A Letter from CARE's President: Peter Bell speaks about his experiences in Afghanistan
In mid-June, I traveled to Afghanistan with John Ambler, CARE USA's regional director for Asia, and Sherine Jayawickrama, my special assistant. We spent three days in the capital city of Kabul and another three in the province of Ghazni and its rural district of Nawor. The visit allowed me to see firsthand CARE programs, and to meet people in poor communities, colleagues from international and local non-governmental organizations and officials from the ruling Taliban. It also provided an opportunity to better understand the challenges that Afghan CARE staff members face, and to thank them for their dedication and courage.
A Battered City
For security, communication and banking reasons, CARE's mission in Afghanistan is headquartered in Peshawar, a major Pakistani city on Afghanistan's eastern border. Our journey began and ended in Peshawar. We chartered a four-seat, single-engine aircraft from Peshawar to Kabul. It provided a bird's eye view of the spectacular but harsh, mountainous Afghan terrain. Arriving at Kabul International Airport, I could only imagine what it must once have been like. Now, the runway is littered with the rusting skeletons of Soviet military equipment, the baggage carousels are abandoned and the immigration counters empty. The empty space of the arrival hall echoed with our footsteps; most travelers who now pass through the airport are aid workers. Two immigration officers emerged to check our visas, stamp our passports and welcome us to Afghanistan.
Kabul was once a thriving, cosmopolitan urban center. Now, large sections of the city have been gutted by the heavy shelling and bombing of years past. Kabul is a symbol of the many challenges facing Afghans today. The Afghan people have endured more than 20 years of conflict -- first in Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union, then in post-war violence among mujahideen warlords and now, as the Taliban combats opposition groups. All parties to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan have been accused of serious human rights violations.
The Context for CARE's Work
Under the Taliban, women are not permitted to work, except in the field of public health. Educating girls above sixth grade is forbidden, and schooling below sixth grade is rare. In public, women are required to wear burqa -- a tent-like garment that shrouds the body and leaves only a small, mesh window through which to see. When traveling outside their homes, women must be accompanied by a maharam, a close male relative. This has had particularly harsh effects on the educated women of Kabul, who used to know a more liberal lifestyle. Women who were professionals for many years are now confined to their homes; their daughters are growing up without any formal education.
The Taliban's approach to governance has posed a dilemma for CARE and other humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan. The Afghan population's humanitarian needs are dire and urgent, and CARE is committed to relieving suffering and saving lives. In order to uphold the integrity of CARE's mission and to clarify our "rules of operation" with the Taliban, CARE has developed a set of principles to guide our work -- principles which the Taliban have accepted. The principles state, for example, CARE's commitment to internationally defined standards of human rights. We recognize Afghan values, stemming from Islamic faith and culture, and pledge to respect and operate within these values while seeking to uphold international standards. We also make clear that CARE programs seek the participation of Afghan men and women. Such guiding principles have served us well in some tough situations.
In accord with Taliban rules, interactions between males and females -- even among CARE staff -- are extremely restricted. Our two female international staff -- one British, the other Sudanese -- act as conduits between female and male national staff. Even though this makes coordination difficult and complicates the simplest tasks, our staff manage with dedication, creativity and perseverance to run CARE's programs efficiently and effectively. As a male, I could not meet or speak with any of our female Afghan colleagues in Kabul. However, Sherine did spend time with female staff, learning about the challenges of their day-to-day work and about their families' hopes and hardships.
Before the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, these women had been teachers, engineers, doctors and professors who played active roles in the public sphere. They placed great value on education and had high expectations for their children. At first, the Taliban's restrictions on women and girls were thought to be temporary. People were relieved that the Taliban had brought a measure of security to a situation that had, since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, been violent and unstable.
But life never returned to "normal." A female CARE staffer, who had been head of the Statistics Department at Kabul University prior to 1996, told Sherine: "I am a professor, but my young daughters are growing up uneducated." She had known a much better life, but was powerless to provide the same possibility for her daughters.
Assisting Widows in Kabul
In Kabul, one of CARE's major programs is the Widows Feeding Program, which now assists 7,500 households and will expand in September to 10,600. This program started seven years ago to provide short-term food assistance to needy families during the winter. With increased restrictions on women, families headed by widows became especially vulnerable, and CARE began distributing food year-round. The program incorporates other activities -- such as health education and kitchen gardens -- to improve the lives and health of the widows and their families.
While I was not permitted to speak with the widows, Sherine met several women participating in the program. They expressed appreciation for not only the essential food they receive from CARE but also the opportunity to gather in a safe space and share their sorrows and dreams with other women. Even though health education sessions had been planned on a staggered schedule, women stayed on and repeated the sessions just to be with one another!
Supplying Clean Water, Improving Urban Health
The other major CARE effort we saw in Kabul was the Urban Water, Health and Sanitation Program. Designed to improve overall health in Kabul, the program builds and maintains potable water systems and provides food-for-work opportunities to men from hundreds of vulnerable families. The program does not stop at supplying clean drinking water to 42,000 households. It also designs safe sanitation systems and delivers health education messages to 35,000 of these households.
Through the Urban Water and Sanitation Program, CARE has been able to open and operate three offices -- located in health clinics -- staffed by women in Kabul. The female health educators work in pairs, going from house to house with health education messages. At first, the authorities viewed the women with suspicion. As the results of the work became evident, however, attitudes slowly have started to change. I heard how a Talib recently had approached a pair of health educators while on their rounds, not to question their work, but to ask if they would visit his family, too.
