Monday, 25 April 2016

Afghanistan Spring 2016

19th-23rd April Kabul, The Peace City 

Kabul was once a city of gardens, described in the 19th century as a place with “fine cut masonry pools and cisterns, the gardens equal to those of paradise…”  Now the gardens are replaced by the armour of fear. High concrete walls, barbed wire and blackened fences climb ever higher until they almost shut out the sky. The roads are blocked by great concrete slabs and watch towers, iron doors and armed men line the streets. And the great irony is the slogan on the oppressive concrete walls, saying Kabul, The Peace City.

An hour after my arrival in Kabul, the most deadly suicide bomb since 2011 made world headlines for a day and devastated hundreds of lives for ever. The blast etched another scar on the hopes of the Afghan people for an end to the pointless violence that has blighted their lives since birth. Many have been refugees before and many are facing such dark moments as they lose loved ones, friends and countrymen, that thoughts of leaving are surfacing once more.

The night of the attack, as I sat a little ill-at- ease on my first night in Kabul, another explosion went off. It seemed near and I wasn’t sure what it was or whether I should run to the safe room. I went and asked the guards what was happening. Nobody knew and everyone seemed anxious. And so I was exposed just a little to what these people have to live with in their daily lives and to the constant uncertainty that always lies in the shadows. I was called a few moments later by security who said it was just a magnetic IED going off- nothing to worry about!

The cook at our guest house was absent the day after the attack. Next morning, he came in and apologised for being away. He broke down in tears, saying his best friend and neighbour had died in the blast. Today they should have been out celebrating at his wedding dinner.
Travelling on my own is certainly lonely at times, but the compensation is the enhanced connection with the local people and with the Afghans working for our partner organisation. On every journey, at every meeting, on chance encounters, we talk!Almost every one of them has been a refugee. Many have grown up in Iran or Pakistan having fled either the Soviets, the atrocious times after Soviet withdrawal, when Kabul streets became the frontline in the battle between different warlords, or the Taliban.  Most have lost fathers and brothers in the fighting.
 One girl told me how her father and 2 brothers were taken away during the Soviet time. They have never been heard of again. Her mother still does not accept they are dead, some 30 years later. And all of them have had their families wrenched apart by war and have siblings, parents and children scattered across the world. Like seeds blown haphazardly and capriciously in the wind, they have come to land and take root in every corner of the globe, separated from everything they have known and loved. I met a young woman on the plane into Kabul, who had come from Canada to see her mother for the first time in 10 years.

And yet the spirit of the people shines through all this darkness – a beacon of defiance and a testimony to hope. For surely, as long as there are people out there like those I have met over just a few days, there must be hope for a better future. And that is why I am always inspired to keep working and never to give up!

Lunch with a family

 A long weekend stretched ahead and so I was delighted to receive an invitation from a local family to join them for lunch. Once all the security issues had been resolved and a plan devised, they turned up to meet me, all immaculately turned out in their best clothes. They have 2 daughters and 2 sons aged from 5 to 11. It was a beautiful day and the first day for months when the Kabul skies were clear and the Hindu Kush, laced in new snow, shone on the horizon. I loved my day, a rare touch of normality, walking on a hilltop by the restaurant and chatting in the sun with a very special family.


Of course, the other great cause of hope and joy in Afghanistan is the cricket! The National Team’s success in the T20 World Cup in India has brought such pride and celebration. What has really surprised me is the knowledge that girls and boys, young people and old, have about their team. They know all the names of the players and can recall the intricacies of every T20 game-not least the one against England. Faces transform when I mention the success against the West Indies. Cricket was barely played here in the 90s, but it has captured imaginations, inspired dreams and brought hope and is now the nation’s fastest growing sport. Boys walk round with homemade wooden bats, just as the national team did back in the refugee camps of Pakistan.

