When CAI Trustee, Sohail Abdullah, reaches out to me to accompany CAI on their semi-annual trip to Afghanistan, he conveniently does not mention a Blog I’ll have to write. Instead mentions Afghanistan’s stunning landscapes, flavorful cuisines, drop-dead beauties, and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel with CAI CEO, Ali Yusufali; my positive response is instantaneous. I cannot wait to be part of a journey into a country whose history and culture is uniquely based on the influence and dominance of several civilizations, yet whose present is mired in a brutal war, invasion, and exploitation. Amid the contrast and turmoil, CAI has established medical clinics, elementary schools, homes for the homeless and economic empowerment strategies. The beneficiaries of these projects include thousands of families who have been ethnically discriminated against over generations, internally displaced persons, widows, and orphans. I owe immense gratitude, therefore, to Sohail and Yusufali, for this wonderful and unique opportunity. This is truly an unforgettable and humbling experience for me, and hopefully, the glimpses I share will reflect this blessing.
There are noticeably fewer women on the flight to Kabul, and I am among a dozen men wearing jeans. Satisfied that my visa is not fake, the Afghan immigration officer stamps it and directs me to where I manage to locate my baggage. I follow the crowds right to where Sohail and Basheer Rezaee, one of CAI’s instrumental pillars in Afghanistan, are waiting. As Basheer paces his way through the bustling city of Kabul, Sohail provides corresponding narrations to the various sights and scenes including a bridge where hundreds of addicts gather for their daily fix of opium – a harsh reality of the layer of challenges the country faces.
Less than 24 hours after my arrival in Kabul, I am back at the airport accompanied by Yusufali, Sohail, Basheer, our gracious host Wasi, veteran CAI traveler Shaida, and Dr. Assef Hossaini. We make our way to the counter for PACTEC, which provides humanitarian agencies a means of transportation to remote locations in Afghanistan. The aircraft, a 7-passenger Kodiak, has strict weight limitations, so we only carry backpacks. As our IDs get checked, I am in for a surprise. I am asked, as a passenger, to step on the weighing scale at the airport! I find this quite amusing but understand the necessity. We are about 7 kgs (15 lbs) over the weight allowance; someone had definitely helped himself to an extra round of Kabuli Kabobs for dinner! Thankfully we’re cleared to board the plane and brace ourselves for the slightly claustrophobic, turbulent, yet scenic flight ahead.
We are headed to Daykundi, a central province where thousands of Hazara have settled into mountain villages, after fleeing from persecution and ethnic cleansing. We land on an unpaved dusty “airstrip” in Nili, the capital of Daykundi, where we are received by Sher Hussain. We will be spending the majority of our time next few days in Sher’s Toyota Hiace, and with complete confidence in his competent driving and unparalleled sense of direction. We also meet 5 armed military personnel who are escorting us throughout our travel in Daykundi. Another harsh reality sinks in – how security and safety are still fragile, and danger is always imminent.
Our itinerary to visit the villages of Kiti, Gazbeeri, Dayroos, and Uzmook means driving for hours through narrow mountain passes and extremely rocky terrain. The car jolts every second because of the crevices we are driving over, and it literally feels like we are kernels popping inside a bag of microwave popcorn. I am distracted from this by the landscape of rock formations and their awe-inspiring shapes and sizes.
Our daily expeditions begin at dawn as Sher effortlessly maneuvers his van through the merciless roller-coaster landscape. One morning we pass bushes with full-bloomed roses. A young girl is courageously plucking the roses and delicately dropping them into her bag. As she flags down Sher to stop the van, her eyes meet my curious ones. She takes a handful of fresh pink roses and gifts them to each of us. For a few minutes, all of us lose ourselves in the enchanting fragrance of these roses. As Sher drives on, we see dozens of young children, climbing the mountain paths, making their way to school. Some of the boy’s wave, but the girls shyly cover their faces. Every student, however, clasps a rose in their hands, taking a whiff every so often; the captivating scent inspiring them to smile and motivated to pursue their arduous hike to school.
