Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Waterless in Kabul

I had penned this piece over five years ago but never Blogged it; ajeeb…! So I share it with you now, in the hope you will appreciate the plight of those without water in Afghanistan. 

Note the following developments since this was written:

• The water project completed in 2010 and functioning, providing clean, potable water to all residents in Chandaawal.
• It took three years of very hard work and the ingenuity of our engineers in Afghanistan to execute this project.
• The project ended up costing US$320,000.

I climb up a steep mountain on the outskirts of Kabul Afghanistan, on a very chilly December morning, heavy drafts of steam from my mouth evidence of my exertion. When I finally reach the top and the ground levels off, I want to kick myself for not covering my increasingly expanding arid scalp, for it is now extremely cold and I am visibly shivering. Pitying my plight, Mohammed, my guide and translator in Afghanistan, offers me his warm scarf, which I gratefully accept and cover my head in a hurry. I really do not know what I would do without the scarf; the only source of possible heat this winter morning is a clear sun that evidently struggles to warm up windy atoms of fine thin air on this large mountain. We stand in front of a massive slum settlement that houses about 75,000 poor and destitute internally displaced refugees of Afghanistan.

We are in an area called Chandaawal of Kabul, within the larger slum of Daste Barchi; a slum area that houses over one million people, overwhelmingly Hazara. I am in Afghanistan primarily to visit about 100 boy orphans further west, in Heraat, children who are victims of Talibaan massacres of the Hazara people. I have made this detour today as my flight to Heraat is cancelled due to heavy snow there. My immediate concern is the plight of these 75,000 people who, I am told, have no source of water. These hapless people trek all the way down to from where I began my trip and get free water; I see many burqa clad women and children with empty jerrycans descend down on Kabul proper for their allotment of a day’s water supply.

I cannot, equably, describe the scene before me; it is unfair to do so in writing and I will do injustice to the despair I feel.  Needless to say, my guts wrench at the scale of misery and poverty I encounter. Row upon row of flimsy mud homes with absolutely no amenities; no water, no power, no heat, no sewer system and most humiliating, no private toilets. Imagine the feelings of a woman or a young girl who has to come out in the public clutching a can of water on her way to call of nature. I leave this to your imagination. 

I meet Bibi Fatemah (yes, her real name), a yateema, around eight, about to begin her trek down the mountain, accompanied by her two siblings. Bibi Fatemah does not remember her father (or his name); the Taliban murdered him when she was two perhaps; she is unsure. Her mother dies soon afterwards, heartbroken or starved from little or no food to feed her three children. The children move from Bamiyan to Kabul after the death of mother and live with a distant aunt, another widow, who has five children of her own, so their work is cut out for them; it is the survival of the fittest. Bibi Fatemah and her siblings make this trek three times a day; I can see she is already past mature for a child her age. Her cheeks are redder than any red I have seen on a cheek and one side of her face looks infected from cuts due to the biting cold winds. Winds that make my standing here, trying to scribble whatever Mohammed is translating, very painful indeed.

Bibi Fatemah laughs heartily when I ask if she goes to school; her sisters join her and giggle at the idea; they make me feel dumb.  I ask her what she wants most in life.  ‘Running water’, all three orphans respond immediately.  ‘And toilets’ chips in one sister shyly. And what would Bibi Fatemah want to be when she grew up, I ask? She shuffles her feet, then frowns and looks confused. I notice Bibi Zainab’s (yes, actual name) bare toes sticking out of cheap plastic sandals, now chipped and torn; my heart breaks in horror. I ask Mohammed to ask them what they would want to be as a grown up if they went to school.  After some contemplation, Bibi Fatemah’s brows clear; she has an answer. An engineer, of course, she says; then she will make sure all her neighborhood will get piped water from below and they will not have to trek down the mountain three times a day.

I want to do anything this trio desire today. I want to fed them, cloth them, pay for their schooling, anything; I am violently moved by their plight. I beg them to ask; their wish is my command. There is consultation amongst them for a while. Bibi Sakeena (yes, her real name), the youngest with the reddest cheeks, wants candy but the other two hush her to silence. Water, they finally decide, piped water to where they live. Here, on top of the bone-chilling mountain, I make a solemn pledge to these beautiful children of Allah. I promise them if Allah gives me life and resources, I will come back and make that wish possible.