Thanks to the British Embassy in Kabul, AC was awarded a grant last year to renovate and upgrade 16 schools and build cricket pitches in them and at 4 other schools. Most of the projects were done in the provinces, but a few schools in Kabul benefited and so I now had my chance to visit.
I went to two girls’ schools and 2 boys’ schools. The first thing that strikes one is the sheer volume of children-10,000 in one school, 9000 of which are girls. 
At the first school, the children were all lined up waiting, young girls on one side armed with flowers, and the cricket team, all turned out in their new kit on the other. They were still wearing medals which they had won in a T20 arranged by the British Embassy. There had been teams from the Embassies of Pakistan, Australia and UK and this team of boys had outdone them all in a day that they will never forget. After all the painstaking work with the AC team back home, to get the grant for this project, it was such a treat to stand there, watching the boys play cricket on a sunny morning in Kabul.

The two girls’ schools I visited were as ever, an inspiration. Things are not getting any easier for the girls and with the poor security, things may even be going backwards. Only with time and education will it ever start to change. The international community’s approach to women’s rights has been very top down. The resistance to change is strong. Centuries of tradition and especially in rural communities will not transform overnight. Education has got to be the starting point..and education for the boys as well as the girls.  Once the girls can show how an education can benefit a family, above all economically, then things will slowly start to turn and this will be in the cities before the rural areas. We have seen it in some of our schools, where husbands are sending their wives to school because they see that families where the woman is a breadwinner as well as the man, have much more prosperity.  It is disheartening to see these incredible, extraordinary girls in the schools, who have learned English in their spare time, and studied so hard and want to be doctors and teachers and engineers and above all wish to serve their” beloved” country and to wonder what will happen to them and how many of them will actually reach their great potential and be given the freedom to live and work as they wish. How many will be married young and lose this magnificent spirit and determination, which if nurtured, could rebuild this war-torn country?

They are strong and intelligent and confident and will stand up and talk in English with me in front of the class. They really do inspire and they are the greatest reason why we should not stop our support and why we should never think that Afghanistan is a lost cause. So many of the young people are so impressive.
It is with great joy that I watch the girls playing cricket. They have learned off their brothers a little, but mostly they have learned from watching the TV and the World Cup T20. We are arranging coaching for them and their teachers. In the meantime, the approach is a little haphazard, with thigh pads tied tight around waists and an interesting approach to bowling. The spirit is there and they race between the wickets, fearless and for these rare moments, free.

Raees Ahmadzai, former Captain of the Afghanistan National Cricket Team, visits the schools with me. A hero to these children, they cannot believe he is at their school. He strides to the wicket, bat in hand and asks some boys to bowl at him. One boy bowls so brilliantly that Raees cannot hit the ball to the boundary, as he does with the others. Infact, he cannot touch it as it whistles past at great speed. He tells me afterwards, that in his 14 years as a selector for the National Team, he has rarely seen such talent. They aim to find at least one outstanding player a year to take on and nurture as a future national player. This boy will now be invited to the National Academy, where he will meet the National Team and will have a trial for the U19 team.  Raees feels sure that this is a rare outstanding talent and we will be seeing him on the international stage before too long. So because my trip North was cancelled and because Raees just happened to visit this school, this boy’s life is transformed. …and perhaps he will be the one to secure a win against England in T20s to come! 

Back at the guest house I receive the news that we have been successful in our application and will receive a further grant from the UK Government for education and sports projects at some 28 schools. After a day like today, where I have seen so much benefit from our projects, this news is just wonderful and I am euphoric. I rush to tell all the Afghans working at the guest house and I am sure a lot gets lost in translation, but they can read my joy and get something about support for their country and that will do…we celebrate together over a cup of green tea.

 24-25th April Jalalabad

The infamous Jalalabad road wends its way from the powerhouse of Afghanistan, through mighty gorges carved by the Kabul River, lawless tribal lands along the Durand Line and on to the gates of Pakistan and the great Khyber Pass beyond.  Witness to centuries of bloody history, to advancing armies, fleeing armies, refugees taking flight and returnees in search of a new future. More recently the supply vehicles of the US army were blown up by the Taliban along this road, their burning fuel contents scorching and scarring the tarmac.
I have not travelled this road for several years. It used to be my way in to Afghanistan, before Kabul airport opened up to the terrifying flights from Sharjah. 

