Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mumbai monsoons

I am in Mumbai and this is my 3rd monsoon here; a phenomenon marvel to be experienced that can be quite adventurous if caught in one of the many nasty downpours. It is also quite unique, unlike other places I have lived around the world, for it can rain nonstop for days. Not the steady rains of the equator or Americas, no, it is like buckets of rain being poured from heavens with frenzy; you hear the robust downpour on the roof and windows, intensity of it increasing and subsiding like the acceleration of a vehicle on a busy road. Farmers are relieved, tempers come down as the heat is finally overpowered, air-conditioners are rested, streets are colorful rainbows of umbrellas, and children don't care, come out barefoot, dancing and splashing. Even stray dogs seem subdued and the fight for territory or fancied bitch is with lessened frenzy.

The British must be thanked for excellent infrastructure left behind, much of Mumbai still relies on it; by and large the water is accommodated in drainage systems unless the downpours coincide with high tides; then there can be some serious flooding issues. I remember the floods of about 5 years ago when the city came to a standstill for days and hundreds died. The local municipal establishment is so inept and corrupt; Mumbai would have drowned long ago but for the solid infrastructure inherited. Newer crop of leaders are trying to make a difference though, but it’s an uphill task.

These rains serve several purposes; remember, western India gets rains during the monsoons, usually June to September only; period when water tables get replenished, also life giving lakes and water catchment areas. Monsoons are a great cleanser of grime and filth that accumulates for 9 months, Mumbai has some mind boggling, retching filth communities and slums. The rains so far have been handsomely abundant and I am relieved. Although these downpours can snarl already chaotic traffic and cause mayhem commuting from point A to B, the shortage of rain last year were crippling to city water services. Poor areas suffered with 30% cuts in water supplies, the poor got hit with unbelievable spiraling cost of (purposely inflated) grain and vegetable prices and it was the poor and destitute that had to pay more for (hoarded) water supplied to slum communities.

Mumbai is taking a breather from showers today but the forecast is like a broken record from tomorrow onwards; heavy rains, 90F. US Consulate here in Mumbai have a circular out warning us to be vigilant on days when the seas are pregnant with high tides. I will sit tight and feast in the tail-end mango madness, last of season are totopuris and langraas; you have to try them to believe what delightful bounties Allah has given us....

Monday, June 14, 2010

A journey to Waaweila – Final

Joyful marriages; grinding poverty; going home.

The drive up to Belkaab begins benignly enough; except for the heat and dust, there is not much happening. We pass Sar Pol and pay respects at the grave of Yahya bin Zain, grandson of Imam Sajjad (A); history tells us he was beheaded after a fierce fight here in Sal Pol and his head sent to Iraq. Up ahead, we stop at a local restaurant and have Kabuli rice for lunch, a kind of pulao; quite yummy actually, if your stomach is used to eating out, like mine is now, alhamd’Allah. It is not hawker food that makes you sick in the tummy in countries like Afghanistan (Kabul Belly), India (Delhi Belly), rather it’s the water. Hot, piping food immediately consumed is relatively safe; this I have learnt over the years. Our appalling road ordeals are repeated as we then climb up towards Belkaab; the air thins out rapidly and it is chilling cold again at altitudes where we encounter snow, now in June. I have to scramble for my warmers and sweater again but these are packed in my suitcase, so I battle getting them out, donning them in the jostling back seat of the vehicle; we drive into Belkhaab 12 hours later. A quick, light, late night dinner and it’s snuggling into blankets again; they smell of sheep and goats. I go to sleep a happy man however; this house, though ancient and mud built, actually sport an eastern toilet and a hammaam with adequate supply of hot water – what luxuries!

We participate in a mass wedding the next morning, a hundred very poor couples who have no chance of affording their marriage ceremonies and rituals get united, thanks to CAI donors. We have a turnout of about 10,000 people from in and around Belkhaab; it becomes abundantly clear crowd control is going to be a problem real fast, even though there is a security cordon around us with the Governor and other top officials in presence. Armed police with Kalashnikovs and plain clothed security men and women with sticks struggle shooing away uninvited crowds; it takes a long time to get some semblance of control and the ceremonies begin. I am nervous throughout however, for even a single incident, however minor, would most certainly result in a stampede with disastrous results. This event, you see, is unique for these hapless people; nothing like this has ever taken place here and the excitement is too much. The ceremonies end with an invited comedian who has the crowds in stitches, the couples included; they laugh and laugh until some have streaming tears. I am so happy, I thank Allah CAI (I) could be the cause of this happiness, albeit temporary in nature. There is also lunch for invited guests, about 1,400; nothing doing, as the lunch ground is thronged with crowds; I later learn that the meal prepared for 1,400 guests actually served 5,000 comfortably. A miracle, I say, no less.

