While I jump at the opportunity to accompany Yusufali on his most recent adventure to Afghanistan, his only condition that I write about my experience afterwards is a rather daunting task; something that ace Yusufali has been doing for more then a decade!
After a short and restful flight in Dubai, we fly to Kabul and land in a backward airport that I am told is a brand new structure, donated by the government of Japan. If that is a brand new structure, what must have been the state of the old airport?
We wind our way down several exit security checkpoints, curbside vendors and even an outdoor kebab place before we meet our hosts Wasim and Bashir; two engineers who are extremely kind, cultured and thorough gentlemen, obviously highly educated. We start our drive from the airport to Wasim’s house. OMA, if you think Indian traffic is bad, this is an experience in the ultimate trust in the Almighty, with cars weaving in and out at breakneck speed, with sudden jerky stops throughout the entire trip.
Squatting - a science that I need to quickly relearn from my childhood days. Probably the only time I question what I am doing in Afghanistan; how to hold the minute torch in the airless, dark outhouse, where to fold and lay my pants without them getting soiled, the balancing act, the unavoidable evil stench filling my nostrils, how to avoid all that icy water splattering on my feet while trying to wash… And oh, that stench of accumulated feces in the pit, my, my, my!!!
Doctor Asif, coordinator of two CAI run medical clinics in Afghanistan, joins us for a meal and I am thoroughly impressed with the humility of all these learned people. The delicious meal prepared by Wasim and Bashir is spoilt only by Yusufali's sharp, probing and pointed questions on CAI operations logistics administered by these three men.
We wake up at 4 AM to go to the airport for our trip to Nili, passing through numerous (rather rude) checkpoints at the airport before being ushered into a 6 seat Kodiac aircraft that flies us through an uneventful but beautiful (in a very harsh way) flight to Nili. That is the easy part; next came a torturous 12-hour drive to Khajran, our trip dotted with punctured tires and getting stuck on an impossible rocky river bed. Kudos to our rented Toyota Prada, she behaves like a mountain goat with strength of an elephant. We reach Khajran late at night and make our way to the hut we are to spend the night, in the remote spot of a mountain valley.
After an excellent hospitable dinner we retire without either changing, brushing or any care for other hygiene. Early next morning, after a meager breakfast, we head over to visit the site CAI has plans to build a school on. Lunch is not in the cards the entire grueling drive of around 100 miles that takes about 12 hours; there is no civilization along the way. We snack on stale naan from last night; surprising how everything tastes good when you are hungry. We call on the current schools where girl students get educated in wretched conditions, under the open sky; that's where the gratifying part of all this torture comes in play. Just the thought I could be a part of something that would somehow help in a truly altruistic fashion is overwhelming. After discussing details and confirming the project as a go, we clamber back into the car for another torturous trip back to Nili.
After another night of Yusufali’s constant visit to the outhouse with all related preparations and commotions of fumbling for a torch and stepping on others fast asleep, we plan a trip to the local hammam for a much needed bath but this is foiled by another punctured tire, without a spare. After witnessing verbal floggings Yusufali subjects Wasim and Bashir for not taking the necessary precautions to get the tire fixed beforehand, we creep back to the house to prepare for our flight to Shabarghan and another onwards 12 hours drive to Belkhaab.
When we reach the airstrip and our aircraft arrives, the pilot informs us there is only 30% chance of landing at Shabarghan due to cloudy weather (it has to be a visual landing). Sure enough, above Shabarghan, the pilot says landing is not possible; thick clouds below cover the land like a sullen ocean, we ascended up and head towards Kabul; Yusufali is bitterly disappointed. CAI has a brand new school (her 9th) to officially open, but we are resigned to Allah’s will. 10 minutes later, the 26 year old American pilot says he sees a clearing ahead and maneuvers the agile machine this way and that; we land in Shabarghan 15 minutes later. I experience similar achievements several times during our trip; seemingly impossible situations eventually become promising! I can only attribute this to the Almighty; He helps those who help His cause, no?
Once inside another Prado, we drive on to Belkhaab, another 10 hours away. The drive is made easy by some excellent, tasty mishkaki, nundu and Kabuki pulau at a dingy restaurant along the way, although Yusufali attributes this to my constant ability to snooze in the forever jostling car on roads so bad, it can make you want to scream in frustration. Once in Belkhaab, we have a halfhearted dinner and settle down to sleep, ready for the opening of the school tomorrow.
In the morning, for the first time since leaving Kabul, we have the opportunity and luxury of a hot, steamy bath. Uhh, uhh, man, is this a treat or what, ridding my body of all the dust and grime; and a smell no better than a sheep’s unwashed behind.
The school is going through final finishing touches but Yusufali declares it open anyway, after much lamentation and barbs towards the engineers, who clearly are uncomfortable at the reprimand. But it’s a beautiful school and I marvel, wonder at the effort that must have gone into constructing it in one of the toughest terrains and hostile environments I have seen ever; I was born and raised in Africa, so I should know.
We return to Kabul and I get a glimpse of massive Imam Hussein (A) School built by CAI. It is dark when we get there and the building has no power supply but it certainty looks huge. I am told 3,600 children study here and will grow to a maximum of 4,100 by 2012. Our return to Dubai is soured by a distressing 7 hour delay by Fly Dubai airline at cramped Kabul airport terminal; a drama in itself, but that is another story.
Afghanistan is a tough, tough country, certainly not everybody’s cup of tea. One has to have a strong stomach, a strong mental attitude and tons of patience to be able to do just about anything. Complicating this dilemma is the precarious security issue to grapple with. There are nervous moments when we learn of a suicide attack on an American military bus that tragically kills 11 of our countrymen. Even more unsettling is news that the incident happens less than a mile from Wasi’s home, where we are to spend the night before departure to Dubai.
The overwhelmingly majority of people in this country are poor, dirt poor, especially the Shia’s who were (and still are to a certain extent) persecuted and discriminated against. For most Afghans, it is the survival of the fittest; you either adapt to the harshness or perish. Afghanistan can be beautiful as well, in a harsh, cruel way; the snow-covered mountains can be breathtaking and her people, especially in the mountain heartland where we were, are exceedingly striking.
In life, living in the West, there are so many things we take for granted, are not aware of the plight of millions that do not have their basic survival needs fulfilled; so we have absolutely no right to complain. I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to see and experience my escapade to Afghanistan.
Zuher Somji – Sanford, FL
Zuher overlooked to write about the hospitality of our hosts at Khajran. Seeing we are obviously uncomfortable with using super icy water, they arranged for nice warm water for our bathroom use. What wonderful, considerate, thoughtful hosts; the feel of warm water on an exposed freezing behind is indescribable; simply divine.
View wonderful photos here.