It is a road with views which change constantly and surprisingly along its entire length. Steep rocky gorges and chiselled rock formations where the road runs beside the full torrent of the Kabul River, give way to fresh green hills which ascend in the far distance to the white snow peaks of the Himalayas. The route used to be very bumpy and had no tarmac…which was uncomfortable, but less hair raising. Now it is a tarmac racetrack, with reckless drivers overtaking at full speed on hairpin bends and in the dark tunnels which cut through the rock face.  Hundreds die each year on this stretch of road and along the way you see the debris of the past years, stacked up as a gruesome reminder by the side of the road.

Jalalabad is a seething city, vastly overcrowded due to the influx of people from the less secure districts along Pakistan’s border. Colour, noise, activity. Rickshaws buzzing like angry bees, markets full of fruit and vegetables, the city resembles the bazaars of Peshawar and is more Pakistan than Afghanistan.It is hot and much hotter than Kabul. 

We visit schools and again, take pride in all that has been achieved through our projects. At one school for 8ooo pupils, we renovated a derelict classroom block and now 500 children who were studying outside, can use these classrooms and no longer have to face the elements and miss school in times of excess heat and rain.

In the evening, we gathered together and sat eating fresh fish, the local delicacy, from the Kunar River. In the middle of the night, I woke to find the room shaking, my bed was moving. It was the most strange feeling and I could not for a few moments work out what was happening..had a bomb gone off? Then I realised it must be an earthquake tremor. It seems that I am learning all the time, how lucky I am to live where I do and what others have to face elsewhere in the world. I imagine that on my return, the inner and subconscious tension that is always there, and needs to be there when travelling in Afghanistan, will disappear.

School Visits and Blind Cricket

The day started at a school for hearing impaired children.  It used to be funded by a British NGO, but they have handed it over to the Government. Now the bus does not run, teachers’ salaries are rarely paid and the students are studying in a dilapidated rented building or outside under the trees. They are desperate for support. Many of the children no longer come as they cannot get there without transport and have lost the lifeline of education. The need everywhere is so great and it is with deep sadness that I walk away knowing that there is so little I can do.

We move on to the cricket academy, where the blind cricket team has gathered in the hope that I will be able to support them. The concept of blind cricket seems a strange one …but having seen it, I am determined to support. One man watched a programme on TV about blind cricket in India and was so amazed by its power to transform lives, that he started a team. He arranged it all himself, got permission to use the local cricket academy once a week and  ordered special cricket balls from India, which were filled with small stones, so making a rattling sound when thrown. The children he supported had almost become physically disabled as they feared walking alone and so had stopped moving about. They rarely went outside. 

 He started by teaching them in a small room and once they gained confidence, he took them to the cricket academy and spent hours with them getting them used to the layout, the ruts and uneven surfaces, where the stumps were etc until they had mapped out the whole area in their minds. And today I saw the results. Children whose health has improved beyond recognition, who are confident and happy and who make you forget after a few moments that they are completely blind. It is miraculous. They listen for the ball and can hit it hard and field for it and bowl along the ground.

We attracted huge crowds and even the local Governor turned up and thanked me for all we have done for cricket in the region. We bought some trainers for the team and said our farewells. 

Driving along the Jalalabad Rd this afternoon, we passed a school where Afghan Connection had built several classroom blocks, back in 2002/2003. It had been our first construction project outside Kabul and we had twinned the school to a UK school. I have very fond memories of my visits there and of the kindness shown to me by the Headmaster and teachers, who would take me to their homes in the villages and ply me with delicious local food.