The afternoon is spent touring Belkaab and surrounding areas, and to initiate CAI sponsored water project that will bring safe, pure and usable water to about 30,000 people who now use contaminated water, resulting in clearly avoidable waterborne diseases; even deaths in children. An aalim once remarked that poverty in Afghanistan broke his back; this is so true. I am fortunate and privileged to have travelled the world, to some very poor countries in Africa, Asia and Middle East; nothing compares to the grinding Afghan poverty and this is so evident now. Water is obviously a major issues and this is reinforced to me in an unbelievable, horrible manner. I witness a boy, about 8 or 9 go on his knees and hands, and then lap up water like an animal from a spring; this act is later repeated by 2 other children, girls, sisters perhaps. My eyes see this but my mind refuses to accept the horror of it. That tiny spring gushes out a thin stream of drinkable water but is too shallow for the children to scoop it so this animal instinct is practiced. It is such incidents that tear my heart asunder and make me feel so hopeless about Afghanistan sometimes; I initiate the water project later that afternoon. The Governor, pleased he can now boast of one more major achievement under his belt, invites us to his home for dinner and we feast once again that day. It is to Mazaar Shariff the next morning.

Surprise, surprise, the driver is no other than the comedian from yesterdays wedding ceremonies. Not only is he a fine comic who provides entertainment to Wasi, Basheer and Hussein Pur who have a gala time laughing, he is a poet as well, reciting couplets in praise and tragedies of Imams (A), alternating our moods from merriment to sorrow. These are some of the toughest roads I have ever travelled trough in my life. We meet no other traffic save a couple of trucks throughout the drive, a testimony people don’t risk driving through these hostile roads. I feel like being tossed into a concrete mixer for 18 hours and then let out when we arrive in Mazaar Shariff. So beaten up, I naively agree to Basheer’s suggestion of a massage and skin cleaning at a local hammam, which is surprisingly, immaculate.

When it is my turn for the scrubbing and clean up in a hot steamy cabin, I literally weep tears of agony at the treatment from a massive man who labors my body every which way and angle. Fat, warm sweat drop from his face and body on to mine as he scrubs my body raw, then slaps away at regular intervals as if it is naan dough he is getting ready for the tanoor, not a living, breathing and a very tired me under him. I honestly look pink when I see my face in the mirror back at our hotel room; startled to see myself after 5 days. I have forgotten how I look, there are no mirrors in the remote parts of Afghanistan I had been. While I really liked the scrubbing up at the hammam, I didn’t care for the massage; it was too hard, the man too rough.

Unable to keep my eyes open after a dinner of very good pizza and coke, first meal where I did not have nan or drink chai, I collapse in a bed that is much too soft after sleeping on the floor for last 5 nights. Exhaustion takes over however, and I sleep the slumber of the dead. Early next morning, we inspect 2 deep water well projects CAI has sponsored and head for Kabul. The roads are asphalt for the most part and car mercifully air-conditioned, for Mazar is super hot. Another harrowing 7 hours drive; the taxi driver chain smokes, listens to 1960’s Hindi songs and drives like a man possessed by Iblees himself, we mercifully arrive in Kabul. I spend the next day at the office with Wasi, Basheer and others who make CAI run like a fine oiled machine, going over and auditing accounts and records. Kabul is shut down with a security corridor; President Karzai is meeting with many tribal leaders, including the Talibaan; we decide to stay put at the office and not venture out. Next morning, I am taken to the airport and fly without incident to New Delhi and on to home in suburban Mumbai. It is late night when I get home; daughter Maaha Zainab is fast asleep. But she feels for me when I join her in her bed; she hugs, I fall safely asleep.

Blog concluded.

You can view few photographs of this trip here.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A journey to Waaweilah - Part three

Shafeeqa’s tears of blood.

The greeting party at Imam Sajjad (A) Clinic troop out to meet us; Aagha Amini, the local community religious leader, Dr. Islam Yaar, nurse Mohammed Amin, pharmacist Mohammed Rafiq cleaner Zaman plus Basheer and a businessman, Hussein Pur, who has volunteered to accompany and help Basheer as I have missed my Pactec flight. Per Afghan traditions, midwife Shafeeqa does not venture out; it is cold anyway and she is busy preparing our dinner. The clinic moved to this present location about 2 weeks ago because the former structure was too small. This one however, has no toilets except behind the building with the sky as the roof.

