A letter from Afghanistan

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Richard Dietrich, CORDs Construction Project Manager, Northern Afghanistan
Mazar-I-Sharif, December 2002

Rain is pouring down outside, temperatures are freezing and the grey clouds are hanging deep. Today there won't be any UN flights coming in. Our teams have reported heavy snowfall in the mountains so it is unclear if I will be able to go there tomorrow to check the condition of the roads. I do not need to see them again anyway to know that most of them are impassable by now. Today even the roads in the city are little more than pools of mud. At least the weather also seems to keep the hostile factions apart since no fighting has been reported lately.

This is how I expected Afghanistan to be when I arrived two months ago, and this is how large parts of the western media still draw the picture of this country; as a cold, unfriendly and dangerous place. How wrong I was, how misleading mass media can be. I have encountered a warmth and friendliness among the population that is rare in hectic Europe. But I have seen here poverty greater than anywhere else I have been before and I have heard stories of personal tragedy, which I rather not think of (for my own sanity). However, there is one thing in this country that you can feel wherever you go, one thing that two decades of bitter war could not destroy: There is hope, hope for a better future! ...

But from hope alone you cannot feed your children, you cannot rebuild your country.

One must not forget that only a year and a bit ago the Taliban regime fell. Since then the highly volatile peace is occasionally interrupted by some localized fighting between opposing factions battling for power.

From Food Distribution to Bridge Building

The ZOA/CORD Alliance has been active in northern Afghanistan since January 2002. During the first quarter of this year an emergency relief program was carried out in Sozma Qala district of Saripul province, which is about 130 kilometres southwest of Mazar-I-Sharif. This consisted of the distribution of food and non-food items, complementary feeding of children and women and the provision of basic health services. Since May 2002 the program is in its second phase. Components include the support of returnees, the provision of health services and the establishment of a system of community health workers. Returnees are supported in the areas of shelter construction, water supply and agriculture. Also part of the program is the construction of a new building for a health clinic in the village of Sozma Qala.

In 2003 we plan to expand our activities in the north and move more towards sustainable development if circumstances permit. Hence, we will put more emphasis on income generating activities, community development and cash-for-work programs. Latter will be done in form of an infrastructure rehabilitation program looking mostly at roads, waterway crossings (fords and bridges), the irrigation system, water storage facilities and wells. In addition, we plan to construct a school in Sozma Qala village, start a rug weaving project, a carpenter shop and tree nurseries.

Our activities in the health sector will also expand. There will be a third mobile clinic in the mountain village of Karez and we will train Traditional Birth Attendants. Naturally, all these activities require adequate resources, especially skilled staff and sufficient funding.

ZOA/CORD currently employs around 60 Afghanis in the north from all ethnical groups and with various backgrounds. Many of them have themselves only recently returned to Afghanistan still having their families abroad. Some haven't seen their siblings for many years or have lost a member of their family as the result of conflict. People, who work for the international community, mostly come from the middle or upper classes, have received proper education and often speak a foreign language. Many of them had a chance to study either in Afghanistan or Pakistan and are now doctors, engineers or agriculturists.

Emergency distributions

In the two weeks of surveying in Saripul district I had the chance to have a close look at the living conditions of villagers. Food security still is a main concern and malnutrition is common amongst children. Many people do not have appropriate winter clothing and children often do not have shoes. As a result of this ZOA/CORD goes back into emergency mode and will start another distribution of food, blankets, winter clothing and stoves.

Closing Remark

Three days have passed since I wrote the above lines. Since then, the weather has significantly improved and we were able to go to the field. In fact, today was a beautiful and relatively warm winter-day with the sun illuminating the snow-covered mountains. I sit with an Afghan colleague in our small field-office, drink tea and chat about our families (Afghans like to do that). A small stove is burning in the corner. 18 years ago he fled from the war to Pakistan and returned this August for the first time home, finding his country in complete destruction. His family stayed behind and he has not seen them for five months now. Tomorrow however, he will leave for Pakistan to visit them. If road conditions allow, he will be there in four or five days.