December 2006 Report

Amongst the Hazara Orphans – My five days of despair in Afghanistan.

Part One

I undergo surgery in Mumbai and get confirmation from pathology that the tumor removed is not malignant; I am ready for Afghanistan. I had been requested to go to Afghanistan by Aga Mussawi  in London. He had advised that the situation, especially the orphans of Herat was dismal, and requested me to visit; he would set up the local arrangements. I in turn resolve to go, mostly dependent on the outcome of my surgery to remove a growing tumor which, according to US doctors, looks suspicious considering past history of cancer in my three marhoom siblings. To save money and conform to my comfort level, I decide to have the surgery in India; which eventually cost me 10% of US levels and the tumor, alhamd’Allah, turn out to be benign.

The easiest way to Herat is via Mashhad, a maximum four hour drive, even in adverse whether conditions; I am happy and so I wait. A response comes in ten days, the visa request has been denied. Why, my eyes ask, as I am speechless. A shrug of shoulders, the typical dismissive answer of Asia; Tehran denied it; the Counsel General cannot do anything about it. Period. What about the $100 in application fees I paid? Non refundable. Period.

I am heartbroken. The reports I have heard about the orphans of Herat make it imperative that I go. I decide to go via Kabul, a dangerous proposition perhaps, but a doable one nevertheless. The Counsel General of Afghanistan in Mumbai is elated to receive me and accords me a warm welcome, happy that I am to visit his country for the purpose stated. He chats with me for thirty minutes, serves me Afghan tea and grants me a visa.

After much effort, I am told there is only one IA flight a week from New Delhi to Kabul and it is booked solid for four weeks. The typical answer from several travel agents I ask for a seat on any available flight is “why do you want to go”? Hmmm, I think, maybe this is not my calling. Things are not going my way, perhaps I should defer the trip? I call Aga Mussawi in London and as has been my past experience with his wisdom and foresight, he has a solution. Try, he advises, try, try, try and you will make it. You think acquiring the absolute pleasure of Allah is so easy? Insha’Allah, you will be successful. He is right; I get a flight to Kabul from Dubai where I was to be in a few days anyway.

“Be careful” is the refrain I hear from everybody who come to know I am to visit Afghanistan, from my relatives to the American working for NATO seated next to me. The view from my three hour late KAM Air over Kabul is breathtaking; row over rows of mountainous snow. Kabul airport is tiny, without heat and like a fortress. I am immediately aware of the overwhelming military presence everywhere, on the ground and in the air. Two Chinook choppers with manned machine guns at the ready continuously whoosh the air, circling the parameters of the airport and armored vehicles do likewise from the ground. Add in the American and NATO fighter jets all over the area and you have a menacing aura all around you.

Immigration and custom formalities are non events and I find myself outside the dismal terminal alone. Except for the sandbagged machine guns as far as the eyes can see, there is no one around and I become instantly wary. The person who was to meet me is not there. The guard manning the entrance to the terminal will not allow me back inside the terminal so I can make a call and the outside of the airport is now an eerie desolated place.

Finally, after about a half hour of trying to ward off the freezing wind, I see a thin individual approach me timidly and ask if I am who I am. Relieved, I am introduced to Mohammed Nawabbi, my haltingly English speaking guide who will be with me for the next five days. He was prevented from approaching the terminal by soldiers until he bribed one with pistachios earlier purchased. Mohammed is the caretaker of the orphanage and the Quaraan and Aqayyed teacher there. The airport at Herat is shut down due to heavy snow, he tells me; we stay in Kabul. For how long, I ask; the shrug of shoulders and a smile is answer enough.

Our hotel the next two nights in Kabul is the Insaaf Hotel in City Center but I find no justice here. It is a simple 14 room typical apartment style hotel. There is no heat so we are provided a portable, leaking, bad gas smelling heater that makes both our eyes sting. The bathroom is so cold, I abandon taking a bath the next day; trips in there are very short. The sink has hot water during the day but the cold water tap does not work so I scald myself constantly. There is no power between 7AM and 7PM.

