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.

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