I was at the Royal Blackburn Hospital to see my mother, who had suffered a heart attack and had fluid in her lungs, when a text message arrived asking if I could go to Afghanistan and help produce radio programs from the site of last week’s earthquake. My mother did not understand the doctors and, sitting next to her, I read the form in Punjabi about the operation they were to perform. She signed, saying that whatever happened – that is, if she died, since she already had a weak heart – it was up to Allah.
I had been working in Afghanistan on and off for 18 months. “Allah they Wahlayshe said, when I told her that I was coming back: “Go in the way of God”.
Landing at Kabul airport three days later, I felt good: happy to be back. We spent little time in the capital and drove for many hours to the village of Gayan near the Pakistani border, where several aid organizations had set up tents. One of them carried a sign saying: “Welcome to the mourning of the people of Gayan, district of the province of Paktika in Afghanistan”. Mom called to say surgery had removed a blockage in an artery.
The region of eastern Afghanistan affected by the 5.9 magnitude earthquake is mountainous and takes time to reach. Coming from Kabul, the good roads, some built by the United States near former Western military bases and surrounded by Hesco Bastion barriers developed in England, eventually give way to rugged tracks that wind through the peaks. This is how the aid trucks and the journalists enter. The Taliban leaders arrived in helicopters previously deployed against them by the Afghan army. They declared the search operation over within days and tweeted that aid agencies around the world should help.
The official Afghan news agency said more than 1,000 people had died and 1,500 injured – estimates a doctor gave me on Wednesday, a week after the quake, had been revised down slightly. The earthquake hit Afghanistan as the country was already facing economic collapse following the Taliban takeover last August and the imposition of sanctions.
On the first day, I saw what an earthquake does to a building and what it does to people. There were crushed cars that looked like they had been sitting under others in a junkyard; traditional twine and wooden beds that we used to call manjees in Pakistan crushed and surrounded by rocks; dead cattle in pits; bright hangings on the walls left standing in the ruined houses; and surrounding us mountains with boulders the size of houses threatening to collapse if the ground shook again.
He came at night while the villagers were sleeping. A man described how his house collapsed and his wife, trapped in the rubble, cried out for help. He tried to lift it with his hands and couldn’t move it, so he ran to get a car jack. By the time he returned, she was dead. He told this story without crying.
I met a boy who had lost his entire immediate family. He looked but did not cry. We had arrived a few days after the earthquake. Maybe they had cried before, maybe they would cry afterwards.
On the road to Gayan, I saw trucks of aid and relief packages from the United Nations World Food Programme, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Emergency from Italy and IHH from Turkey. I’ve seen them run hospitals out of tents, deliver food, inspect damage and assess families’ needs.
In areas affected by the earthquake, you will see the white flag of the Taliban. Locals seem to appreciate seeing the Taliban leading the effort to save them. In the villages, you will see men and almost no women — girls, yes, but no women; in a house, a young boy chased his sister. This is not just a reflection of Taliban rule; this region of Afghanistan is deeply conservative.
The Taliban and locals kept us away from the walls they feared would fall, while men came looking for things to take back to their families who were living in tents, too scared to go home. Unicef tents were there but also some with Chinese characters on them.
Overnight we slept in tents surrounded by mountains, taping the sides with my stash of medical tape and creating barriers inside to keep snakes and scorpions out. We were awakened at 4 a.m. by a tremor and then by a helicopter which brought Khalil Haqqani, the Taliban Minister for Refugees, who addressed the press surrounded by aides from the British Al Khair Foundation and oil sunflower from Russia.
A few hours later, another helicopter arrived with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the acting First Deputy Prime Minister of Afghanistan, who brought cash with him. The boy we met the day before who had lost all of his immediate family received some, and his uncle said they would use it to rebuild the house. The Taliban said they gave 40 million Afghanis ($450,000) in cash that day. We returned to our tent to find our kettle missing. Well.
A man asked the international community to do something, and maybe it was because of the way he said it or because of where we were, but I felt that I understood the term perfectly — that we were all part of the same family. Later, I went from Gayan to Barmal, a district two hours drive south, which had suffered the worst devastation. There, I saw the tents and the jeeps of the humanitarian organizations, the Red Crescent, MSF, Emergency (the Italian NGO); part of the international community was present. I met the Iranian Red Crescent in Gayan camp, I saw flour and oil being distributed; we were told it was from a Kandahari businessman called Noorzai.
As I entered Barmal, I saw three cows lying dead in the sun. They had been killed in the earthquake, dragged and dumped beside the road, and as I approached with my camera, the smell of burning rot consumed me. Inside the camp, I met a doctor who told me about long-standing problems with unclean water and diarrhoea. Fortunately, I had water filters with me. I gave it what I could, enough to filter 400,000 gallons, a small bump. I was glad he was there, someone who knew what he was doing and had a plan in a situation most people wouldn’t know where to start.
Soon we had to leave for Kabul. On the last day near the site, we had breakfast consisting of local green tea (our driver had found a kettle) and biscuits from Iran. We are among those who had to leave. Many journalists know the privilege of visiting someone’s life and then the discomfort of leaving. It is too easy to label Afghans resilient and tell them to keep going. Life is not easy, it is complicated.
We may not agree with the Taliban, but we have to help them. The West and the East do it, as they can. There is no apparent way to eliminate the Taliban: they control the country, have the weapons and the manpower, and there is a population of 40 million people fighting, and right now, more specifically, a set of destroyed villages.
An Afghan friend taught me a local saying, which means to focus on one thing at a time without worrying about what you can’t do, to be like the doctors, midwives, aid workers who carry out long shifts in 30C heat and sleeping in tents in the mountains near affected and tremor-ridden sites working with the Taliban – even if they don’t agree with them – to help the people.
You cannot hold two melons in one hand.
Adnan Sarwar won the 2013 Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize for ‘British Muslim Soldier’. On Twitter @adnansarwar
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