The UN chopper hovers a few feet over the runway in Kabul, wobbles tentatively, gathers momentum, soars over the badbakth city and then speeds towards Nili, our destination. It is about 75 minutes uncomfortable but uneventful ride in this 1968 Russian monster. The alternative is a 7-hour drive through very dangerous Taliban-controlled territory to Bamiyan. And if we are lucky to survive this, another 16 hour drive through treacherous roads to Nili. Nili is the capital of Dykoondy Province, a shockingly poor, disadvantaged province where CAI has the bulk of projects. CAI runs four remote medical clinics, has constructed four schools, drilled over 100 water wells and now is building 73 homes for indigent and destitute families. Two of the medical clinics are modern units, equal to or better than any in second world countries. The other two are in the process of converting to tailor made, current structures, to be completed in about one year insha’Allah.
With me is Sohail Abdullah, CAI Trustee from New York and the core CAI Afghanistan team of Wasi, Basheer, and Assef. We follow the routine – our eternally genial, apt and best in the world driver Sher Hussein is waiting to ferry us around the traitorous terrain, complete with cheerful chatter and claps of laughter that is a shot of beneficial adrenaline to our spirits. Trailing our vehicle is a District Governor provided police guard, packing five heavily armed policemen, each with a loaded Kalashnikov, always behind us, like a shadow. Indeed, we are told to alert them if any of us want to step out of the room to use the outhouse at night. I fortify my bladder and sleep through the evening, not wanting a half asleep irate cop with a loaded Kalashnikov to be looking over me squatting.
We visit Oozmuk, a 2-hour drive and then move on to Dayaroos, both newly constructed medical clinic packing an average of 95 patients a day. Patients come from all over, some trekking over 8 hours by foot or on a donkey. I am concerned the MD’s are not giving enough attention to the sick if he is only giving them an average of 2 minutes of personal attention. Both shrug their shoulders, saying they cannot turn away the sick. Nevertheless, I firmly instruct them both to turn down the numbers; I would rather they choose quality over quantity. The nurse can attend people coming in for minor colds or cuts.
It is the 12-hour drive from Dayyaroos to Kiti that’s a pain, where CAI has just begun the 5th medical clinic in a rented mud house. The chatter and laughter in the car cabin eventually dry up as we all sober up to the unyielding treachery of the terrain ahead. Sher Hussein’s brows pucker up, and his chin sets in a determined thrust as he maneuvers his Toyota Hiace 4X at less than 5 MPH through some of the most rugged mountain passes in the world. The vehicle lurches through rocks, muddied by water from melting snow and revs on the 4-wheel drive on seemingly impossible riverbeds. There cannot be any room for error. A slight miscalculation and we can plunge thousands of feet into the raging river below. Sher stops near an impossible bend, shakes his head, changes gears and with a prayer on his lips, skillfully takes us through. The air of apprehension among us all, so thick I can smell it, lightens, and we can afford to talk and jest again. Until the next set of challenges begin.
Even though I have been through this ordeal several times – this is my 31st trip to Afghanistan – the experience leaves me with woozy legs, still. Through the jostling of Sher’s vehicle, my thoughts wander to these people, women, and children especially, who do not have the luxury of a vehicle or even a donkey, and the fittest ones to survive the brutal winters of this wretched land. Why are they so deprived? Why are they so stepped on? Why is there apathy to their suffering?
Kiti clinic is up and running, although with the inevitable chaos of a new setup. Patients line up at sunup, and our staff is pressed into service immediately after subhaan, which starts annoyingly early; Fajr is at 3:30! We are supposed to inspect a site for a new school the next day, and I am told the drive there is 14 hours and another 12 hours the day after, returning to Nili, in time for our chopper return to Kabul the day after that. We haven’t bathed in almost three days, and all of us are beginning to avoid each other. It means we will not have a chance to shower for another two days. Hmmm. Unacceptable, since this plan leaves no room for contingencies, a no-no in Afghanistan. I preempt the school inspection; opt to inspect another school site just outside the Kiti clinic, a dilapidated mud building, home to about 200 children. If CAI constructs a scheduled, Afghan regular school (CAI’s 19th in Afghanistan), it can grow to about 600 children in 2 shifts; this is a no brainer.
