Relentless

Afghanistan is relentless. It never, ever lets up. You get through one crisis, take a breath, then next hits. They are not all crunchers, you don’t drown every time, but they do keep coming. It is like the hard surf, when the breakers keep coming and they break early, and they peak and roll down on you, and all you can do is dive under each one, the suck of the water pulling at your body, and as you gasp and swim back up to the light, the bubbles and the sand and the foam all fizzing beside you, the next wave hits, and you breathe and go down again.

Now it is housing. We are losing our home. We heard rumours a few months ago, but then there was conflict over who actually owned the house. Two cousins fought it out, and now they have settled and now the urbane, silky voiced Afghan-American one has the deed in his hand, and wants to sell. He has returned from America to settle the deal. We have a contract till March, but that will be voided in the case of a sale (and goodbye to the advance rent we paid, too). We might have to be out in a fortnight, maybe in 6 weeks. We are losing the school, and another house as well. Houses that our organisation has rented now for some 36 years, continuously.

And we have just settled. Pretty much everything now works: I have fixed plumbing and lighting and the heaters are in and the windows seal and the doors lock. And now we will have to move. Where to, I don’t know. Housing is short here, as the new parliament is built, the Members and Representatives are all building houses here. Rents are what you might pay in Manhattan: $6000USD per month. USAID rents 5 houses here, all part of one block, and is paying $35,000 per month for them. We cannot compete with money like that.

Some people we know came to Afghanistan, rented a house 8 years ago and are still there. Their homes have a nice, lived in, warm feel. The first place we had here, I wanted to be like that. I made it work, we planted gardens and built verandas and laid water pipes and gas lines and within 18 months, we were evacuated and it was all over. Since then we have lived in five or six or seven houses here, maybe more. You can tell who has been through evacuations and forced moves here: their houses generally have bare walls. Pictures are put up with pins, not frames. Carpets don’t fit, curtains are too long. It is because we are anticipating the next move. Summoning the energy to make a home gets harder and harder.

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Now with that cheerful story put down, let me issue an invitation: we need personnel here. Afghanistan is a less and less popular place to work. Post 9/11, suddenly everyone wanted to be here. Afghanistan was a must-have on a serious aid-workers CV. But now it is getting boring and dangerous. Things aren’t better, security is worse. NATO is pulling out, Afghans are getting corrupt, the conflict is at a stalemate. Let the Afghans sort it out. There are new conflicts and crises. Haiti. Pakistan. So people are wanting out. But the needs remain.  The work is long, the rewards few, the pay non-existent. The dangers are real, though not everpresent.

Who will join us?

The long call

We received an email today from the widow of one of the people killed up in Nuristan recently. She wrote about ‘reaching the end of this long call to serve in Afghanistan’.

Apart from it being terribly sad and hard to read, it provoked some reflection from Julie and I. Why are we here in this country? So much effort over so many years is erased so quickly. So much goodness can be undone so easily  – in 2009, I evaluated a community development project working in the North East of this country. It was working in two remote valleys, where the staff showed huge commitment and substantial progress was being made. Since then, a bunch of Taliban moved down one of the valleys. US forces took note, and sent in a few drones, which bombed the place up. Everyone got hostile. One of the development team was kidnapped, then released; then they all had to pull out. Now they are working in a small, tight radius around the township. All their work in the valleys is pretty much over, the momentum lost.

It reminds me of our work in community development years ago, in the North. Long days, long years of work in remote, dusty places, which was terminated over night by the events of 9/11.

Why do we keep trying here? I am less and less sure that we achieve anything. I know, I know now that this work is not about us feeling good, or developing our CVs. And I am not an aid junkie, living on the high of the emergency, the thrill of saving lives. But I would like to see permanent progress here in some form, in my lifetime. I am less convinced that will happen, or at least less convinced that there is much I can do to expedite it.

It seems I follow a God of lost causes. I am not sure how I feel about that. As Nathan says, ‘I have joined the long defeat’.

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Also, because the room I am sitting in is badly built, one side is about 4 inches lower than the other. I have propped the right side of the desk up on boards but the chair is still on an acute angle. I am just wanting you all to know that should I develop some kind of horrible arthritis or malignant osteopathic condition because of unergonomic seating, I will be vexed.

Why do you bother sometimes? Why do you come here and move yourself and your family halfway around the world and leave all the nice, good, fun things, why leave a place where you are appreciated and come here? Why put your kids through chaos and risk a bullet to the chest and live in dust and crap and cold? Why don’t we go? Isn’t six years enough? If people can’t learn the basics of honesty and respect in that time, when they have heard and seen it from 20 different sources, then what does it take? Why the lies and irresponsiblity and continual exploitation? More, more, just a little more?

Don’t worry about trying to convince me of the worthiness of our work. I knowit, I know the answers. It’s just that the answers aren’t enough sometimes.