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Bridge to the Future: CONCERN works

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

The road to the town of Jurm from Faizabad in the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan is hardly a road at all, but a pothole-riddled track. Sheer mountain crags on each side of the road are scattered with boulders. Some are the size of houses.

A river, the Kokcha, rushes past, sometimes almost at road level, other times, as the road rises, several hundred feet below. It looks like, and probably is, a sheer drop.

There is a bridge too, where the road crosses the river, two-thirds of the way to Jurm. It is a new bridge made of steel and wood, constructed only a few weeks ago. Bridge-building is rare enough in Afghanistan, a country whose recent turmoil has lasted an unbroken 20 years, ever since the Soviet invasion in 1980.

When Soviet forces pulled out 1989, bridges were frequently blown up behind the retreating troops. Civil war and the Taliban followed in the 1990s, so this new bridge was an unusual and pleasant sight, particularly for CONCERN program coordinator Richard Hamilton.

Jumping out of his vehicle, he walked back to the bridge he and his team of relief workers had just crossed, to check it out.

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“This is the bridge we built?” he asked, and was told that indeed, this was CONCERN’s new bridge, costing a grand total of $1,500.

Of course, it was not really CONCERN’s bridge. It belonged to the local Afghan people, who had actually built it — with CONCERN’s help.

The bridge made the trip to Jurm somewhat easier, its wooden surface perhaps the smoothest part of the entire journey. But much more important, when the team reached Jurm, a town of medieval appearance, they visited a food depot: Two hundred metric tons of wheat for eating, for distribution among poor families.

Without the bridge, the food trucks would not have been able to get through: “It is a journalistic clichT,” said Ross O’Sullivan, CONCERN’s emergency coordinator, but the building of the bridge, the coming and going of new traffic, represents some of the successes and challenges of CONCERN’s program in Afghanistan.

Distributing food

This wrenchingly beautiful land seems utterly barren, but humans have lived here for thousands of years, and Afghan towns are hidden in some of the most remote valleys, accessible only on foot or by the ubiquitous Afghan donkeys.

“Wherever the roads stop,” one observer has said, “disaster seems to start.” O’Sullivan, who’s 39, reported that he had entered a valley on foot, and eventually found a total of nine connected valleys, with almost 100,000 people living in total isolation.

Fortunately for Jurm, there is access by road, across the bridge. The visit there was the first formal visit by CONCERN workers, even though it was a trip of only 60 or 70 kilometers from their base in Faizabad — on Afghan roads, a trip of three hours minimum.

CONCERN has been present in Afghanistan since the earthquake in 1998 left many northern regions in need of assistance with food, medicine and rebuilding. Four years of drought followed.

After nature turned a blind eye to Afghanistan, the last thing this impoverished land needed was the malevolent attention of human forces: the Taliban, al Qu’da, unavoidable U.S. military action.

Jurm’s mayor and elders wished to discuss food distribution with CONCERN, and other issues as well. Normally, food is given out by CONCERN in exchange for work — the philosophy being that relief work must be a two-way process, and not handouts that would make needy people even more dependent and undermine their dignity and the economy such as it exists

The complexities of relief work defy belief. It is not a simple case of taking rice or wheat on trucks to a central point and handing it out.

Food has to be sourced and determined to be good for eating, in this case, from the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan to the north. It must be delivered to distribution points over almost inaccessible roads, and it must be targeted to those who need it most.

“We are the lead agency here,” said O’Sullivan, speaking of northern Afghanistan. “Eleven thousand metric tons of food, for an estimated 400,000 people, until the sowing season begins at least.”

Before food distribution begins, careful surveys are carried out of needy towns and villages.

Not nearly everyone is starving — in fact, in Faizabad, most families looked healthy and robust — but pockets of extreme need lurk, and are hard to find: either because people are in a remote, desolate location, or they belong to a group to which this strict, male-dominated Muslim society does not accord status, such as widows or some ethnic minorities. Hence, CONCERN’s surveys are an important determinant in who gets how much food, for what and when.

Welcome to Jurm

In Jurm, the CONCERN team was met with aggressive hospitality, something that one Afghan CONCERN worker, Abdul-Rauf Sengani, described as, “our religion. We love our guests.”

Green tea was brewed, and a lunch to remember was promised, with the mayor and the “local commander,” a reminder that Afghanistan’s warlords hold sway over many areas. An interim government, such as is meeting in Kabul, barely affects the rest of the country, ruled for centuries by tribal warlords.

“This is a violent and brutal society,” O’Sullivan, the emergency coordinator, had noted earlier. “They will go back to fighting because that is what they have always done.”

For the time being, however, Jurm seemed peaceful and pleasant. It is high up in the crags of the Hindu Kush, the foothills of the Himalayas.