Reluctantly and vexed that our guys could have agreed to rent a place without a toilet in a medical clinic, I mutter incoherently but gingerly make my way through grass and mud to squat behind the building. It is bitterly cold but what makes it worse are biting winds that make mockery of my warmers and sweater. Still, I must go, as the green tea and cold winds have my kidneys working overtime. It is when I am almost done that I see it; teary eyes of a humongous, harmless field rat, perhaps startled and blinded by the torchlight I am waving around fearfully. I let out a shrill scream and lose the torch, but not caring, run, stepping on turds deposits of my predecessors. We are supposed to sleep at the clinic but I refuse, absolutely refuse sleeping at a place without a toilet, even an evil smelly one. I agree to sleep at the dilapidated home of Aagha Amini, with a stinking toilet in the courtyard. Exhausted from our trip, we eat a quick dinner of nan, tea and over salted beef broth before I fall blissfully asleep.

We try to sleep after fajr prayers the next morning at 3, but sleep is elusive, so we bundle up and go out to see the sun rise to some spectacular mountain vistas I have ever set eyes on. Sacheck is a dirt poor village in the middle of nowhere, but her breathtaking beauty cannot be denied. Our breakfast of nan, chai and dry nuts is spent on strategizing and planning the running of our clinic; Dr. Allah Yaar is very vocal about storage of staff and the need for better facilities. He currently sees about 200 plus patients daily and quality attention with this volume is simple not possible. I try and explain CAI limited resources; I can understand his problems; he sees them at micro levels, while I have to focus on macro levels that take in all of CAI projects and funding needs worldwide.

The sheer enormity and scope of clinic services to the destitute is made clearly abundant when we tour the primal facility after breakfast. There is a man laid out on doctor’s office examining table when we get there, no other place available; Moosa Hydery is only about 30 with a huge belly. Liver Cirrhosis, whispers Allah Yaar, not very good chance of survival unless he goes to Kabul. Soon. I arrange for Moosa to be taken to Kabul at CAI expense; I later learn we are too late; medical experts at Kabul Hospital do not give him more than few months. Word has spread that foreign guests are at the clinic and a steady stream of very sick and desperate people arrive, some have travelled since 12 midnight on donkeys, some have walked. Two women, one with chronic Ostio Myalitis, another with Trombo Phibioitis are also dispatched to Kabul as Allah Yaar says he cannot treat them here. Although this decision is taking a toll on CAI sadeqa funds, I simple cannot look the women in their eyes and say no, I cannot help you; the hope and expectation on their faces will not allow me. Then, I simply refuse to see any more sick people, for the wellbeing of my pocketbook as well my personal sanity.

I have a very difficult next 30 minutes as Shafeeqa, the midwife, tearfully relates events leading to her father’s execution by the Talibaan some 8 years ago; you can read all about Shafeeqa’s Tears of Blood here . The entire village seems to be gathered outside, waiting to meet me afterwards; I shake their hardened, farm worked, coarse hands. The village elders hand me a handwritten letter of appreciation for all that CAI is doing for their village, from the clinic, to blankets, mass marriages and Iftaar food packets. It is difficult to fathom the poverty of these people unless you visit and meet them and this tribute is an emotional strain for me indeed; for CAI and I, it is us that are deeply indebted for the opportunity to serve. After many different meetings and audits, we are ready for lunch and drive back to YawKawlang. I do not want us driving in the dark; want to visit Shafeeqa’s destroyed home and rest well for the next leg of my odyssey tomorrow; a chartered flight and another 18 hours drive to the district of Belkhaab.

Lunch has become an issue; Dr. Allah Yaar informs me Shafeeqa is on an emergency call to stabilize a full term pregnant woman who is in a coma and bleeding. The women lives some distance away and Shafeeqa will not be able to cook lunch, would fried eggs, naan and chai suffice? Well, for one, Shafeeqa is not our cook and my Mama always said food tasted excellent no matter what it was as long as you were hungry; so true, no? So, 3 delicious fried eggs each later, we depart for YawKawlang where we arrive in record time of just 2 hours. After visiting Shafeeqa destroyed home, we are guests at Dr. Allah Yaar’s home (with 2 toilet in the courtyard!) and have a feast of lamb pulau for dinner.

Next morning, we drive to YawKawlang “airport” and wait for our Pactec chartered flight to arrive from Kabul; it does, an hour late. The runway is simply a stretch of straight dirt road; the pilot makes a diving fly by to inspect it, make sure there are no major obstacles on it. Another delay ensues when a bored “security” officer drives up and demands clearance papers from the 2 astonished pilots; they have heard of no such requirement. After about an hour of sitting on dirt and many heated telephone conversations between the pilots, security officer and people higher up in Bamiyaan, the bored security officer decides he has had enough excitement and just as abruptly, speeds away; we take off in a hurry.

