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
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.
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
Shafiq and Juma [below], two ICRC Afghan delegates, were
among the many people who continued the Movement's work during
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Strengthening institutional capacity of ARCS
- 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."
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
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
Nick Danziger is an author, documentary film-maker and photographer.
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