 When I first visited, the boys were all studying outside with a minefield just behind them.
We stopped off, and some 13 years later, familiar faces came to greet me and remembered my name. Not only that, but they had an old scrapbook of photos I had done for them, with pictures of boys in football kit we donated and pictures of the science lab we funded. We shared memories and laughter and I met the children in the classrooms and was told about the school coming top in a national quiz. They need sports facilities and the original classrooms, built long before we first visited, need repairs, so we hope to include this school in our school renovation and sports programme.

A very special day which showed how valuable it is to get out into the communities, to see successes, to understand the needs and to show people that they are not forgotten.

Back in Kabul
It is strange how a city which previously filled me with unease can seem like a home. As we drive back in to Kabul, I feel as if I am coming back home. The once unfamiliar is now a place where there are familiar faces, friends. The guards are pleased to see me and my room is immaculate. Ghul Nor, who I have known since 2001 and is like a father to me, is waiting at the door and the cook is relieved to see me back safe. I receive a call from the Engineer at SCA asking how my trip went and making sure everything is alright. Even the high walls and razor wire seem less oppressive. And there are wonderful messages from home.

My last day is spent in meetings, planning future projects and brainstorming ways to bring a more holistic approach to everything which we are delivering. Questioning whether we could pool resources and raise new funds to pilot a project to deliver safe water, alongside support for education, health, agriculture and  livelihood programmes.

Raees Ahmadzai visits the SCA for meetings about cricket projects. He spends the lunch break playing cricket with the Afghan employees on the pitch we have built in the grounds. The pitch is nestled amongst silver fruit trees bursting with pale pink blossom, long grass interwoven with sweet smelling herbs and purple wildflowers. The snow peaks of the Hindu Kush jut into a sky which is absolutely clear and everything seems so utterly peaceful and calm. A haven in this city of fear. For a few minutes we can all forget every problem outside of these walls. The men come out to play with the former Captain of their national team and cannot believe that he is amongst them. Laughter, crack of ball on bat, a snap shot of all that could be if only there could be some pathway to peace. 

I am the dinner guest of Chris Austin, who heads DFID Afghanistan.  I feel very privileged to be there, with members of the DFID team alongside the British and Australian Ambassadors and a representative from the Danish Embassy. I admire them for coping with the confined conditions in which they work and their frustrations at not being able to get out more in to the communities. All dedicated to continued support for Afghanistan and to finding the best ways to do this. A fascinating and affirming evening and a fitting end to my time here.
I feel sad to be leaving and on this most beautiful morning when the mountains are clearer than ever in the early morning light before the clouds of pollution fog out their icy white peaks, I wonder when I will next be back and I reflect on all the acts of kindness I have received since arrival. The cook turned up at 5.30 this morning because he wanted me to eat before I set out on my journey. He collected all my bags and had them in the car waiting as he said farewell with tears in his eyes.
At the airport I sat beside an Afghan woman. We started talking. Her name is Mahboba and she now lives in Canada. She had been here to visit her sick brother. She told me how she used to go out in Kabul in jeans and T shirts, her hair piled up, make up on. She showed me a photo of herself back then, a glamorous sixties girl with a great life ahead. Her husband studied in the US and was an intellectual. They fled Afghanistan in the 90s and set up home as refugees in Pakistan. They could have gone to the States but he believed that his place was to help his countrymen. He wrote articles and set up a newspaper and was active against all that was happening in Afghanistan. One day some guests came and they gave them tea. As they left, they shot her husband 4 times in front of her 9 month old son. He died in hospital. She fled to Canada with her 3 young children and set up a small sewing business to try and make an income. She managed to support them single handed and now two are policemen and one is a nurse. Once they left school, she went back to school herself, determined to finish her studies that had been interrupted so many years ago, qualified as a medical assistant and now has a job in a clinic.
We had coffee together and as we turned to get on the plane, she put a little parcel in my hand containing a necklace, bracelet and matching earrings. When it comes to giving, the Afghans always have the last word.