The aircraft is a single engine Cessna 172 Skyhawk, 4 passengers and 2 pilots; for those with weak stomachs, it will not be a compassionate ride, for it can toss, dance and bounce with mountain winds; Pactec keeps extra sick bags. Andre, the Swiss pilot with whom I have travelled before is a wonderful man, fluent in Dari. He is training Aziz, a young American (assumed name? convert?) today but still flies low enough for us to photograph and video spectacular sights of snowy mountain tops and green valleys. An hour later, we make an uneventful, perfect landing Shabbar Khan, on another strip of dirt, after a precautionary fly past over it.

CAI has sponsored the marriages of 100 poor couples in Belkhaab; in our honor, the Governor of Belkhaab has sent a vehicle to pick us up. My, my, Yakoob’s khatara put this antique to immediate shame; we debate long and hard if we want to risk a hard drive of 12 hours in this heap. The driver, a kid really, shrugs his shoulders uncaringly, asks us to make up our minds, he has a long drive ahead. We have little choice, to find a replacement would take a half day, at least. While it was super cold in YawKawlang, it is opposite in the valley of Shabbar Khan and I for one have no reservations about getting rid of my warmers and sweater, changing in the moving van, a decision I will regret immensely later on.

To be continued…

You can view few photographs of this trip here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A journey to Waaweilah - Part two

Bladder control, an agony.

Stalled car.

Weeping windscreen.

Road to Bamiyaan

Rain, rain

Mud, mud

For a change, there is a line with only about 10 people in front of me waiting for their turn at the immigration counter at Kabul airport. My turn, I step up and hand my passport open to the page where Afghan Consulate in Dubai has pasted the visa; with 14 other prior stamps, it takes time to find the correct one. The immigration officer, a rare clean shaved man with an immaculately trimmed mustache looks at the visa and asks: Where are you coming from? New Delhi, I reply. Your visa is issued in Dubai. I am not sure if this is a question or a statement. Yes, I agree and nod, it was issued in Dubai indeed. Then why are you coming from New Delhi? Eh, is this a trick question? Well, I say, I was in Dubai last week, got my visa from there and then I flew to Mumbai, then Delhi and then I flew to Kabul. I see, he says. He goes through the passport carefully then looks at me; removes his smart cap, scratches vigorously through abundant hair and blows out his cheeks, wafting stale cigarette breath towards my face; I wrinkle my nose. He stares at me for a few seconds that feel like time without end, then suddenly stamps the visa page and slaps the passport on the counter; I am free to go.

Wasi Mohammedan, our engineer and everything else in Afghanistan, greets me beyond the security cordon and we drive to a depilated and shabby house in a neighborhood Wasi feels would be a safe place for me in Kabul. This place is Wasi and Basheer’s office cum residence. After prayers and a quick meal of naan, macaroni and green chai, I spread a quilt on the carpet and try sleeping; tomorrow will be a hard day as we have to drive to Bamiyaan, YawKawland and Sacheck starting 3AM. Morning azaan is called at 3 on the dot but I have been awake for a while, packed and ready for certain exhaustion that lies ahead. We move immediately after namaaz, through empty, eerie Kabul streets. It’s an ancient hired Toyota Ace, 4 wheel drive which rattles, coughs and farts dark clouds of noxious diesel smoke every time the driver hits the gas pedal. The driver, Yakoob, a short fellow with rather feminine features; kajal laden eyes look at me suspiciously and asks Wasi who I am. Ferangi, Indian, replies Wasi; stating I carry an American passport would be asking for trouble, I suppose.

Yakoob and Wasi chat away in Dari, some of it I grasp with my so-so comprehension of the sweet sounding language; I try to sleep at the back seat which becomes impossible after I notice Yakoob’s daring moves. He is either insane or drunk, or both, for he accelerates towards oncoming headlights head on, only to swerve at the last second, inviting protest blasts of honking from oncoming motorists. Wasi and I stare at each other, wide eyed and aghast. When Yakoob repeats this dare devil madness a few more times, I lose my cool and order Yakoob to stop the car. Now, you must try and understand the mentality of taxi drivers in Afghanistan, they are most notorious for rash driving, rude, insolent behavior and they fear no consequences, even from the law, some of who they even finance through bribery. Still, I’d rather Yakoob drop us right there in the middle of the highway than have us killed in a head on collision. I ask Wasi to inform Yakoob that he, Wasi, will take over the driving until we reach the dirt road leading towards Bamiyaan, else, we cancel our contract. Yakoob flutters his eyelids at me, acting hurt but then shrugs his shoulders and relents. I relax and fall asleep until we stop for breakfast of naan and green chai at a hole in the mud restaurant after we leave the tar-top road and begin the grinding dirt road accent towards Bamiyaan.

