Saturday, September 25, 2010

Afghanistan x 17 – I (still) despair.

This is my 17th trip to Afghanistan in 5 years. Much has changed (for the better) in Kabul but so much has remained the same or regressed in remote areas. The airport is brand new, paid for by the Japanese but the attitudes of personnel remain ancient as perhaps the city itself. All 5 immigration counters have a sign that says “Open” but only one is manned, causing a serpentine line of irritated arrivals. Those with connections with higher-ups in line behind me send their passport through officers lounging around and my wait is prolonged even more they are stamped before mine; I seethe.

Aliakberbhai Ratansi of Al Imaan Charitable Trust is accompanying me this trip and we are early to the airport next morning for our flight to Heraat where CAI is sponsoring the construction of 36 additional houses for the victims of Talibaan massacres. Aliakberbhai, apart from being genial company, is wise in many years of school construction and administration, CAI task at hand in Sar Pol later in the trip. The housing project is on time, on budget and surprisingly, so is our flight back to Kabul a day later.

We encounter a pretty scary incident on return to our hotel from the housing complex that day. I have my laptop bag containing our passports and some cash by my side, covered up by a keffiyeh, just as a precautionary measure against theft and the ever omnipotent dust of Afghanistan. We are stopped by a 5 man security team who order Wasi to pull up. The country is tense due to parliamentary election on Saturday, with frequent security stops and checks of vehicles everywhere. A bulky solider approaches our vehicle and spots the wrapped bag between me and Basheer and freezes. He frantically gestures a signal and barks something as all 5 soldiers train their automatic M-16 rifles in our direction; it is time for us to freeze.

The scariest part of being in Afghanistan is the apparent flood of arms; countless Afghan men carelessly tote a machine gun; my paranoia is for one going off by accident and somebody (me?) innocent falling prey. Using his machine gun, the officer gestures for us to get out of the car; the thing is ugly looking and very scary, making me so nervous, my tongue feels as dry as the arid terrain outside. He orders me to bring out my bag which he roughly throws on the roof of Wasi’s car. He then orders me to open it; I do with trembling, nervous fingers as all the rest of them now have their weapons pointed at me with fingers on the trigger. Satisfied I am not wired or carrying a bomb, the officer relaxes, takes his finger off the trigger and apologizes, orders us to leave; we do so with extraordinary haste, did not realize we could move so fast.

That night, September 17, as we sleep on the floor of our engineers Wasi and Basheer’s dilapidated office, Kabul hotels much too dangerous as targets of attacks, the ground beneath us shakes. The first jolt is quite severe as I actually feel the cement ripple under my spine followed by a less intense jolt and then tremors and shaking of the structure. Both Aliakber and I rush outside and join the others from the other room. I am surprised the office is still standing; it is a pretty old building in need of major repairs. Our engineers have got the use of it for free so are happy with the status quo and don’t spend any money on it. Wasi, Basheer, Aliakberbhai and Khaleeqdad, the servant, are off and asleep soon afterwards. I spend some time out in the cold alone, contemplating, before it gets too chilly and I head back into the blankets.

The next day is spent doing absolutely nothing as the city is virtually shut down due to the elections; we spend time surfing the internet that loads so slow, I can see and feel my fingernails grow. We do, however, have an excellent open air barbecue; I marinated some lamb chops yesterday and it turns out very tender and yummy. Have that with fresh hot Afghan nan and you are in lamb chop heaven.

