At first glance Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, seems to be a world of barriers and barbed wire. Seeing past all the security apparatus here, Kabul does give a unique window into Afghanistan’s turbulent past and uncertain future as well as a vibrant sense of day-to-day life for 4 million Afghans.
The dilapidated palace of Afghanistan’s last King in the 1970s, the bombed and burnt-out shell of the Ministry of Defence from the Soviet-backed era of the 1980s, huge and ornate new but empty houses built from profits of mysterious origin, the press and the pigeons of old Kabul, the smoky smell of kebabs cooking, and the intricate network of poorer homes hanging on to the steep rocky mountainsides all around.
The altitude means it’s cooler here and afternoons have brought thunderstorms and the fresh, familiar smell of rain on warm tarmac. All so different from the western provincial city of Herat and remote, rural Badghis where I’ve spent the last week visiting World Vision projects.
I’m in Kabul for meetings with government and other agencies to get a national level view of Afghanistan to complement what I’ve seen through the eyes of children, mothers and communities. If less inspiring and heartbreaking, it’s equally fascinating in trying to make sense of this incredible country so full of potential for good and for ill.
Seeing Afghanistan through the eyes of national government demonstrates both how far things have come in the last few years of relatively stable government and how far they still have to go. Huge efforts are under way to build the human capacity for the most basic of services: immunisation, nutrition, midwives, water, roads, financial services, locally elected and accountable groups to plan and manage community development.
Wandering the long winding corridors and courtyards of government ministries it’s easy to see the challenge for national policies and strategies to bring changed reality in what’s another world of the remote valley village of Mohamed, the Shura leader whose house I had tea in on Monday.
Security is another challenge. As one official says, “There’s no clear opposite side to negotiate with”. The heavy international and military dominated presence brings both advantages and disadvantages. The development investment and relative stability of the last decade cannot be underestimated; the ‘uniforms’ though are an obvious target to shoot at and such quick, huge injections of capital can distort local economies.
A moot point
Ten days here can’t come close to giving a real insight into what the future holds for Afghanistan. While the question on the lips of many international observers is “what will happen in and after 2014” as the international military presence withdraws, listening to the voices of Afghans and international veterans of Afghanistan, I’m not sure this is the right question. “I’ve not been looking at anything closer than 2030 for years,” said one.
“2014 is a moot point,” said another. “There will still be 30 million Afghans trying to figure out a way to live. Most of them just want a home, a family, a job, to live in peace just like anybody else.”
I’m reminded of living and working in Cambodia before, during and after 22,000 UN peacekeepers came and went in the 1990s – in many ways it felt like a layer of plasticine had been laid onto and then peeled off Cambodian society, but without substantially changing the country that lay underneath.
What I learnt there may be even more true here – that it takes generational change for real transformation to take root. One colleague told me: “I’ve been married for 31 years, that’s a long time but not as long ago as the conflict and instability here in Afghanistan”. It is the children being born and educated today with different expectations and aspirations than their parents and grandparents who may shape a different Afghanistan.
So, as I head home tonight after a week packed full of intense experiences, my head and heart are swirling with thoughts and feelings. Sadness as I said farewell to friends in the World Vision offices and team house in Herat and Badghis and to the family of my Kabul colleague who welcomed me into their home on my last evening in Afghanistan.
A tingle of anticipation at seeing my own family again. Tiredness and a touch of anxiety at the prospect of the transition back into UK life and work.
What I will cherish most in my thoughts and prayers and what I will strive for in my work with World Vision is for those children I met here this week that will inherit and shape the future Afghanistan.
Hasim, only ten days old, who wouldn’t be here but for a qualified midwife and neonatal unit. Nasima brought back from severe malnutrition at 18 months by a community health worker. Fardeen, who at 15 has rediscovered the childhood stolen from him with the love and protection of care centre workers. The girls and boys dreaming of being doctors, teachers and engineers that filled the classroom in proud headmistress Faiqha’s remote village school.
Thank you to all who have followed my journey here this week and especially to all those here that made this possible. In the words of the local Dari parting greeting here – ‘Khordofes’, may God go with you and protect you. That of course is also my parting greeting to Afghanistan and its incredible people.