CAI is attempting to get piped water to the likes of these orphans; it will cost us approximately US $50,000 for the generators, pipes and tanks that will supply water to 75,000 people. There is plenty of potable water in and around Kabul; the problem is distribution. We are already working with engineers to make this feat feasible and I need your help.  Please consider helping these people, your own, who have been traumatized enough and fled to the outskirts of Kabul to escape their tormentors. I understand we cannot help the entire million plus people of Daste Barchi, but we certainly can help the 75,000 odd at Chandaawal. We will also try and get them some toilets if we can raise enough funds so that our women and girls can get some privacy when nature calls.

Please consider lending a hand; if this message can get to about 500 houses and each contributes only $100, we will be there insha’Allah.  I am off to Kargil, India and Kabul / Herat, Afghanistan beginning July 05 insha’Allah, and would ideally like to get this project off the ground then.  Please distribute this message to many, many who may not receive it and perhaps can be of assistance.

Afghan women are commonly addressed with a prefix of Bibi, so adding Bibi to Fatemah, Zainab and Sakeena is very usual. Alternatively, you can address women simply as Hamsheera, meaning Sister.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Afghanistan, My Turn – Abbas Abdulhussein

Abbas Abdulhussein is a very busy man indeed! It takes over six weeks for him to pen this Blog. I wish he does not praise me so much, for all praise belongs to Allah (S). Nevertheless, as promised, I give you a perspective not mine. Here it is then, in Abbas’s words. Enjoy.

It all starts at the local mosque in Sanford, FL, like all other troubles. Yusufali is telling me about his trips to Afghanistan, all the work Comfort Aid International (CAI) does and what a life changing experience visiting Afghanistan is.  The next thing I know, I am telling him I’d love to go. 

Weeks go by, I have forgotten about our talk when Yusufali calls and says he has room on his next trip to Afghanistan, coming up in two weeks.  Now, once you’ve told someone how much you love to do something and they hand that something to you on a silver platter, you can’t really say no; so I say yes.

Why the hell are you going to Afghanistan is the question I start being asked.  To be quite honest, I really don’t have a very good answer; except I know I want to go.  Pretty soon everyone is trying to talk me out of it. You are a father of four kids! What are you doing going to a war zone? Or some derivation is what I hear constantly.  The only supportive person of this adventure is my wife, which now makes me wonder if she is trying to get rid of me. In the midst of my preparations, worried friends and family trying to change my mind, I keep remembering Yusufali's words It’s a life-changing trip; my resolve is firmed, I am going to Afghanistan. 

A week before the trip, the Muslim world learns of a movie The innocence of Muslims on YouTube and some countries begin to ignite in protests and violence. The American ambassador to Libya is killed; American embassies are attacked and invaded in the Middle East. It is all very scary stuff; my resolve begins to waiver.   I call Yusufali and ask if he is canceling or deferring the trip due to the security situation.  There’s no problem insha’Allah he replies. With confidence reinstalled in me by those words, I board a flight for Dubai. 

We arrive in Dubai and go our separate ways promising to meet up the next morning at Afghan consulate. Bright and early, we appear at the consulate for our visas; all forms and pictures ready. Only to be told the forms downloaded from Afghan consulate website are old and unacceptable; this is not a good start.  We fill new ones and return.

I approach the desk with my new form and smile at the clerk; it is not reciprocated. 
What company, where is company paper?
No company, I answer, I am going for a marriage. I say this with my best charm.
Marriage, whose marriage?
My mind goes blank. I stand there for what seems like eternity, trying to recall.
W...W...Wasi, I say.
He looks at me suspiciously Wasi who?
I regain my wits and hand him a copy of Wasi’s non-existing brother’s non-existing wedding invitation. It’s not a real lie actually; there is a mass marriage of 67 couples that CAI is sponsoring... He looks at the invitation and then at me a couple of times, then nods with resignation. 