We have been asked to report at the airport by 7AM next day to catch the PACTEK chartered flight to Sar Pol but nothing happens until 9AM when we are finally airborne, piloted by Andre the Swiss. I always pray to God to never make me despondent, even if He chooses not to enrich me, for despondency is a terribly horrid feeling to have. And despondency is exactly what I find in Sar Pol among the 2,000 or so internally displaced refugees that Iran has expelled back to Afghanistan. They live in flimsy UNHCR handout tents that I cannot even imagine what will be like this coming winter. This community in Sar Pol has many, many problems, from food to housing to education. CAI has chosen to address the education problem. About 400 students, from grade 1 – 10 study out on the open, literally under the mercy of elements. So schooling is possible only for about 5 months of summer, if not raining, the rest of time is too cold and windy for classes. CAI will begin construction on a modest elementary school that will take care of children not having to fight the elements and study in relative comfort. I leave Sar Pole with a very heavy heart; for the misery of these hapless people is gut wrenching. After presentation of 5 sheep each to 14 widows in CAI sponsored Widows Economic Empowerment at a village 1 hour drive away, we retire at a local home and fly back to Kabul the next day and onwards to Mumbai the day after.

There is apprehension in the air after we land in Mumbai; it is the last day of Ghanpaty festival with loud firecrackers and throngs of people with multicolored streaks in their hair and bodies everywhere. There is also the Ayodhya Masjid verdict on Friday with schools closed and the country bracing for violence. The drive from airport to home is an adventure in itself as we get bogged down in the Ganesh processions that snarl traffic. Our vehicle, a brand new VW Polo that Aliakberbhai’s son Abbas is driving ever so carefully is scratched by an errant rickshaw driver in the melee we find ourselves in. A large group of pulsating teenagers are jerking about, as if possessed by the devil, to very loud throbbing music. Amidst this fracas of teeming people, the dancing and loud music, huge firecrackers are set off, setting off palpitations in tender hearts. For a moment I think I am still in Afghanistan and perhaps have finally made rendezvous with an explosive. But the mass of humanity, grime and filth outside, relentless sewer stink, hopelessly snarled cars centimeters away from each other fenders and noise pollution reassures me I am in Mumbai, India indeed. I will be all right, Insha’Allah.

You may be interested in watching these photographs.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pakistan drowns – A personal experience.

Emirates flight from Dubai to Islamabad is uneventful but delayed, typical Emirates style; the pilot wakes up 15 minutes after scheduled departure, tells us how sorry he is and blames late arrival of this aircraft for the delay. As if I care; you are late, period, I don’t care an ant’s ass why; save me the sob story. Would Emirates care if I told them I am late checking in because my driver was delayed picking me up? The food served on board is so bad, my neighbor takes one bite of his chicken korma, makes a face, hurriedly covers his tray, pulls a blanket over his face and is fast asleep in about two minutes; lucky guy. I eat the salad and bread, for I am hungry, this is my iftaar and sleep afterwards is impossible. There is commotion on board after we land, people are on their feet, emptying overhead cabins before the aircraft comes to a full stop; cabin crew franticly force them to cease, but my fellow passengers are in a hurry, they ignore pleas to sit down; the crew give up.

A strikingly young attractive lady immigration officer, scanning through my passport wants to know why I go to Afghanistan so much; I explain I am an aid worker building schools and taking care of orphans, widows there. A sad look clouds her pretty face and says in very heavy accented Pinglish, they kill you American, be careful, no? Some Pakistanis too, I want to add but bite my tongue instead. She waves me towards a desk where I am to apply for visa on arrival. I leave her reluctantly; not sure why, maybe a feeling of shared camaraderie between us in the few seconds of our interaction.

A young, smart looking officer asks me to complete a visa application form, which is difficult, as the form is so light from frequent photocopying, I can hardly read the questions asked. The officer then asks to borrow my pen so he can fill out my visa sticker, his pen has gone missing, he says. I hand it over reluctantly; my pens share common traits with my ex wives; have this nasty habit of divorcing me. Visa sticker complete, he attempts to coax stubborn glue out of a bottle but it is adamant, refuses to come out. Frustrated, he slams the bottle to the floor and storms off, looking for a fresh bottle somewhere inside the adjoining office. I take this opportunity to replace my pen with an inexpensive one that is lying useless in my laptop bag. He returns with mission failed, no replacement glue to be found. He retrieves the abused glue bottle from under his desk and takes off the cap, scoops out some with a pinkie finger and lines the edges of the visa sticker and applies it to a passport page with a look of triumph on his face. He has to validate the visa sticker now but cannot find a suitable place to wipe excess glue off his fingers, so it goes on his jet black thick head of hair. I wish I was with him next time he combs his hair, only because I am suddenly envious of the healthy head of hair he sprouts; puts my barren scalp to shame. It is 3AM when I leave the airport and arrive at my hotel an hour later. I can sleep for three hours only after fajr namaaz as representatives from Husseini Foundation are here to pick me up for our tour of flood affected areas in Pakistan Punjab.

