans who had continued to work for two months without the protection of expatriates during the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Everyone present at the party had their lives irrevocably changed by the events of 11 September 2001. Few of the Afghans at the party would have heard of New York's World Trade Center prior to that date. None of them had ever had the opportunity to see them. While much has been written and said about the heroism of ordinary New Yorkers, the New York firemen and the New York Police Department on that horrific day, little was written about the acts of herosim which took place in the following months in Afghanistan thousands of miles from New York. This is their story.

Juma Khan, Shafiq, Aimal and Shahnaz come from different parts of Afghanistan, three of them are from different cultures that make up the rich cross-section of peoples that inhabit the country. Although only two of them knew each other, they all worked for the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

Unlike many of us, they were unable to see the events that were to affect so profoundly their lives as television was forbidden to them under the Taliban regime. They learnt about the suicide attacks from their work colleagues or on the radio through the BBC's World Service and the Voice of America. Although none of them were strangers to war, they all went to work the following morning unaware that their country, one of the world's poorest, would soon become a battleground between their rulers and the world's greatest military power.

Pulling out

Within 24 hours of the attacks on New York City and Washington DC, when it became known that the United States would retaliate against the Taliban regime, the authorities informed all expatriates that they could no longer guarantee their security. For the first time in the ICRC's 17 years in Afghanistan, they were forced to evacuate not just non-essential expatriate staff which has happened on previous occasions, but all expatriates from Taliban-controlled areas.

When the word was given to leave, Afghans and ICRC and Federation expatriates went about their duties hurriedly - there was little time in which to prepare for the evacuation. In Herat, Mazar, Kandahar and Jalalabad few delegates had enough time to brief their Afghan colleagues, none had the time to pack all their belongings. In Kabul, some delegates had barely enough time to remove sensitive files for them to be burnt in the courtyard on a hastily constructed bonfire.

Coordinators busied themselves with last-minute preparations for the handover. The mood that had gripped New York two days earlier, now gripped the ICRC and Federation delegations across Afghanistan: not only shocked and surprised, expatriates and Afghans also felt mournful. Many had not had the time to say proper goodbyes and thought it might be the last time they would see each other, and for those who believed they would be reunited they could not say when that would be.

As much as the ICRC and Federation delegates wanted to stay, Afghans agreed that it would be unwise, "I was the first to agree that the expatriates should leave," explained Shafiq, the ICRC's chief liaison officer in Kabul. "The Taliban authority was weak and by the afternoon the Taliban said they [expatriates] had to go. They thought they couldn't protect us - there were lots of heavily armed groups in the city and they were no longer controllable." The last delegates in Kabul made several proposals on how the office should be run without them. "We had never prepared for this," said Shafiq, "I was a bit lost, three of us [Afghans] were in the office - they said, 'Shafiq can be acting head of the delegation'. We were expecting big difficulties, big tragedies for the country."

Robert Monin, ICRC head of delegation was for his part very clear about the priorities for the 1,000 Afghans working for ICRC: first, they should take care of themselves and their families. Peter Kiros, Federation head of delegation, was equally plain to Federation staff. "We all agreed our priority was life. We did not want any dead heroes. Staff members were told to look after themselves and their family first and Federation activities second," he explained.

As the ICRC plane took off for Pakistan, the ten Afghans who had gone to the airport to say goodbye were filled with gloom. "We had experienced before several evacuations of non-essential staff but we had no contingency plan for a complete withdrawal and thought it would be impossible to work - we wouldn't have the support of the del-egates. We weren't trained for this and we weren't sure we could manage," explained Shafiq as he tried to recapture the mood of that day.

Shafiq and Juma [below], two ICRC Afghan delegates, were among the many people who continued the Movement's work during the crisis.

The work continues

In Mazar, Juma Khan was no stranger to foreigners having to leave the city in haste. Juma Khan is a university-educated radio and electrical engineer who had once worked for the Afghan air force. He is now head guard for the ICRC in Mazar. Juma Khan is a long way from home, he is a refugee from Jagouri in Ghazni province - he hasn't been able to return home for 23 years. Last September's evacuation of foreigners in Mazar was the third evacuation in a little over as many years from that city. They have followed the ebb and flow of the tides of power that have washed across Afghanistan.

Like almost all ICRC and Federation employees Juma Khan saw no reason not to return to work during the evacuation. Most employees presumed that they would continue to receive instructions by radio from the delegates who had been evacuated to neighbouring countries. That hope was short-lived. Within two days all employees working for international organizations were told that they were forbidden to make contact with foreigners by radio or satellite phone other than through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To be caught doing otherwise would be an act of treason and offenders would be hanged. The following morning the antennas were taken down from the Mazar delegation and much of the radio equipment was hidden. This didn't prevent the Taliban from entering the compound.

