Out Of My Comfort Zone

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Afghanistan can be a dangerous place – even for Afghan national staff. Wahidullah Amani was nervous when he visited schools in a particularly insecure part of the country, but he was inspired by the courage of the schoolgirls he met.

I was recently visiting Sholgarah District in northern Balkh province, to write a story about people who had lost their homes due to flooding, and were receiving WFP food assistance. During the course of my visit, I learned that WFP was about to start distributing school meals to students in Char Dara District in Kunduz province. That might not sound particularly exciting, but Char Dara is not only highly food insecure – it’s also one of the more volatile areas in terms of security. With the curiosity typical of an ex-journalist, I decided I would try to visit the school.

Although the spirit was willing, the journey from Mazar-e-Sharif to Char Dara almost became mission impossible. It’s hard to get security clearance for road missions at the best of times, and although it’s just a five-hour drive, the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) was hesitant to allow travel to what is classified as a high-risk area. It didn’t help that my own colleagues couldn’t resist teasing us about our planned mission, in good cheer of course, saying things like: “Wow, you’re going to Char Dara? You brave people. Don’t worry, it will be okay.” I must admit their words did inject some doubts in my mind.

Fortunately, we were able to obtain the necessary clearances and push ahead with the trip amid the uncertainties. Together with Zabihullah Anasry, a colleague from the area office, I left Mazar-e-Sharif on a crisp early morning. The road was scenic – mountains, hills and fields lined our view. It was breathtaking. What greeted us when we entered Baghlan province was a stark contrast. Destroyed roads, collapsed bridges and burned fuel tankers littered the roadside as we drove to Kunduz.

Entering Kunduz was like looking at a mirror with two faces. Picturesque forests lined both sides of the main road. However, I knew I shouldn’t be deceived by their pristine beauty, as insurgents are known to use the forest as their fort, waiting quietly behind the trees before attacking military personnel or other groups passing by. Sure enough, shortly after we passed, a fuel tanker was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Close call, I thought to myself.

We stayed overnight in Kunduz, but the most dangerous part of our mission – visiting schools in Char Dara district – was to take place the following morning.

More than 27,000 children attend classes in 51 schools in the district, but boys outnumber girls almost two to one. WFP’s aims to encourage more girls to go to school by providing them not just with a daily snack, but also with some food to take home to their families.

We made our way to the district capital – also called Char Dara – in time to see two schools where WFP was distributing high-energy biscuits as a mid-morning snack, as well as vegetable oil as a monthly take-home ration for girls.

One of the girls I spoke to, 13-year-old Farzana, was so proud to be receiving food for her family, and was even ready to involve her mother as an advocate to get more girls into school. She told me: “I am going to show the parents the oil and ask them to let their daughters to go to school since they will be also giving oil and biscuits. I will ask my mom to help me with this.” Despite the long and risky journey, when I spoke to the girls about their situation, I was convinced that it was all worth it. I was so glad to see these young girls trooping to school right before my eyes.