After an inspection of only seven homes possible out of the previous 95-home-project that CAI has constructed for the poor in and around Kiti that takes 6 hours, we collapse into a deep slumber and are off towards Nili early next morning, eager to embrace the comforts of a public hammam seven hours later.
Looking and smelling better than I naturally am, we check into the only available hotel room in Nili, abandoning it within an hour. The flies torment us to no end, relentless in making every act of ours a misery, from sitting still to sleeping; the flies of Afghanistan can make a grown man weep in agony. I remember a line out of one Bollywood movie… eek macchar aadmi ko hijda banaa detaa hai… the fly has replaced the mosquito in this instance. The only alternative is a ‘guest house’ in a local NGO, which is reasonably more comfortable, except for the toilet, which is way outside the compound; it smells evil. The hole opening is so small, I have to be very, very accurate, or else disaster. So I try and avoid going to it, preferring the cramps of a full bladder and pain of a bursting rectum gladly. Until I can stand it no more, and run towards the shithouse to void my insides; shitting and barfing at the same time.
We are invited to the Governors house for dinner and accommodation the next evening, so we look forward to more comfortable digs. Afghans drink a lot of green tea; I mean a lot! The tea requires an acquired taste, not all that great. I drink it to detox, but Sohail hates it with a passion while Basheer and Wasi take it in like Brits to Lager. With nothing to do for a few hours, we drink tea and compete in squatting flies. The Governor’s dinner is the standard fare of fatty lamb and greasy chicken. I have not touched lamb or rice the whole trip, sticking to yogurt, naan or chicken, hoping to offset the inactivity and no exercise for a whole week. The digs are better indeed, with a modern toilet nearby, shared among 20 odd people. We get notified to be at the ‘airport’ by 1 PM for our chopper flight to Kabul the next day.
I wake up with a strange sense of premonition that something is going to happen today, something unpleasant. Nine times out of ten, my portents are on the dot. All of us are at the airstrip on the dot, at 1 PM, after a hurried lunch of more chicken and broth. Alas, it is all in vain. The UN agency has canceled the flight, citing bad weather, although clear skies above tell me a different story. Fear gnaws in my stomach; I have feared such a day. We have a grand school / orphanage opening in Kabul the day after tomorrow, and subsequent flights to Dubai, Iraq, Ethiopia, Tanzania and India for more CAI project inspections all planned out, all in jeopardy as the next available UN flight is a week later. There is no way I am going to stay in Nili for a week, squatting flies, drinking chai and barfing in toilets for a week. No way.
I have to make a quick and snap decision. We can drive to Bamiyan, 16 agonizing hours away. There, we will change into Afghan attire, give up all semblance to NGO work, surrender our cellphones to a courier and try our luck driving to Kabul, seven hours away. If we are lucky, we won’t be stopped. If not, there is real danger of being kidnapped, or as Shias, worse. Against the local team advice, who are very reluctant, fearful, I make a decision to go; I have no choice.
Sher Hussein hurriedly readies his car; he looks unhappy; apprehensive. A 16-hour drive in harsh terrain, plus another 7 hours through enemy territory can make the most hardened adult into kachoomber. It is while we wait for the car to be readied that Dr. Assef has a brainwave. There is a charter service that may be able to rescue us. The cost is steep, more than double that of the UN chopper. We are told to wait. The next eighteen hours of my life are the most trying for me; I think I age a hundred years in that time. The anxiety of getting confirmation of an available aircraft, the logistics, timely payment, ideal weather for landing and takeoff all play havoc in my mind.
It is not until the chartered Pactec aircraft takes off to Kabul from Nili early the next morning that I relax a bit and allow myself the optimism of seeing my current mission through.
Riyaz from Canada and Nabeel from UAE join us for the grand opening the next day. Although Riyaz lands at Kabul from Istanbul without incident, Nabeel’s Emirates flight from Dubai has to return back to Dubai; the pilots decides that sheer winds battering Kabul airport from surrounding mountains have too many risks. It is not until the next morning that Nabeel lands at Kabul. Wasi, who is at the airport to pick him up, stops to repair a flat tire on the way to SGH. With both Wasi and Nabeel occupied, a thief creeps up the open car window and Nabeel’s suitcase is history.
Que Sera, Sera… no?
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