If you look at the map of Afghanistan carefully, you will learn that it is a relatively large country, with countless peaks and valleys. During summer, valleys can become unbearably dry and hot, while the peaks remain cold and dry, with snow at elevations even in June and July. These valleys posse a deadly torture weapon – very fine sand. This sand billows up when wind blows and when it is disturbed by vehicles. With our windows tightly shut to keep the dust out, it soon becomes hot -hot, so we strip away sweaters and roll up our sleeves. The dirt road becomes increasingly nasty and torturous, with boulders along the way Yakoob maneuvers, keeping in mind there might a car or truck bearing down at us around the next mountain bend. There are times when it feels the steering wheel has a mind of its own, turning to one side while Yakoob wants it on another.

And so it is, a mammoth struggle; not a moment when I can relax, sit still or even engage in easy, coherent conversation. The fine dust is what torments me most; it gets into my nose, my ears, my eyes, and in every nook and cranny of my body. Why, if I can, I will not be surprised to find it deposited in some unholy crevices of my body as well. It takes us 10 hours to reach Bamiyaan, a distance of about 90 miles. When I alight from the car, my knees are so wobbly, I have to hug her for a moment and regain my motor skills. I am uncomfortably pressed at the bladder and I must relieve myself now; I run towards the mosque bathrooms in the courtyard but Wasi restrains me, reminding me to take a can of water with me. Well, there is a line of men waiting to do exactly that at the water-well so I have to wait my turn, alternating between my feet in a dance for bladder control the people around me can only deem loony.

When it is finally my turn, one step inside the toilet and I gag violently at the stench; I struggle for air that is bent on suffocating me. Evil, evil, evil! This is the only description I have for the toilets at that mosque. There are about 10 toilets there, in a line, all just a simple hole with about a 10 foot drop. I very, very carefully squat at this hole to let go. The problem is the sight and smell, both impossible to avoid. If not careful where I put my foot, I am liable to fall through the hole so my eyes are wide open to take in the sight of heaps of feces below; and I must breath in short bursts. When I am almost done, I cannot hold it anymore and finally vomit and then run out gasping for air. Unfortunately, in rural Afghanistan, this situation is not an exception but rather common, as I am to discover in the following days.

After a lunch of delicious kabobs with nan and chai - my stomach is empty from all the barfing - we are on our way to YawKawlang, a village I have been to before, some 5 hours of agony away. Along the way, the skies open up and it begins to rain, lightly at first and then torrents of water. The sand turns to red mud, splatters on the windscreen, reducing visibility severely; the tires lose their grip and we begin slip sliding away, Yakoob curses the heavens. There is a preexisting crack in the windscreen that I have not before noticed and this now begins weeping profoundly, tears that make patterns on his cap and shirt. When we are very near to YawKawlang, Yakoob navigates an acute corner and exclaims Waawailah! He brakes hard and the car comes to a sliding stop; he shakes his damp head, muttering. A rather steep, formidable hill confronts us. Yakoob leaps out, locks the tires, hops back in, engages 4 wheel drive and we lurch forward. The rain has let up, but not the slimy mud; the car slides this way and that but does not find traction. I am very worried, any wrong move either way and we would drop at least 3,000 feet; we are in between two high mountains with drops on either side. Yakoob floors the gas pedal and we leap forward and stall, then begin sliding, sliding, sliding to one side. Wasi makes a move, as if he wants to open the door and escape, I am right behind him, clutching my black bag with the most valuable document in it – my passport. But the vehicle straightens; stalls.

Wasi’s cell phone comes alive, it is Abdullah, the driver who drove Basheer to the mass marriage in Sulej; he is looking for us, wants to drive us to Sacheck. He drives over without much effort; his vehicle is newer with fresh tires with good threads; Wasi pays Yakoob off and we transfer over. Once in the village, I know a hammam with hot water that I insist I must go. We have to travel to Belkhaab day after tomorrow and I am not sure when and if I’ll be able to bathe next; I simply must get rid of the clinging dirt on me. Wasi is doubtful it’ll be open by the time we get there, but it is, it is! I am delirious with delight. I strip off my clothing and give myself a rough scrub, blowing my nose so hard and long, the next stall person yells at me in Dari to cut it out, so I switch to poking my fingers inside instead; I am that frantic to get all that dirt out of me. After the shower I feel a lot better and another cup of chai warms me up nicely, for it has suddenly become quite cold. If green tea is really the de-toxicant it is touted to be, Afghans must be the most toxic free people in this planet with the amount of this liquid they consume; it is a passion to drink green tea here. We depart for Sacheck shortly afterwards and make it safe and in one piece in Abdallah’s nice comfortable Toyota Cruiser, having covered approximately 140 miles in just over 18 hours.

To be continued…

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A journey to Waaweilah - Part one

Part 1 – Indian Airlines, outstanding incompetence.

