By Stephen McKinley
FAIZABAD, Afghanistan — Abdul-Rauf Sengani has lived in Faizabad, in Afghanistan, for most of his life. When a powerful earthquake struck the remote Afghan province of Samangan last weekend, it shook the region and, according to the latest reports, may have killed as many as 150 people — but it will not have broken the spirit of Afghans like Sengani.
An agriculturalist and employee of the Irish relief agency CONCERN, the 58-year-old Sengani epitomized the good humor and the doggedness of the local population in spite of overwhelming adversity: an earthquake to Sengani must have seemed a mere pothole on the road after more than 20 years of war and upheaval, strife and adversity.
Pointing to the Kokcha River that flows through Faizbad, Sengani reminded this reporter that even this local natural resource was out of the control of the local population.
“All the water flows to Russia. The water belongs to us, but the benefit belongs to Russia,” he said. Much farther downstream, and across the border in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, the river generated electricity. In Faizabad, there were some generators, but oil lamps and hurricane lamps are the main source of light after dark.
Sengani, a small but energetic man with mercurial eyes and the typical flowing beard that men wear in the area, was acutely aware of the parallels between his own country’s history and Ireland: colonization, famine, natural resources abused by other powers. And there were other parallels too: “We love guests,” Sengani said. “It is our religion to look after them.”
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Sengani’s work as an agriculturalist was about to get much busier. As the final winter snows cleared from the streets of Faizabad and began to recede from the mountain peaks that ringed the town, the region’s short planting season was advancing.
“Around St. Paddy’s Day,” said CONCERN’s emergency coordinator in the region, Ross O’Sullivan, “is when we need to get crops planted.”
Unfortunately for O’Sullivan, Sengani had other plans.
“Apples, peaches, almonds, tomatoes,” he listed, naming all the produce that he wanted to plant. “This valley will be beautiful with orchards!”
“No, we need wheat for food, first,” O’Sullivan constantly told Sengani, “when the wheat is this high,” he added, holding his hand out near his waist, “then we can talk about other things. But wheat first.”
Sengani got the message, but it didn’t stop his rhapsodizing over orchards, nor did it stunt his sense of humor.
“How many children do you have?” a CONCERN worker asked him one day.
“Not too many, hardly any,” he said, pausing. “Only four sons and two daughters,” he then added with a mischievous grin.
“They understand vehicles, jeeps,” he said, referring to his sons. “Three of them anyway. The other one is a merchant.”
Of his two daughters, Sengani had arranged the marriage of one of them, which is common in the area. He defended the policy lucidly: “I made this arrangement because we have to look to the future. We need to be sure that she will be with a hard worker, someone who will provide for her and her children.” He concluded, “she is free, but in a boundary. Other people don’t do this, but to control is better, because you need to know what kind of man your daughter will marry. Free, but in a boundary.”
He repeated the expression several times. It seemed to fit the fate of Afghans like himself and the people of Faizabad — their spirit was free, their ambition was evident in everyday conversation, but they have been constrained by one great power or another or environmental factor over centuries of time.
“Our people are too moody from their situation,” Sengani said. “First came the Russians in 1980, then the Muhajadeen, then the Taliban.” He could have added famine and earthquakes to the list: Afghanistan, despite having a sophisticated and often well-educated population, has been a disaster zone of failed crops, drought and unforgiving terrain for its people.
Although Faizabad stands some distance north of the most northerly encroachment of the Taliban, Sengani said that “they were here, but silently.”
“Now they are all gone, by the power of the American people. We pushed the Taliban from here to Pakistan and beyond. Shameful for them to run. Shameful!”
The Taliban, after five years in power in Afghanistan, were routed after the American-led military campaign began in October 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Strong pockets of resistance remain farther south in Afghanistan. Sengani himself did not do any fighting during the most recent, ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. But his memory of the Russian invasion is vivid, not least because the region is still littered with the remnants of war: Soviet-era tanks and armored vehicles are still common in ditches and fields, and underground lurk hundreds of millions of mines. Afghanistan is one of the most mined countries in the world. Sengani noted soberly that every plowing season, a farmer or two will lose his team of oxen to a mine turning up in his field, or perhaps the farmer himself will be injured or killed.
“This is an incredibly resilient society,” said O’Sullivan, marveling at the Afghan tenacity in the face of all their adversities. It is perhaps the one thing that people like Sengani can take for granted. “I don’t know if they’ll ever get things right here,” O’Sullivan continued. “They may go back to fighting because that’s what they have been doing for so long.”
It is unlikely that Sengani will go back to fighting. “The key to the future of Afghanistan is education,” he proclaimed one day as he took some visitors on a tour of a new school that CONCERN helped locals to build in Faizabad. Sengani learned his basic agricultural skills at a college in Germany in the 1970s.
“So I can solve my problems in Persian, I can solve them in English, and I can solve them in German as well,” he said triumphantly. “And in Urdu as well.”
The weekend earthquake’s epicenter was 45 miles south-southwest of Faizabad, where the Irish Aid agency CONCERN has a logistics and strategy office.
CONCERN’s New York executive director Siobhan Walsh confirmed that all international CONCERN staff in the area had been accounted for. Reports of damage were scant, as the area is extremely remote.