Juma Khan explained, "Soldiers came over the wall. They beat our drivers, Naim, Shafi and Khaliq, in the yard. They took the keys to the vehicles, a truck and communication material. I was in the office. I was beaten on the side of the head and the ear with the wooden butt of a kalashnikov. Ghulam Ali, our head liaison officer went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to complain."

Confusion reigned. Not just in Mazar, but in other parts of the country. Day by day, life became more difficult for Afghans who worked for foreign organizations. However, ICRC, Federation and Afghan Red Crescent activities didn't stop. In many cases they defied all the odds to help the most marginalized and poorest members of Afghan society and to continue to protect the Movement's property and to help the most marginalized and poorest members of Afghan society.

Some Afghans drove vehicles to their villages. Shafiq put five Land Cruisers in his mother's home in Wardak province. "She didn't want to hide them," explained Shafiq, "She thought her house would become a target for the USA's B-52s. So I told her, 'Mother, just keep polishing the roofs of the vehicles so that they can see the Red Crosses'." Najmuddin, the head of the ICRC's orthopaedic centre ordered the wheels and batteries to be removed from their vehicles.

When vehicles were no longer available to the field officers they hired taxis to travel across the country to distribute essential medicines and war-wounded kits to hospitals. It was often the case that ICRC and Federation employees were racing against time, trying to distribute the remaining stocks of food before the warehouses were looted or destroyed. The ICRC's orthopaedic centres remained open for business as usual but, while many clients were undeterred by the bombing and fighting and showed up for their appointments on time, others were afraid to come to the centres (as is still the case today), because they belong to a ethnic group that has in the past been persecuted by a rival group.

Escaping the harsh effects of winter and the impact of the US-led bombing campaign, thousands of Afghans fled their homes at the end of 2001.
Vital statistics
  • Estimated population of 26 million, of whom 80 per cent live in rural areas.
  • Approximately 1.28 million internally displaced people.
  • 2 million refugees in Pakistan and 1.5 million in Iran
  • Every 30 minutes an Afghan mother dies giving birth
  • Only 69.9 per cent of its children survive to the age of five, and the average life span is 44 years
  • One in two Afghan children are malnourished
  • Before the current crisis, 150 to 300 Afghans were killed or maimed every month in mine/unexploded ordnance (UXO) accidents; survivors of mines/UXO number an estimated 200,000
  • From 1999 to 2000, more than 225,000 landmines and 1.3 million UXO were detected and destroyed.
  • 23 per cent of the population has access to safe water
  • 12 per cent has access to adequate sanitation
  • Literacy is estimated at around 30 per cent for men and 13 per cent for women

Source: Federation, UN, Médecins sans Frontières

Movement action


  • ICRC, lead agency
  • Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS)
  • International Federation
  • Sister societies: Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Australia, Denmark, Canada, United Kingdom, Finland and Japan


  • Emergency relief
  • Health
  • Agriculture
  • Water and sanitation
  • Collection of mortal remains
  • Protection: visits to around 4,800 detainees and prisoners of war (including those held by the US forces in Guantanamo bay, Cuba) in 40 detention places
  • Mine action programme including mine and cluster bomb awareness training
  • Strengthening institutional capacity of ARCS

ARCS profile

  • Staff - 1,200
  • Volunteers - 5,900
  • 2002 activities with the support of the Federation and ICRC: preventive and curative primary health care, mother and child health, community-based first aid/youth programme, vocational training, food-for-work, institutional service for destitute families and mentally retarded persons, distribution of food and non-food items, tracing, mine awareness, dissemination, and conflict/disaster preparedness programmes

After 20 years of conflict, Afghans are concentrating on reconstruction efforts. The UN estimates it will take over a decade of sustained involvement by the international community and Afghan society to rebuild the country.

At least 40 of the 48 Afghan Red Crescent clinics, supported by the Federation, remained open during the crisis with 11 of them participating in a vaccination campaign against polio. More than 4,200 children were vaccinated by National Society staff across central Afghanistan. "We were very afraid but we tried to continue as normal because we realized that people needed us more than ever before," says Latifa Hassima, a doctor at one of the Red Crescent clinics in Kabul.

The indomitable Afghan spirit was never stronger than at the most acute moments of danger. No sooner was there a gap in the aerial bombardment that made the city shake than Juma Khan was on his bicycle to find out if his two doormen had survived the onslaught. As he arrived at the delegation an armed soldier grabbed him because he is Hazara, "They told me, 'I'm going to kill you and drink your blood. You're a spy.' Ghulam Ali heard the commotion and came running to the gate. Ghulam Ali, told them, 'He's Turkmen,' I told them I was Hazara - He put me in a taxi and told me to stay at home. For the next ten days I stayed at home listening to the BBC and the Voice of America. I would listen to the ebb and flow of the bombardments."