Kabul is an inhospitable city; very cold, snowy winters and hot windy summers. Winter brings in slush that makes commuting hazardous and walking around the city is a task in itself but we go walking nevertheless, taking in the local bazaars and visit the US embassy. It is a virtual stronghold and I doubt if an ant can get through. We are thoroughly body checked by a burly Marine and then have to walk about a mile; no vehicles allowed. It is a Saturday, the registration counter is closed but an armed Marine lets me complete a form and promises to hand it over the next day. He also tells me to try and not get kidnapped; I do not stop to find out if he is kidding or serious.

We commute by cab and almost every driver or trader asks Mohammed who I am; I stand out like a sore thumb with my jeans and sneakers. American, Mohammed replies and I see an immediate tensing of facial features and a hostile glare towards my direction. But a Muslim, adds Mohammed quickly and the look instantly softens. Every other person is armed; an automatic carelessly swung over a shoulder or in the nook of an arm and this makes me constantly tense. The food fare is mostly traditionally Iranian but there are several upscale restaurants catering for Westerners, mostly security firms and NATO personnel.

The airport at Herat is still closed and I am now sure my mission is going to fail, that I will return without having been there. Afghans seem to relish in the discomfort and inconvenience of foreigners. The girls at the ticketing counter at both KAM Air and Air Ariyana tell us we cannot fly and look at me closely as if to see how I would react and smile broadly at my disappointment. But then, it might just be my imagination. Finally, we get a call to advise that the fog in Herat has finally lifted and there is a possibility of a flight later on the day; I am elated. We take a cab to the airport and are confined to a tiny holding room with about 200 fellow passengers to be.

The waiting room has no heat and the favorite pastime of Afghans in there is smoking and spitting. It does not matter that we are inside an airport or there are misspelled signs in English everywhere warning people not to smoke. We wait and wait and wait some more. No one knows what is going on, there is nobody to ask, and we do not have permission to go out and breathe cleaner air. Finally, after about four hours, an aircraft arrives and we are told to board. The doors are thrown open everybody runs to the waiting aircraft, including me. The aircraft, an aging Boeing 727 donated by the Indian government, vibrates so violently at take off, I am sure we are doomed and keep my eyes tightly shut almost throughout the 70 minute flight. I was later informed that IATA has cancelled safety certification for Air Ariyana.

Part Two

Herat is a much calmer city and to a large extent relaxing; no visible guns and much lesser polluting traffic. It is much flatter than Kabul and the atmosphere, food, clothing and architecture resembles my recollection of Mashhad in Iran from about ten years ago. We go immediately to Ariyana Airlines to confirm our flight back to Kabul the next day as I cannot miss my flight to Dubai the day after. Maybe, insha’Allah, the guy informs us. You call, okay? If air good, if plane yes, we fly, you come to airport, okay? Do I have a choice?

We then head to the orphanage and this is where my despair and sorrow set in. CAI is involved in the construction of two orphanages and supports two more in India. These are palaces compared what I witness in Herat. I am so overwhelmed by emotion; I constantly break down and weep at what I see. It is a two storey run down building with four rooms and two bathrooms; there is no heat. It houses eighty orphans from seven to sixteen (maximum age allowed) and two caretakers and a cook; the orphans clean the place. It is three months winter break so the children are at the orphanage getting tuition in math and science.

Orphans after magreeb salaat
Orphans washing dishes in the snow

It is time for Zohr so a meeting is hastily arranged for me to meet the boys after salaat. The prayer / sleeping hall is dreary place with the kitchen at one end and a bathroom at the other. Frayed, half torn, thin blankets line up one wall and this is what the boys sleep on. It is warm today – comparatively; two degrees Celsius. It sometimes gets to be about minus ten and there is no heating. The biggest problem for the caretakers is the lack of bathroom facilities. New orphans cannot control their bladder at times and accidents are all too frequent. I am writing this report in a tiny house in London where I am attending the wedding of my niece. We are twelve of us and must share a single bathroom; it is wretched but can appreciate the misery of two bathrooms that serve eighty four people, mostly kids.