The Former Soviet Embassy Transformed
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. While in Kabul, we visited the former Soviet Embassy compound, which now serves as a camp for 25,000 people displaced by the fighting and scorched earth campaign in the Shomali Valley in August 1999.
Caught in the middle of the fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance -- the major armed opposition force -- the people who now reside in the compound fled their homes. Even though, in many cases, their homes and irrigation systems have been destroyed and their fields mined, the people here long to return to their land and their livelihoods.
The elected representative of the displaced communities, a man with a regal, gray turban and prayer beads in hand, spoke on behalf of the throng gathered around us. "We had a good life," he said. "We had fertile lands and were good farmers. We cannot live in these terrible conditions for long. We are able people and are willing to work hard. Just give us an opportunity." He urged me, as a leader of a humanitarian organization, to carry their message into the world. I assured him I would do my best.
The Disaster of Drought
Some five million Afghans face serious food shortages. In rural areas south of Kabul, I saw the effects of three consecutive years of drought. For most of our five-hour drive to Ghazni City, the land on either side of the unpaved road was parched.
As we traveled from village to village talking to community leaders and resident families about how the drought was affecting their lives, I was struck by the warm hospitality of the Afghan people. With their right hand placed over their heart, as is custom here, they welcomed us into their villages and homes, and gave us embroidery, sweaters and other gifts they had made themselves.
In the village of Bochakari, Ghulam Rasood told us how activities of CARE's Rural Assistance Program were helping his community. Rasood, a member of the village shura -- the council of elders -- showed us the reservoir and irrigation channels built by villagers with CARE's assistance. The reservoir stores water and distributes it to farmers, allowing them to sustain agricultural production even during the drought.
Need for Help at Home
In Sang Chapchi, a village in the district of Nawor, villagers told us that the drought is their biggest problem. They asked CARE to continue helping them so that they are not compelled to migrate from their village. They conveyed their point of view frankly. "Give us assistance in our home villages and not in refugee camps," said one villager.
This was in striking contrast to coverage of the drought in American newspapers. When media attention does turn to the drought, it tends to focus on the desperate conditions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, especially at the Jalozai camp. Those refugees do badly need international support. But talking to the villagers convinced me that the most effective assistance is at points of origin -- in the villages of Afghanistan -- rather than at points of destination.
Schools Owned by Communities
Perhaps the most important work of CARE in Afghanistan is increasing access to quality basic education. Seventy-seven percent of children are out of school, and less than four percent of women are functionally literate. CARE's Community Organized Primary Education (COPE) Project mobilizes communities to develop their own education solutions based on their priorities.
Rather than building formal schools, COPE enables communities to establish schools in the homes of community members and employ teachers themselves. At first, when CARE staff talked about the importance of girls' education, communities responded with reluctance. In one case, a CARE staffer engaged a village mullah -- a Muslim cleric -- in a long discussion on how the Koran addresses the issue of education. After several months, the mullah not only was persuaded that education for girls is important, but also became an influential advocate in his community. The mullah's wife is now a teacher in a home school!
Nearly 20,000 students are now enrolled in 280 home schools; 43 percent of them are girls. In most communities, COPE-assisted schools provide the only opportunity for educating girls up to sixth grade.
The young Afghans I met yearned to contribute to the development of their country. In every home school, boys and girls wanted to be doctors, engineers and teachers. "We are the future of our country," said Katra proudly. She aspired to be a doctor like her uncle. But Katra was nearing the end of sixth grade and would soon have to end her education. Her classmates chimed in to say that they, too, wanted some day to go to a university.
Thirteen percent of the teachers in COPE-assisted schools are women. Although this percentage might seem low at first, it is an impressive achievement for CARE, given the Afghan context. Although their current jobs do not pay well -- their salaries are paid by communities that are struggling economically -- the teachers pursue their commitment to education with courage and enthusiasm.
Strengthening Communities in Afghanistan
My week in Afghanistan was sobering, sometimes heartbreaking. Time after time, I heard how desperate parents, unable to feed their children even one meal a day, give their young daughters away in marriage and sign their sons over to the fighting forces of the Taliban, whose wages are paid in food. In drought-stricken areas, I met people who are barely surviving, and in Kabul, I met people who have fled from villages that have turned into battlefields. Despite the suffering and repression, I saw in people's eyes and heard in their voices a strong will to overcome every hardship and an unwavering hope for a better future. Their resilience and determination were heartening.
The glimmers of hope suggest how international agencies could help build a better future for Afghanistan. One such opportunity is in helping build strong community organizations. What people have managed to do with CARE's support at the community level (especially in basic education), despite restrictive policies at the national level, is testament to their local initiative. Strengthening and empowering communities will be the best investment in a better political future for Afghanistan; it could be the foundation for a more just, tolerant and responsive political system.
Before we left Kabul, I sat down Afghan-style with more than 180 staff members in the yard of our office building to share a farewell meal. Abduraouf Nazhand, CARE Afghanistan's national representative, made a moving speech on behalf of all Afghan staff. He poignantly requested that I, as a leader of CARE, be their voice in the international community. "The world should not forget Afghans," he said, as he requested that we seek the international community's support for promoting peace, security and freedom in Afghanistan.
Nazhand echoed the voices of dozens of Afghans I had met in communities in Kabul, Ghazni and Nawor. I promised, in my response to his speech, that I would do my very best not to let the world forget. I will never forget the people of Afghanistan, their fortitude, their warm hospitality, their suffering, and their vision of a better future. I will carry their message into the wider world.
Peter D. Bell
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