Later that day, Yusufali casually mentions he is monitoring the worsening riot situation in Kabul, liaising with Wasi (CAI representative in Afghanistan). What security situation? Just a day ago, in Orlando, there were no problems insha’Allah! Little did I realize this is just starters; Yusufali trying to scare the crap out of me, perhaps. Over dinner he recounts how on one trip, his vehicle almost skid and fell into a ravine, with Wasi and him about to jump through the window. He asks if I have packed Imodium, one of them had been sick last time. He then adds bathrooms are so filthy; you hold your breath or throw up. That there is no power; if you slip, you might end up in the gaping hole filled with piles of s___! Finally, he tells of a CAI MD stopped and searched by the Talibaan. They find a mohr tablet in his possessions; this confirms him a Shia. The MD is given marching orders to climb a nearby hill, a sure sign of impending bullets from behind. While the MD recites the Shahaada and calls on Imam Mahdi (A) for help, a passing Afghan army jeep on patrol engages the Talibaan and a firefight ensues; one Taalib is killed, the rest escape, the MD hides and is in acute shock, unable to properly converse for a week afterwards. I began to wonder if Yusufali’s life changing trip has more than one meaning. After each of these bombshells, he smiles and says but we’ll be fine. Where were these tales in Orlando, when I could still change my mind?

As we board the aircraft for Kabul, I am extremely nervous, so I do what I always do when I’m tense; I take a nap. I awake looking out of the window to an alien landscape, undulating hills of brown spread out below as far as the eye could see; we have begun our descent into Kabul

I almost forget the country is at war, driven through people packed, commerce driven busy Kabul streets; it feels like Mumbai or Delhi.  If not for some unkempt, suicide or bombed hit hotel or some other building, I can easily become complacent about the city. I wonder how people attempt to live a normal life with the terror of a bomb explosion that can explode anywhere.  Bombs that target not only military sites, but hotels, schools, marketplaces full of men, women and children. Late Ahmad Massoud Shah’s portraits are everywhere, like a large middle finger extended toward the Talibaan, to let them know, perhaps, Afghan people cannot be cowed.

Like most homes in Kabul, Wasi’s is walled and has an inner courtyard with a garden that is now full of beautiful roses in bloom. We are treated to a large breakfast of fresh and wonderful bread, cheeses, jam, sweet cream and tea. If there is one thing Afghans do better than anybody, it is to bake bread; they are masters, there is nothing better tasting than fresh baked Afghan bread.  Bashir (Wasi’s partner) quips There are two things you find everywhere in Afghanistan, bread and dust.  Not so crazy about the dust, but the bread is to die for. Afghan people are extremely hospitable to invited guests (if you go uninvited, its a different matter; ask the Soviets!) From this first meal to every home we then visit, Kabul to tiny villages, we are overfed; by the end of the nine-day trip I have gained 4 pounds. 

We go to see CAI’s first project, fresh water in Chandaawal, Kabul. 

Kabul sits at the bottom of a bowl surrounded by mountains; these are dotted with homes.  Most countries in the West have homes on hills for the rich, from where they can look down upon a dirty or decaying city; it’s reversed in Kabul, where the most poor, especially internally displaced refugees live. Yusufali relates his first visit here, in winter; children scrambling down the mountain for water, then lugging the plastic jerrycans up home in bitter snow, ice and wind.  Moved by their plight, he asks if he could feed or clothe them, but they ask for easier water access; the project was born. It is an engineering marvel. At the base of the mountain is a station with an immense pump and generator that propels water up to tanks at different levels. Each level then has a hand pump that easily provides unlimited fresh potable water. As we ascend, my leg muscles burn; I stop frequently, bent over, hands on knees, cannot imagine how these children did this, carrying gallons of water in the dead of winter; I finally make it to the top where CAI has also constructed a mosque and Gusul Khana. 

Descending, carefully even, is precarious; I frequently slip and trip in the loose dirt and stones. To my embarrassment, troops of children no older that ten recklessly breeze by in very sure footing. I stare at them in wonder; they look back, say Sallam, whiz past. When I safely reach bottom, I am exhausted, my knees wobble; Yusufali has a big smile on his face; is the guy an Energizer bunny? We call it an early day and return home, to a huge meal.  We have an early flight and Kabul airport security is a long, tedious process; we must get there early.

No kidding!  We go through at least six security checks; out of our car, walk to be frisked, to car, out for second frisk, to a security room, x-ray luggage, out again, another pat down, load a bus, drive to terminal, a frisk, another x-ray for luggage, a thorough body check and x-ray for hand luggage. I don't think I will complain about Orlando Airport anymore. Kam Air, a local Afghan carrier, flies us to Mazaar where we lug our luggage perhaps a mile to a waiting van. A four-hour drive takes us to a small village for the opening of a school by CAI.