Food distribution began: some recipients here were considered needy enough to receive a 50-kilogram sack of food without having done any work. One 50-kilo sack, CONCERN has calculated, will last a family of six for one month.

Earlier, O’Sullivan had said that yet another factor in the complex calculations he has to make about food distribution, is that for some people, the cost of renting a donkey to transport a 50-kilogram sack of wheat to a remote village currently worked out at as much as 14 to 21 kilograms of their food. “That’s not sustainable,” he said.

Summoned to lunch, the CONCERN team walked through the mud-brick houses, up winding streets to the mayor’s house. The local commander, a veteran of the fight against the Soviet invasion, attended, with his Kalashnikov-toting bodyguards. He remained inscrutable, but the other senior men of Jurm were ready to build bridges.

Hospitality, with a edge

Cross-legged around a cloth spread on the floor, about 30 men from the district addressed their priorities to CONCERN’s Richard Hamilton. Dialogue through CONCERN’s translator, Waheedullah Waheed, was direct and polite, and peppered with humor.

“The school needs repairs, desks, chairs, boards, stationery,” one man said.

“But what is the first and foremost problem?” asked Hamilton.

“The school,” came the reply. “And you must open an office here as well.”

Hamilton replied carefully, “first things first — food distribution to the very hungry, and then seed wheat for sewing. We will have it here in time for planting.”

The man continued: “Well, we need you to open an office here, because if we told you all our problems at one go, you would run away.” The crowd cackled with laughter.

Hamilton grinned, then got serious again.

“We need you to know that our budget is limited. I’ll look into repairing the school, but we don’t want a shopping list of things that need fixed,” he said, reminding his audience of the need for two-way traffic across a bridge. “What we have, we will spend wisely.”

The humor returned. “We know that,” said another man with twinkling eyes and a white beard. “Otherwise, we’d simply have asked you for a brand new school.”

Finally, the commander leaned forward and, speaking through Waheed, gave his thoughts. “You will have no security worries here,” he said. “We are impressed by your plans, and we are aware that with work like this, security comes first.”

After the conviviality, it was a stark reminder of the country’s inherent instability, a place of enormous complexity that has been subject to a constant state of flux throughout history.

CONCERN’s translator and fixer, Waheed, recalled the day when he was 8 years old when Russian helicopter gunships suddenly circled over Jurm. Rockets flashed into the streets of the town, and his grandmother raced off with him to an underground room.

They hid. Russian soldiers came to the door. Adult men were taken away, including one of Waheed’s uncles, and shot. Women and children were left. Peace has been a scarce commodity in Afghanistan for all of Waheed’s life.

Building bridges to women

“On behalf of all the women,” said Dr. Mulalli, reading from a thank-you letter in Persian, “of Qalgumbud village and the surrounding area, thanks to CONCERN for their honest and kind staff who are trying to work with the suffering people of the area. It is the first organization since wartime to work with our faraway people and for considering the basic needs, especially for women, and solving their problems.”

One gap that is hardest to bridge in Afghanistan is the situation for women.

Dr. Mulalli, who earned her university degree in Kabul before the Taliban takeover, removed her burqa to speak to CONCERN staff when inside Faizabad’s CONCERN office. But once outside on the street again, according to the centuries-old religious and social convention (not merely a recent Taliban imposition), she must wear the full-length blue veil.

“The attitude of men to women is very rough,” another female CONCERN worker from Islamabad in Pakistan, Asma, had said when talking about her desire to work in Afghanistan and her concerns about being there as a woman. “There can be a lot of pushing and pulling on the streets by men if a woman goes by and she is not wearing a burqa,” she said. “Women are otherwise ignored; they don’t even know their rights.”

“Education is the key to the future of Afghanistan,” Mulalli continued. “We need literate women and literate girls.”

But the gender component to CONCERN’s work in Afghanistan is one that is extraordinarily delicate and painfully slow. The letter of thanks that Mulalli read aloud, from the women of Qalgumbud, was, she said, rare. CONCERN’s overseas staff are careful not to speak to any women in public, lest they risk offending local sensibilities. It is a society so strict in some ways that it is one of the toughest imaginable assignments for CONCERN and other relief agency staff.

Said one, Reuben Ambigha, who joined CONCERN in his native Kenya, “in other cultures you can go to the pub after work, have two or three drinks, and when you come home, even if your colleagues are annoying you, you go straight to bed. Here you can’t.”

Such are cultural sensitivities that “in one refugee camp [built by CONCERN],” Asma said, “the women’s toilets had to be redesigned and rebuilt away from the men’s.”

A school for boys and girls

Yet women can go to school in some areas. Education is surprisingly common among Afghan people — that is to say, it was not uncommon to hear someone explain where they had gotten their degree in engineering or medicine or agriculture. But most of these are those who can speak some English, people who will have acquired at least some level of education. Otherwise, according to the United Nations, 42 percent of Afghan men can read, and 15 percent of women.

