One morning towards the end of last year, Mir Ahmad Shah, an ICRC water engineer, took three female colleagues to visit a project on which he was working, in Qoliobchakan on the heights above Kabul. The area is home to around 15,000 people displaced by the 30-year conflict in Afghanistan; many of them are from the Panshir valley.
The air was fresh, and the first snow of winter could be seen on the mountains encircling Kabul. People came out of their houses to speak with the visitors, and the morning came alive with stories that went back three decades - about the challenges women faced then and now, and about water which no one can live without.
Qoliobchakan lies on a steep gradient a few kilometres from the centre of Kabul. The simple houses, which seem anchored to the rock face, are reached by precipitous, carefully trodden paths. For many years, the community used to fetch its water from a hand pump located at the base of the hill, near a cemetery. Carrying loaded buckets and jerrycans back up the slope was arduous work, and done mostly by women. “We faced so many problems,” recalled 31-year-old Malika, a mother of eight who was born in Qoliobchakan and was a child at the time.
In 2003, the Spanish Red Cross and the ICRC, working together, made it possible for families to collect water closer to their homes. First, they laid a pipeline to a borehole on a neighbouring mountain; then they erected a water tank at the top of Qoliobchakan. A small pumping station delivered water at fixed times each day to tap stands placed close to people's homes. “You have no idea what a difference it made,” Malika said. “Our problems were solved.”
A guard was recruited to turn the pump on and off. He was paid by the Kabul Water Authority, a partner in the project from the start.
Years passed, and more families arrived in Qoliobchakan, fleeing insecurity and unrest in various parts of Afghanistan. They built houses that were as precariously perched amongst the rocks as the ones already there, although higher up. It did not take long for the hill to become the warren of ramshackle homes that it is today. But the new arrivals had to trudge down the hill to reach the tap stands and then lug their jerrycans back up. Ice and snow made the journey a nightmare in winter.
So, in 2011, the ICRC laid more pipes and erected more tap stands closer to the top of Qoliobchakan. They also arranged for families who wanted them, to have water connections inside their compounds for a small fee. It was the new pipes that Mir Ahmad Shah wanted to show his colleagues.
On that bright, cold morning, a group of women invited the visitors for tea in the water guardian's house near the pumping station. The young man in charge of the pump often delegated the task to his thirteen-year-old sister, Mursal, the visitors’ host that morning. When asked if it was not rather daunting to be in charge of the water for the whole community, she replied shyly, “Everyone knows me, so they accept what I do.”
Malika, the young mother who had told the visitors how people had to toil to collect water when she was a child, was also there. She sat next to Mursal on a mattress strewn with cushions. Purple curtains and walls painted lilac gave the room a soft, mauve glow that clashed with the red Afghan carpet. Tea and sweets were handed around and the conversation drifted away from water to other day-to-day matters.
“I was supposed to receive a certificate this morning,” Malika remarked, “but I wanted to be with you. So I will go and collect it this afternoon.”
“What kind of certificate?” the visitors enquired.
“A certificate to prove that I can disarm a suicide bomber,” came the startling reply. Malika, it turned out, was a policewoman.
Her words jolted everyone back to the here and now. Sitting there drinking green tea on the cushion-covered mattresses, it had been easy to forget that Afghanistan has been embroiled in wars for the past 30 years. And that there are problems far greater than rationed water and back-breaking labour to contend with every day.
At that moment, Hamida, a stout, middle-aged, smiling woman wearing a loose black-and-white costume and a dark grey scarf, walked in. She sat down heavily on the cushions and accepted a cup of tea.
The conversation veered back again to life in Qoliobchakan. “My family is from the Panshir,” Hamida said. “But we have been here for a very long time. I can endorse everything that Mrs Malika says about water problems in the past.”
Perhaps considering she had earned her place in the group with that remark, Hamida then turned to more personal matters. “I want to start a development NGO,” she said, pulling a sheaf of documents and testimonials out of a large envelope. “ And I am looking for funding. Can the ICRC help?”
The visitors had to explain that the ICRC, not being a donor agency, could not help, alas.
“Ah yes, now I remember,” Hamida said, smiling thoughtfully. “Didn’t the Red Cross give help to poor women and widows at one time?” Rummaging in the envelope again, she brought out what looked like a food coupon.
“Yes, indeed. That was part of the ICRC’s work during the 1990s.”
Mir Ahmad Shah had been waiting patiently outside. So, the little group then set off up the steep, well-worn paths to inspect the new pipework that stretched almost to the top of the mountain. Part of the way led over outcrops of rock, making it a tough climb. Schoolchildren going home from their lessons raced ahead of the visitors, skipping nimbly over the boulders.
The upper section of the pipeline lay close to the topmost houses. A row of yellow jerrycans stood near a tap stand, waiting for the water to be turned on. The view was spectacular. Kabul lay spread out below. The white mountains shimmered.
When the group stopped to rest, Mir Ahmad Shah explained what had been achieved, “The work wasn’t complicated or difficult. We provided the pipes and fittings and the community did the work. Like that, the project is really theirs.”