“When I was growing up, education was valued and viewed as the great equalizer. If you went to school and achieved good grades, you’d have the chance to enter college, maybe study abroad, be part of the middle class, and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.” Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan, Mohammad Qayoumi, President of California State University
Today, I am staring out of the window at the sheer size of the landscape around me. As we drive we see the painted stones of another organisation clearing mines and other remnants of the fighting that has gone on here. Red means don’t go here, white means this point was cleared of an explosive risk.
The mountains rise up straight out of the valley floor, and are surprisingly green. It feels like the Alps. Small white and yellow flowers poke through the grasses.
Further towards the earthquake areas, the ground alternates from a rosy hue to bright red as what we would call poppies spread out before me. This is not an area of cultivated poppies. These are smaller flowers.
As we near the area affected, some areas of land slouch downwards towards the valley floor. The flowers have recovered and are standing upright again. People haven’t recovered quite as quickly.
Thousands of families lost their homes – these were made of mud brick. The strength of the earthquake caused them, in part or in full, to crumble away down the mountain sides on which they were perched. We are to provide tents and blankets to the worst affected.
We meet a family in the epicentre of the earthquake who lost their home completely. They have been living with two other families in a single tent. That’s almost 20 people in one tent. They say when it rained heavily last week, they just tried to put their belongings and children inside to keep them sheltered.
New tents and the families can stay in one each. It’s a start and means everyone can sleep sheltered at night. The blankets are used to sleep over and under. Inside the tent is spotlessly tidy.
I am invited in for tea. I’d like to think I’d be as kind if this were me in their situation. Could I be or would I hold onto everything I had, unsure of when it could be replaced or added to?
Further up we visit areas that we will distribute to tomorrow. We meet with the village elders. They show us the damaged and destroyed homes. The houses are top heavy – mud brick walls with roofs made of timber and more mud.
The earthquake and continuing aftershocks causes the roofs to fall in and destroy the walls. Flowers grow on the roofs. When you look across the village the homes blend with flowers, making them look like part of the mountainside.
At one house we visit, the father of the family introduces me to his wife and one of his children. They were both trapped for an hour under the rubble of their home. He dug them out.
He lifts up his little boy to show me that he is no longer walking. His legs go out from under him whenever his father tries. He has gone back to crawling and cannot bear to be away from his mother.
The crops are growing. We just have to hope it doesn’t rain now, they tell me, or they’ll die. You can hardly move without bumping into a baby donkey here. “It’s good for donkeys right now” I am told again and again.
The pasture’s good. In times of good pasture the price of donkeys goes up as people can sell them to others.
Donkeys are the main source of transport here and are used for everything. Beautifully padded saddles criss-cross up and down the mountains.
If there is drought, the price of donkeys will drop as it’s difficult to keep them – so the donkey price is a good way of seeing how well things are going for the communities. Right now it’s good – that is, except for the earthquake.
People are rebuilding their homes but it will take them, and their neighbours, one month to rebuild one home. And the short summer is a time when all the families prepare for winter.
They cannot afford as a community to stop and rebuild for one month, or the winter will be upon them. They will carry on though.
The choices are exceptionally hard up here. A village further down the mountain and a family whose home somehow remained intact invite us in.
Over more tea, flatbread and a meal of yoghurt I’m amazed again by the people here. How many children do you have I ask? Six; 4 boys and 2 girls, I am told, but several are currently at school. Education is extremely important to people here. Mohammad Qayoumi would be very proud.
After meeting with village leaders and families to tell them about the distribution, we head back. I see two of the tents distributed last week in full use as a school in one village.
Looking inside at the rows of children, the tent is once again spotless.
“Afghanistan once had Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. In the 1950s and ’60s, such programs were very similar to their counterparts in the United States, with students in elementary and middle schools learning about nature trails, camping, and public safety. But scouting troops disappeared entirely after the Soviet invasions in the late 1970s” – Mohammed Qayoumi.
We head back through the alpine fields.
We’ve been helping children in Afghanistan – the second most dangerous place in the world for a child to grow up, or for a woman to give birth – since 1976.
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