The 3 lane highway out of Islamabad towards Punjab and Dehra E Ismail is smooth and very well maintained; the South Koreans have done a splendid job. It is after we cross a major dam and power plant at a key junction on the Indus River that separates Punjab from Dehra E Ismail that the enormity of the floods slaps me, hard. Everywhere, as far as the eye can see, is crippling devastation. Homes flattened, belongings washed away, people and animals drowned, mosques and imambargahs flattened and miles of fertile agricultural land, crops destroyed. The water that came gushing into these flat lands was so immense, it defies all logic; 600mm or 25 inches of rain fell in one day!

For the next 3 days, I see repeat horrors that I would not wish on anybody. I am besieged in every village we visit, throngs of fatigued, pitiful people in tattered and dirty clothes wanting, waiting, complaining, beseeching. Unanimously, all of their faces have one look in common, hope. Hope I would be their savior, pull them out of their predicament and this makes me feel sick to the pit of my stomach; awfully awful, crush me to a point I internally break down in despair repeatedly. Saidalain, Shadau, Thatta Balochan , Taunsa, Basti Shero, Tehsil, Jampur, Basti Guddan, Chawk Qureshi , Basti Sobay Wala, Basti Kumar, Biat Bogha and Basti Muhammad Ali, tragedy after tragedy, tales of horror that numb me so much I begin to block it all out after a while, else it will drive me insane. Most passionate lament is for lost harvest and homes destroyed; all men, without exception, beg me to help rebuild their homes. It is crushing feeling for village men not to be able to feed and house his family, his honor.

At Jampour and Laiyah, I am so traumatized at the sight of what greets my eye, I become angry at Allah and stupidly question His justice. Why, why, why? We are the first outsiders these victims see since they escaped rising waters; hundreds had to be rescued by makeshift boats pulled by male family members wading or swimming through muddy water. For miles, families with destroyed belongings squat, blocking roads. The Day of Judgment; will it be similar to this? The enormity and hopelessness of it all is suffocating. These people live on the road itself and then bathe and defecate in the flood waters still to recede. It is difficult to draw the line between humans and their animals, as they try to share meager resources rescued.

At a refugee center inside Masooma Qoom mosque in Laiyah, about 600 people have taken refuge. Women and children sit and while away their time doing nothing but stare blankly into space, the shock of what occurred still incomprehensible, even after 6 weeks. Children play or cry all around me, some want to see their photos on the camera screen while others want to touch me, as if I am some sort of celebrity. I meet 3 brand new babies, 2 girls, both aptly named Masooma and a boy, Mohammed, born as refugees inside the mosque. What does the future hold for them?

I get out from my air-conditioned vehicle to take pictures in the suffocating heat and humidity while people lolling around with their families stare at me blankly; the stench of rot and decay is overpowering, disease cannot be far behind. What good will these pictures you take do, asks a very old man looking up at me from a charpoy. I squat next to him and try explaining that I will share it with worldwide community and this will, insha’Allah, bring some help for him. It is okay then, he says, nodding his head in approval, better than these bastard politicians of our country. This, distressingly, has been a universal complaint from victims throughout my tour.