In Kabul the heavy bombing of the city airport forced Shahnaz, a widow with four children, to flee her home to a safer neighbourhood. Shahnaz has, like Juma Khan and Shafiq, lived through several coup d'états, revolutions, civil wars and bombardments from foreign forces. Shahnaz has worked for over a decade for the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) as a nurse helper at Marastoon, an asylum on the outskirts of Kabul for men and women with serious mental health problems.

Shahnaz was one of the few women who were allowed to work during the Taliban regime. Even though she has never received a formal education nor training for her current job, no one is more dedicated to the task of looking after those who have either inherited or become seriously unbalanced by the many horrors that have visited Afghanistan.

"I was terrified of the bombing," explained Shahnaz. As the streets emptied of people and vehicles, Shahnaz often found herself walking to and from work along empty roads. "I couldn't leave those women on their own, there would have been no one else to look after them."
Women and men like Shahnaz form the bedrock of the ARCS. In Bamiyan at the feet of the ancient Buddhas which were recently destroyed, most of the town has been either destroyed or looted. The local clinic is a mere shell of its former self, with only the walls and bed frames in place. Doors, windows and their wooden frames, basins, light bulbs and fixtures have all been stolen. However, a local nurse fearing the worst grabbed what she could carry before the looters arrived. Now in the absence of a medical team and a clinic, she has opened her own home to administer to the sick.

This perseverance and dedication to a common humanity could have cost many Afghans working for the Movement their lives. Sir Winston Churchill, Britain's Second World War prime minister's words could not be more apt for the Movement's Afghan employees, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. He could have added daring.

Aimal has the tired eyes of someone much older than his 20 years. He is a reluctant hero. He never wanted to work for the ICRC, he wanted to further his studies, go to university, and travel abroad but he had no choice. "When the Taliban arrived I lost my job because I was a cameraman for wedding parties. My mother was forced to retire because of her poor eyesight and her age, my father was an industrial tool engineer who could no longer work because the machines were either destroyed or the factories abandoned." Having learnt English at a private course, the ICRC offered Aimal a job in air operations and as a radio operator. Aimal became his family's sole breadwinner.



The Afghan Red Crescent is a major participant in national reconstruction efforts

Two to four times a day Aimal crossed Mazar to reach the Public Call Office (PCO) to telephone Olivier Martin in Turkmenistan. He travelled to the PCO either on foot or by bicycle, rarely taking the same route twice. At the PCO he had a friend who was prepared to risk his life to help make the overseas call. "I was scared. Sometimes I had to hang up in mid-conversation. I mainly talked in code: Foxtrot Lima for frontline, Tango - the Taliban, November Alpha for the Northern Alliance."

As the Northern Alliance closed in on Mazar, Aimal feared being caught either side, by the Taliban for calling foreigners on the telephone or by the Northern Alliance for his Pashtun origins. "The Taliban were driving through Mazar very fast, sometimes even with one or two punctured tyres, some got out of their cars and pulled people out of taxis and drove off. I understood that the Taliban were about to evacuate. I bicycled home furiously to get to my family. The bombing was very intense. We went to Juma Khan's house as we thought it would be a safe place for us - as we thought they wouldn't kill Hazaras. Juma Khan welcomed us very warmly, fed us and said it was our house to stay as long as we wanted." But it
wasn't long before the fighting approached Juma Khan's house.

"We all lay on the floor, there was so much fighting. At 8 in the evening we heard horses' hooves and people talking, we were still on the ground afraid, we were trying to make out what language they were speaking. They were speaking Farsi and not Pashtu - I knew we were safe," reflected Juma Khan.The fighting was not quite over, and one of the hardest tasks was about to be undertaken by Afghans at different delegations around the country. The collection, photographing and burying of the dead that littered neighbourhoods, fields and streets across Afghanistan. Many of those who volunteered for the task that no one else was prepared to undertake are still haunted by their experiences.

Now, as the Afghan interim government tries to bring Afghanistan out of the Dark Ages and into the league of nations, and international world bodies try to put emergency and development projects together, they would do well to reflect on what a group of a few thousand Afghans achieved using nothing more than ingenuity, courage, and the benefit of many years of training in humanitarian work. Afghans working for the Movement had, in the two-month absence of civic authorities and foreigners, brought food to displaced people on the brink of starvation, given blankets to families who would have died of hypothermia, negotiated the return of a stolen bridge so that the engineers could repair Kabul's broken water system, serviced and manufactured prosthesis and orthosis to some of Afghanistan's tens of thousands of disabled people, travelled through gunfire in hired taxis to bring war-wounded kits to men who had caused misery to their own families, tended to the injured and sick in their front rooms.

However, the greatest discovery that the men and women in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement made in the absence of foreigners was that after 23 years of internecine civil wars for competing ideologies and ethnicities, the possibility exists that they can work under one roof. "If we managed with everyone helping each other," says Shafiq, "Our big hope is that it is possible to run the country in the same way."


Nick Danziger
Nick Danziger is an author, documentary film-maker and photographer.

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