Driving in rural Afghanistan is a challenge, not for the fainthearted. They are bumpy, dirt roads filled with fine dust and rocks, meant for animals and carts, not motor vehicles.  The roads snake up mountain sides with jaw-dropping sheer edges, or wind down valleys ending on bridges that support donkeys, not cars.  Whenever we run out of dirt roads, we take to riverbeds. There is no better way to see local life than driving down a river, water splashing the sides of our car.  I see children taking baths, farmers, women washing clothes, run into group of bee-keepers tending their apiaries in protective suits.  They look like astronauts on some distant planet.

Once our Toyota Hiace is climbing a mountain and I am looking out at the drop-off, thinking how we would maneuver an oncoming bend when the driver comes to a stop. l look ahead, there is another car approaching.  Oh...its a two-way road, I remark. Fortunately our driver, who we nickname Rambo because of his speeding on these passes, manages to ‘squeeze’ by. Those mountain passes are the scariest parts of the trip, but also the most exhilarating; and the six-seat chartered flights, of course.

We make it to the village in one piece; it seems the whole community has come for the event.  As we pull up to the new school, I see hundreds of children sitting outside; they make a beautiful picture. We have the opening ceremony, one village elder after another speaks incessantly and it looks like the ceremony will go on for hours; thankfully Yusufali points out it is salaat time and it abruptly ends. 

After salaat and lunch we are taken to see the current school. There are many things about this trip I may forget, but never this ‘school’; it is a dank dark hole in the wall.  The children sit on dirt floors and old cracked blackboards are plastered to the mud walls; one room had a collapsed wall. OMA!

Next few days we visit schools, clinics, mosques and orphanages across Afghanistan; every place is the same. But with beautiful, hospitable people surviving a harsh land that has not seen peace in over thirty years. Everywhere I look, there is so much need.  Yet each place has a small ray of hope. CAI sponsored clinics where pregnant women now go have babies safely, children immunized and illness treated; these clinics draw people from miles around. Many have never seen a doctor, ever, travelling for hours on donkeys and foot. I see burdens eased, comfort given, children educated, water-wells dug and sick bodies healed everywhere we go.

In the midst of all this pain and misery, we are busy building mosques and centers costing millions of dollars... The admonishment from Surah Maun in the holy Quraan comes to mind. 

Have you seen the one who denies the Judgment
It is the one who repulses the orphan
And urges not the feeding of the poor
So woe to those praying ones
Who are heedless of their prayer
Who do good deed only to be seen
And refuse to supply simple assistance

The lesson I learn in Afghanistan is that Maun stands for simple assistance or small sacrifices make the difference between life and death for many people in our world. A good warm twenty-dollar blanket makes the difference between life and death for a family in winter.  Having a clinic with antibiotics nearby means the difference between seeing a child die of fever or him playing with friends, a doctor who can reset a broken arm on a child means growing up strong and healthy or live a life mired in disability. Blankets, heat, water, medical care...everything we take for granted is survival to those without. We have the ability to make these things happen for these hapless Afghans. Ability and an obligation, according to our glorious Quran.

There are many good habits to take away from Yusufali, my travelling companion; Emerson once wrote Every man I meet is in some way my superior. I learn the importance of giving priority to salaat; stopping everything and praying first. There are times we drive early mornings and it is Fajr; he insists we stop at a house or on the side of the road and pray. I learn the importance of working with determination; do things with passion and love. We spend two hours at a bazaar in Kabul looking for the right blanket at the right price. We return to same vendors numerous times, Yusufali holding, feeling, asking, rejecting, concerned about quality, whether it will hold up to the approaching wicked winter. Too thin, it will freeze the children and the old, lets look at something else, he says.

He reminds me of a Khalil Gibrans quote:

And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.

Finally, the most important lesson is to never give up hope in our ability to create a better world and help others, no matter where they are. In the ocean of darkness, even, be a beacon of light.

He who amongst you sees something abominable should modify it with the help of his hand (activism, organization, movement); and if he has not strength enough to do it, then he should do it with his tongue (by speaking out against it), and if he has not strength enough to do it, (even) then he should (abhor it) from his heart (by always disliking what is evil or harmful), and that is the least of faith - Prophet Muhammad (S).

Abbas Abdulhussein
Lake Mary, FL