Still, in Jurm, one man revealed that before the current troubles, he had worked for Pfizer as an agriculture marketing manager. He added: “My brother, by the way, lives in Buffalo, New York. I haven’t seen him for over 20 years, but we speak on the telephone often.”

In Faizabad, CONCERN had helped fund the building of a school, yet another bridge between CONCERN and the Afghan locals, a bridge across which some may escape to a better future.

The school had not yet opened, but there were some students already there, waiting on their exam results. Two wanted to be engineers, and a third wanted to be a doctor.

Speaking to interpreter Waheed, a teacher explained that the school would teach English, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, history and Islamic studies. The Ministry of Education in Kabul, one of the few apparently functioning branches of the government, would provide the teachers and also run the school.

Pupils would be given a food incentive to study, and would receive food to take home if they attended regularly, the teacher said. Because more often than not boys would prefer to go to work and earn money rather than stay at school, he added, girls were allowed to attend school, since they were considered much less valuable to a family in economic terms.

A turbulent life

Education for Waheed has been a rocky road.

At 28, married only 4 months ago, he had the privilege of making it to university in Kabul. He ought to have finished his medical degree by now, but the Taliban put paid to that.

“They closed everything down,” he said simply.

From an 8-year-old hurried to safety by his grandmother as Russian gunships circled his hometown of Jurm, to the present day, he has known more war than peace. In the ’90s, he fled again to Pakistan during the civil war that erupted after the Taliban began their takeover. As a Tajik speaker, he would have been sent to the frontlines by one or other warring faction.

Employed by CONCERN, he has put his excellent English skills to good use as an interpreter, organizer and logistician.

In February, he was listening to the radio when he heard that Kabul University was to reopen, and all students were being asked to consider returning to complete their degrees.

This time, however, Waheed was thinking to finishing his studies in agriculture.

With fine, clear features and a neat beard, Waheed stands out in Faizabad, his clear intelligent gaze an unforgettable reminder of the dignified, fiercely proud and stoic people of the province of Badakhshan.

“There were no Taliban here, and the people are more educated. Badakhshan has been known as a province that produced many Persian poets,” he said. He appreciates CONCERN’s role in his homeland, clear about its motives. “If you do this, you get this,” he noted, explaining one of CONCERN’s core values, its recognizing equality in people.

Other Afghans were less mollifying. In Jurm, one young man said that Osama bin Laden had been good for Afghanistan, in a purely mercenary sense. “If he had not attacked the towers in New York,” he said, “America would never have come here.” Nor, he seemed to suggest, would it stay there for very long.

A CONCERN team member tried to explain to him that the agency was there for the long term — and that it was an Irish agency, anyway, although many of its workers were American. He remained skeptical, wary that yet another Western agency or power had come to tell Afghans what to do and how to do it.

CONCERN has debated this gap over the years. It has worked in other parts of the world, so much so that the agency’s programs around the world can now recruit highly skilled people from formerly struggling countries who then work in new programs such as Afghanistan — accounts manager Reuben Ambigha, who is from Kenya, and his colleague, water sanitation expert Nestor Girukwishaka, from Burundi. There, the distance between giver and receiver has been more successfully bridged.

Closing the gap

Distance in Afghanistan dwarfs the observer — distances of time as well as space — from its ancient past, through to its uncertain, turbulent future. Often the most common bridge between past and present has been violence. In many people’s eyes, Afghanistan’s bridge to the U.S. is pure violence — the terror out of a clear blue sky on Sept. 11, 2001.

In one more westerly area from Faizabad, CONCERN workers saw canals carved by the invading troops of Alexander the Great 3000 years ago — as well as craters carved by B-52 bombers a few weeks ago.

Overwhelming, yes, but to look down a street in Northern Afghanistan is to look at a scene not that unfamiliar.

In some ways, the small, shabby houses, the ubiquitous donkeys, the little stone walls built without masonry and the poorly clothed children evoke what Ireland might have looked like 100 years ago. It is a sight that could be inspiring: in a 100 years, Ireland has transformed itself.

“Until recently, we considered ourselves a developing nation,” Ross O’Sullivan said of his native Ireland. “We as a nation have traditionally been a very poor nation.”

Why, asked a CONCERN worker from the U.S., were there so many Irish people in relief work around the world?

O’Sullivan, a slow and careful speaker, paused to think, then said: “There is an ethos in Ireland because the Irish have always been aware of the world around them, particularly because of our own history, our own famine. People know that they are only removed a couple of generations from death and destruction. Until recently, we still considered ourselves a developing country.”

“That,” he concluded, “is why we seek to close the divide between giver and receiver.”

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