The 3 days and 2 nights I spend on the road in Dehra E Ismail, Dehra Ghazi Khan and Laiyah Districts are exhausting, retiring at about 2AM. The hotel generator at Dehra E Ismail is so noisy, I feel I have been hit by a sledgehammer the next morning. The bathroom is a mess and towel smell of cow dung from yesterdays visit to the devastated farms. Sobering is news from my host that Dehra E Ismail and Dehra Ghazi Khan are hotbeds of secretion violence, with Shias targets of Wahaabi groups. Why, 3 Shia Muslims were gunned down just this morning and a decision is made to avoid going to Dehra Ghazi Khan proper; I become tense and fret about either a bullet or bomb making us targets, even though our trip here has been kept secret just for this reason. The going is slow and laborious, with frequent stops at destroyed roads and pauses to calm or just listen to traumatized victims along the way.

What I experience in these 3 days is unique, I cannot understand it, and so it makes me mad. There are tragedies that are manmade (Afghanistan) and I can blame humans for it. But here, I don’t know, just don’t know; must accept Allah, the Mighty, the Powerful, the All Knowing and the Most JUST has a reason and accept His doing. Ya Allah, please accept our small sacrifices in the service of Your humanity, for Your pleasure, have mercy on these victims, relieve them of their trauma and speed them to full habilitation. You do what You will, there is no might except Yours and nobody worthy of worship but You.

As for CAI, we promise, as usual, full accountability, transparency and hands on involvement – all at zero administration cost. Of course.

Instead of bogging you down with all statists, I list the loss of lives and property from just Dehra E Ismail District. Remember, this is just one district in Punjab; there are 5 more (Dehra Ghazi Khan, Rajanpour, Muzzaferghar, Laiyah and Bhakkar) not included. And Sindh of course, an area I did not visit.

Area of flooding: 140 by 60 miles, affecting 950,000 people.
10 people died.
20,000 homes destroyed.
136,000 acres of land destroyed – 50,000 wheat, 50,000 rice, 36,000 of corn, millet, etc.
2,000 animals perished.
45 villages completely washed away
40 mosques destroyed.
10 Imambargas destroyed.

CAI, like many other NGO’s, funds Husseini Foundation of Pakistan, a credible and active organization, with good logistical and local area committees that oversee the relief work. There are, obviously, many needs that the victims have; some are already being met; food and medicines are generally being met by many NGO’s and the government, with some exceptions. CAI will concentrate the following:

Destroyed homes still have about 60% material that can be reused; bricks, wood, iron frames, doors etc, CAI will not provide these. Labor will have to come from the victims and family, friends. If this rule is strictly applied, a damaged or destroyed home (12x18 sq. ft.) can be rebuilt for an average of USD500 each. If each family where this email reaches blesses these wretched families with one home, CAI can participate in at least 1,000 homes. A tall order perhaps; I am, however, optimistic as we enjoy the blessings of our Eid, we will dig deep to come up with the funds. Insha’Allah. This is 1 room home, nothing else. As long as we can get these people inside a protective environment that will give shelter from approaching winter, we will insha’Allah, save lives.
The coming winter will take its toll. These victims are defenseless against elements as they have lost everything. For this year at least, CAI is changing focus of blankets from Afghanistan to Pakistan. We might still target a smaller group for blanket distribution there, if funds permit, but focus will be Pakistan where we are sure lives will be lost if we are not proactive. One good, warm blanket that accommodates 2 people will cost around USD14.
Economic empowerment for widows / single mothers:
As proved over and over again, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, sheep rearing by womenfolk is one sure way out of grinding poverty. 5 sheep that cost about USD550 awarded to a widow or single mother and well administered will see the victim out of desperation within about 6 months as she will have regular income from milk and byproducts and 100% profit from resale of new babies.

Your USD50,000 contribution so far:
Because of the situation and immediate needs, funds that were advanced to Husseini Foundation went for purchasing grains to feed the victims; 6 trucks of food grain fed 8,500 families with rice and pulses. All future funds will be now directed towards the priority items listed above.

Please click here for a library of photographs from floods areas I visited.

I thank Hassan Aboolo and Brig (R) Zamurad Khan of Hussein Foundation for their assistance and hospitality during my brief stay in Pakistan. Thank you guys - could not have done this without your invaluable assistance.