Mattresses for the 80 orphans and 3 caretakers

The boys look at me blankly; there is not a single boy that smile. I make eye contact and give encouraging smiles but am met with blank stares. Mohammed answers my many questions and my agitation increases with every reply at the unfairness of it all. The orphans eat rice and beans almost every day for lunch and dinner, maybe soup sometimes. Breakfast is tandoor baked naan and black tea, maybe cookies on Friday.

What about eggs? I ask. Nooooooo, too expensive Agha, Mohammed replies.
Milk? Nooooooo, too expensive Agha.
Meat? Once a week, if there are funds available.
Chicken? Occasionally, is there are funds available.
Fish? I ask. Fish? Mohammed replies back as a question, astonishment and shock evident on his face. Nooooooo Agha, no fish. Too, too much expensive.
How about fruit? Ah, Mohammed smiles, the kids like fruit too much. Apples and oranges, so yes, fruit on special days like Eid.
Bananas? Nooooooo, too expensive, Agha.

Incredibly, there are orphans in Herat aged sixteen that have never had a banana in their entire life because they cannot afford it. Here are orphans that have not had a single drop of milk after their mother stopped breastfeeding. I shake hands with all the orphans, trying to evoke a response but I get a little more than a forced smile. Hyder has early signs of hunchback and there is nothing that can be done for him. Ali however, is another matter. He fell into a tandoor when he was two and scorched his right hand shut and part of his scalp is bald. His face is so sad and miserable that I immediately hug him close and choke up. Insha’Allah, we will get his hand operated and the hair restored in Iran perhaps; it might not be too expensive. If anyone of you is interested in helping this child, please step forward. We estimate his total treatment to run around US $2,300.00.

Unsmiling faces at my first attempt
Hyder on the right and injured Ali on the left

Agha Jibraeeli, a Mojaahid gunned down survivor from the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan runs the orphanage with whatever he can raise. I sit around him, Mohammed and 3 volunteer teachers sipping black tea sweetened by placing a piece of candy in my mouth. What Jibraeeli relates to me about his fighting career chills me but it is what the Taliban did to the minority muslims in Afghanistan that make all of us weep. I weep, Jebraeeli weeps, Mohammed and the teachers weep. There are some atrocities that I just cannot write about here in the interest of decency but the story needs to be told nevertheless. I will relate you the following two:
1. To brand a woman, the Taliban would chop off the left breast while the woman was fully conscience. This, according to their logic, would differentiate a her from others.
2. To brand a  man and make sure he did not procreate, the genitals would be chopped off.

Orphanage caretakers
Caretakers and the kids finally smiling when we brought in the bananas for fateha
Volunteer teachers during winter break

These are not hearsay; Jibraeeli has personally witnessed these atrocities and there are victims who still live in Afghanistan.

Enough said. With your help and support, CAI will, insha’Allah, build an orphanage in Herat, based on the design of the one in Kargil. I am confident that you will agree we have to get these kids some crucial life saving basics; warmth and nutritious food. Here is my plan:
1. To provide one glass of milk for eighty boys costs US $14 and I want to be able to provide milk at least twice a week; so about $1,500 a year. I am sure this is not too much to ask and insha’Allah we’ll do this.
2. The construction costs of the orphanage will be around US $77,000; I have already received pledges for $10,000 which leaves a balance of $66,000 to be raised. All the funds will be channeled through the office in London but accountability will lie with CAI. I will, insha’Allah, make two trips a year for audits and follow through.

A poor mans home
Land donated for the new orphanage

I am counting on you to please help these kids out; it is the least we can do. 2006 has ended and I am sure you will be accounting for Khums dues; I beg you to please keep this project in mind and give generously for the pleasure of Allah (swt). For nothing else matters.

Jazaak’Allah.

Yusuf Yusufali