When I land in New Delhi from Mumbai, it is as if the pilot must have made a mistake and landed at Kuwait or Dubai airport instead. But no, this is Delhi all right, no artificial glitter or shiny marble floors where you can almost see your jetlagged face or evaporated lip gloss here. When GoAir cabin crew had on landing announced outside temperature is 48 Celsius, I did not realize how hot that could be, Fahrenheit being more established for me; that is 118F!!! It feels I have opened an oven door and is difficult to breathe, even. Thankfully, the airport terminal is nicely cool; I console myself I am here for a few hours only anyway; my Indian Airline flight to Kabul is only about 2 hours away.

IC843 to Kabul is announced almost on time and we go through motions of a secondary security check by bored security men; mine waves me through without even opening my bag. When everybody is on board, I quickly jump seats to an empty bulkhead aisle seat; more legroom. 12:35 passes and I look forward to us taking off; the air-condition will kick in and I am hungry. But nothing happens and the pumped cool air becomes increasingly unfriendly warmer. After about an hour, the pilot comes alive and says there is a “slight” technical problem and we are “slightly” delayed. Another 30 minutes pass, babies begin wailing, children start fretting and adults begin conversing in an increasingly loud tenor. The man across from me begins to pick his nose, tentatively at first and then in earnest, positioning his face at every angle to get maximum leverage; I look away.

As I am seated in the first row after business class, I get to hear snippets of what happens in business class and all activity outside the cockpit further up. I learn the Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan is onboard, with a group of 6 bodyguards. There is constant talk of a strike by the lethargic and non-responding airhostesses but I do not fathom what this means. 2 hours after departure time, the technical problem is apparently fixed as doors shut and the aircraft slowly limps towards an active runway. Once lined up on the active runway, the engines rev up nicely, the aircraft strains forward for release when abruptly, the pilot eases takeoff thrust and the bird idles once more; we quickly taxi back towards a parking bay.

Tempers are now flying, mine included, although I am very relieved that the pilot aborted flight if the aircraft was not air worthy. Apparently, word is circulating that IC843 was cancelled yesterday for the same “technical” reason and non Delhi passengers were accommodated in some shabby hotel near the airport. Few of these passengers, Afghani teenagers, now storm forward and demand to be taken off an ailing aircraft, they have had enough. There is much argument by the door but I cannot make out what is said. The dissenters troop back to their seats after a while, grimfaced; they were denied permission to disembark. So we sit and wait, and wait and wait but no word from anyone regarding future plans. Babies begin wailing, children start fretting, there is loud talk about how unfairly Indian Airlines treat their customers; the guy across from me resumes snot picking.

I may have earlier mentioned in my prior blogs that I am, by nature, quite an impatient person, always in hurry. I cannot just sit still, without knowing I have no other choice. However, CAI and working in Afghanistan has forced me to accept the virtue of patience; up to a limit. When there is no communication from IA crew again the next 30 minutes, it is I that storm past the curtain barrier that divides business from cattle class. I round up on an aging stewardess with a sagging gut protruding through standard IA saree uniform flipping through a filmy magazine; our conversation goes something like this:

Madam, would you please care to tell me what is going on? She reluctantly lifts heavy makeup coated eyelids towards me and looks me up and down; is not impressed, for her attention reverts back to the magazine. Technical snag, she rasps, apne seat pe beth jao (return to your seat and sit down). My mind snaps and I see bloody red. Before the old cow can lift another page, I step forward and slap my hand on the magazine. She jumps, 2 other stewardesses lolling around jump, the ambassador sitting nearby probably jumps. I am asking you a question, ma’am, and you ignore me with this outrageous attitude of yours? We have been holed up in this aircraft now for 3 hours and all you can tell us there is a technical snag? It is hot in here, there are children and babies here, you have not offered us any food, not even water, is this the best IA can do? What do you think, we are cattle for you?

There is stunned silence for a while; I wait to be arrested for my action but most people in business class nod their heads and mummer their agreement with my assertion; this probably saves me. A much younger airhostess with a much firmer gut approaches me and tries to calm me down. Sir, we understand your discomfort but we cannot do anything. It is in the hands of operations, they make all decisions, you will have to ask them. And where are the operations people, I demand. We don’t know. Who knows where they are? We don’t know. Is this flight cancelled? We don’t know. When will you know? We don’t know. When will we be let go from the aircraft? We don’t know. Where is the captain? Uh, we don’t know.

I know when I am defeated so head back to my seat with my tail between my legs and sit down, fuming. But then, only about 5 minutes later, we are ordered off the aircraft and returned to the terminal on a bus. There is another technical snag however. All of us have been processed by immigration as having left the country so there is much confusion between operations and immigration with some shouting between them while we toast and profusely sweat outside terminal doors. It takes a woman officer to point out that there are babies and young children in the crowd that may be medically compromised due to the heat before the doors swish open and we enter the blissful cool inside of the airport terminal.