With the exception of Gazbeeri, where a medical clinic is under construction, the other 3 villages have fully functional medical clinics. These CAI clinics are welcoming sights and one can imagine the impact it has on patients who trek to the clinic. Merely seeing the clinic would provide solace and reassurance of gaining treatment at the facility. At each clinic, I stride along with detail-oriented Yusufali and his team as they proceed to inspect the clinic and its perimeter to ensure it is upholding its quality and maintenance. This is followed by a meeting with the clinic staff to hear about the progress of the clinic and address any concerns. I believe CAI’s clinics are successful because they provide services which are “just right”. The clinics do not promise to serve more than they can deliver, and cater to the basic medical needs of the villages, some of them, like Dayroos for instance, with 6,000 families.
The “road” to Dayroos is the bumpiest of all and involves an interesting shortcut. In order to seek some relief from the motion sickness, we decide to drive across a river. Sher instructs us to shut our windows, and just like Moses floated in his basket along the Nile, Sher drives the van across the flowing river. Dayroos is now an hour closer, yet steeper into the mountain. As we turn a sharp uphill corner, everyone points out the rusty remains of a car that had slipped off the road and crashed. The car had been carrying 4 passengers including 2 pregnant women in severe pain, who were being taken to the nearest doctor (at that time), about 6 hours away. How had the women endured these roads, I wondered. How much pain were they tolerating just so that they could eventually deliver their babies. Alas, the crash claimed everyone’s lives including the unborn children. This horrific incident was pivotal in CAI’s determination to build a clinic for the villages in Dayroos.
Visiting Dayroos has a twofold purpose – to inspect the clinic and to partake in the opening ceremony of the newly built CAI school adjacent to the clinic. Both the clinic and the school are perched on top of the mountain, and provide the best views I have seen thus far. Students are lined up to welcome us and village elders guide us to the school entrance. As we walk into the classrooms that have only been used for 1 week, we are disappointed to see that the maintenance of the school property is almost nonexistent. Neither the rooms nor the furniture has been cleaned, and state of the floors and some of the walls are below par. The school is certainly not up to the quality of the other 19 schools CAI has built; a lot of work still needed to be done here. It is important to note that whereas CAI provides the infrastructure for building the school, it remains under the management of the provincial government and Ministry of Education.
Much as we all want to spend more time in Dayroos, we head to Uzmook, where another clinic is awaiting inspection. For this leg, I sit in the last row of the van with Dr. Assef. As we weave towards our river-crossing-shortcut, we pass the site of the car crash once again, and it is impossible to control the surge of emotions. During the drive, Dr. Assef relates about the time in 2012, when Sher and he were delivering medicines to the clinics, and were captured by the Taliban along these very roads. They were taken to one of the Commanders who ordered their beheading. Dr. Assef and Sher pleaded for their lives, and after 9 gruesome hours of questioning, that particular Taliban post coincidentally came under attack. The Commander shifted his attention to the attack and released the two captives. Since then, neither Dr. Assef nor Sher have deterred from their dedication to continue to serve the needs of the CAI clinics. Such are the inspirational individuals I am having the opportunity to travel with.
Sher gives us our last ride to the Nili airstrip, where we are catching a PACTEC flight back to Kabul. We bid him and the military escorts doleful farewells. There is no weighing of passengers this time around, instead, I get to sit in the co-pilot seat, headphones and all!
A cab whisks us from Kabul airport to Wasi’s home where we freshen up and head to Sakina Girls Home (SGH) – CAI’s residence for orphaned girls – for a festive event to celebrate a religious holiday. The event is laden with remarkable presentations from the girls confidently portraying their public speaking talents. Sipping on a refreshing saffron lemonade and munching on pistachio pastries, I eagerly listen to the crowd of young presenters as they excitingly share their educational goals and ambitions. I look forward to spending more time with them later on, because these young women are surely going to be the future of Afghanistan.
Our day comes to a close with Basheer hosting us for dinner and serving one of the most delicious homemade meals I have ever eaten, Aash Reshteh. Anything I say to describe this meal would not do it justice. We slurp away the Aash while recalling memorable moments from the visit to Daykundi province. The journey into the interiors has already made a deep and indelible impact on me, and I am only halfway through my trip.
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