After much arguments, discussions, an hour and an almost fistfight later, IA cancels flight 843 to Kabul for the 2nd time in so many days; I begin to worry much. I have a non cancellable chartered flight at 7AM tomorrow morning from Kabul to YawKawlang and a drive to Sulej for a wedding of 59 poor couples sponsored by donors of CAI. I frantically call up Wasi in Kabul; as practical and pragmatic as any Afghan can be, he tells me I will not be able to attend the wedding; Basheer will represent CAI. He also asks me to get mentally prepared for an 18 hour drive to YawKawlang the day after (more on this escapade in later parts of this blog). We are processed by immigration quite efficiently; our exit stamp is cancelled and we end up in the customs holding area where another argument between IA and customs ensue. Customs wants us all removed while IA pleads there is no other place they can take us.

There is total mayhem when it is learnt that IA staff have gone on countrywide strike and we are abandoned; thankfully, senior IA staff take over and begin a laborious task of assigning non Delhi residents a hotel room for the night. Tomorrow is Wednesday, the only day of week when IA does not have services to Kabul, but that is insignificant; the strike worries me more. An agreement is struck whereby KAM Air (a local Afghan airline not certified by IATA) will take about 52 of us to Kabul tomorrow. And what about the rest? The senior IA manager I talk to can only shrug his thin shoulders; I want to strangle him until he consults his list and assures me I am one of those that have been assigned a place on KAM Air. Phew!

We wait some more; it is not until 7PM, six and a half hours from scheduled departure that I get a seat in an oppressively hot bus for a ride to our hotel. Not only is the bus overcrowded with sweaty passengers, the heavy luggage we have brought up is strewn around wherever there is place. The bus is incredibly hot, with a lot of people, exhausted children and reeks of body odor and unwashed bodies. I sweat and sweat and sweat some more. When we arrive at the hotel, I am startled to see a patch of dampness on the front of my trousers, like some map of a continent on an atlas; for a split second, I am horrified I may have soiled myself, but it is just sweat.

I am assigned a reasonable room with an unbelievable surprise; a treadmill! I get temporarily exited. It works but is useless with power cuts every 10 minutes or so. I was liable to kill myself using it with sudden stops at my running speed of 6 mph. I have a shower, eat dinner and fall asleep but power cuts and the generator kicking in every so often makes resting difficult. The next morning, I make a snap decision. There is a Pamir Air flight that afternoon; I decide to cancel the IA ticket and rebook on Pamir. I am not sure how long the strike will last and I am sure no other airline can match IA’s incompetence.

Listen to me IA, it may not make too much of a difference to you, but I will never (I know you should never say never), never, ever fly you again.

I reach Kabul later that day incident free.

To be continued…

Saturday, June 5, 2010

My tears of blood – Shafiqa Ahmed Hussein

Sacheck village.

Shafiqa's destroyed home.

Shafiqa's destroyed home.



This is the story of Shafiqa Ahmed Hussein who I meet in the village of Sacheck, Afghanistan at Imam Sajjad (A) Clinic on May 27, 2010. A demure, pretty woman of 22, Shafiqa tells me the following heart wrenching story of her Dad’s massacre by the Talibaan; here is the story in her own words:

I am Shafiqa Ahmed Hussein, a midwife at CAI sponsored Imam Sajjad (A) Clinic in Sachek, Afghanistan; about 18 hours of hard driving from Kabul. For those not familiar with this general area of Afghanistan, for many, it is probably one of the most remote areas in this world. This village is home to about 9,500 of very poor farmers and sheep herders who can only relax about 5 months of any year; the rest of time is survival of the fittest in severe and bitterly cold snow and ice.

In 2001, I was a happy teenager, daughter of a small shop owner Ahmed, who managed to provide our family with a lifestyle better than most in the village of YawKawlang, about 2 hours drive from Sacheck. At age 12, I was as cheerful and innocent as any teenager her age would be. I went to school with my siblings, sisters Najeeba 15 and Aziza 9 while Mother Hallema stayed at home with Latifa 4 and brother Momin 2, too young for school.

On January 1, 2001, a blistery, bitterly cold day, I was home helping Mum with breakfast so Dad could go and open the grocery store we owned; school was on winter break. At about 10 that morning, while I and the elder sisters cleaned home and prepared for our next meal, Dad came running in, anxiety and fear written all over his ice cold face. We must leave immediately, all of us, he yelled. The Talibaan have entered YawKawlang and arresting people. We will go up the mountains for a few days. Pack up all you can, especially food. We must leave now! Most people have already left, hurry up!

All of us were paralyzed with fear, could not believe nor understand what Dad was on about, which made Dad uncharacteristically mad and irritated. He franticly began stuffing empty boxes with clothes and flour and sugar and cans of cooking oil. The crazed and frenzied looks on Dad’s face jerked Mum into action and then all of us as well. We packed as much as we could carry and some more; Mum wanted to pack the whole house! But Dad, usually a calm and easy going man who gave in to Mum’s occasional whims easily, was very firm and abrupt and ordered Mum to leave everything except warm clothes and food, which made Mum weep. We wore our coats over our home clothes and with wheelbarrows full of boxes, clumsily trekked up through piles of snow and ice into the mountains that surround our village.

We stayed in the mountains for about a week, sometimes with sympathetic animal headers and some days in caves. It was bitterly cold and I remember all of us huddled together for warmth and as security in case our cave was visited by wild wolves. I also remember the days spent in utter boredom, fear and absolute, miserable, bone chilling cold. After about a week, we ran out of food and Dad decided to go back to town to get more and assess the situation. All of us, but especially Mum were not willing to let him leave but Dad, again strangely, roughly told us to be quiet and left the next morning, even before I woke up. We never saw him again, alive or dead.

Dad did not return after a few days, I don’t remember how many now, but they were the most difficult days of my life when I cried tears of blood. Mum was an emotional wreck and my other sisters helpless to do anything for her. Latifa and Momin took cues from Mum and cried along with her. When it was evident something very bad must have happened to Dad and afraid we would die of hunger if food was not imminently available, I decided to take us all back to YawKawlang. We returned to a dead and devastated village. The Talibaan had massacred 351 men and children, from age 7 to 80 in front of our Jamia Masjid on the day we had escaped.

Shafiqa breaks down and weeps long and bitterly at this point. I and my interpreter look away and I ask Basheer who is videotaping this interview, to stop. There is so much emotions a human can take; not a single person in the clinic room is dry eyed at this point. Shafiqa apologizes and continues after regaining composure:

We learnt later that Dad was arrested and sent to a military commander who sentenced him to death for practicing a faith not recognized by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He, along with many others were tied behind their backs using belts or shalwaar strings they wore and then murdered in cold blood with a single shot of a bullet through the back of his head.

There is a bout of bitter weeping again and we break for a short while once more before Shafiqa continues:

A sole survivor of the massacre whom we knew, later informed us about Dad’s murder and possible burial 5 days after the killings when the band of killers departed YawKawlang. A woman went looking for her dad and discovered him in a pile of bodies. She brought all of the bodies to the main masjid and the martyrs were given a mass burial because the bodies had begun to decompose even in the bitter cold of January. We have yet to determine with absolute certainty that Dad is among others in the mass grave but we have no other choice but to assume that is the case.

My tears of blood did not end here; when we finally went home, we found it razed to the ground, with all our contents inside destroyed. My Dad was murdered in cold blood; my Mum, already an old woman at age 23, was a widow with 5 children to support and our house was burnt and destroyed. Time, however, is the best healer of wounds. Although fate had slapped us hard, we regrouped and survived. My Mum is still devastated of course, but resigned to her fate. Najeeba is married; Aziza, Lateefa and Momin all go to school and alhamd’Allah, I support them all. Although we were not allowed to study under Talibaan rule, I still managed to complete high school after which I studied nursing during the day and worked at a local hospital in the afternoon, getting important firsthand experience. This has made me possible to work in an important role of Midwife here at Imam Sajjad (A) Clinic in Sacheck.

I must add that Comfort Aid International is the only NGO or any other organization that has made it possible for a human being a chance to survive here. The clinic is a lifeline for many, many desperate people who would have simply died but for the medicines and our medical services. For example, I had to walk quite a distance today to a home where a full term pregnant woman had vaginal bleeding. I gave her a serum immediately and she stabilized; this woman would have definitely lost her baby had it not been for the medication.

Interview concludes.

The pregnant woman gives birth later that day to a healthy baby girl and both baby and mother are doing well up to the time I leave Shacheck. I go visit Shafiqa’s house afterwards, see the remaining shell of her burnt home and feel immense sadness for this young, unique girl-woman; what she has been through. Remember, this is Afghanistan where women do not work outside of the home to support families. Shafiqa has broken all taboos in conservative, rural Afghanistan by her sheer will for survival. Her entire family depends on her salary for continued existence. At age 22, when most Afghan girls are married and have children, it will be hard for Shafiqa to find a life partner (working outside of home does not help either). But I am sure Shafiqa will survive; she has not shed tears of blood for no reason.

CAI would like to rebuild Shafiqa’s home; it will cost about USD5,000. If you are interested in helping, please visit and click on donate link; make sure your write “Shafiqa Home Fund” as description.