Afghanistan-a peek into the diary (10)

Among my most rewarding meetings are those which involve speaking more directly to the people who will ultimately benefit from all we do. The recent one that stood out for me was the gathering with the Union of Disabled People. Their meeting area is on benches under trees just outside the Ministry for Martyrs and Disabled (MMD). When it rains or gets cold they have a small tent to sit under. I was left feeling humbled and moved all at the same time by these men, their passion, their willingness to move on and lead normal lives in a country which is not set up for integrating disabled people particularly effectively—after the huge sacrifice they have all made for peace in their country (and I suspect many of them have made multiple sacrifices even). What was also impressive was the way in which they articulate their needs—-they were quite clear on the fact that what would benefit them the most would be an access centre for activities including vocational training, with facilities like toilets and some beds so that people can stay over night when they travel to Jalalabad for their welfare payments. At the moment, they have to make their own arrangements and end up spending half of the meager allowance that they receive on accommodation and transport. We visited the MMD the day after, when people were queuing for their payments, and it was heart-breaking to see how people in wheelchairs and on crutches had to stand outside for ages with no bench to sit on. And then, of course, there were the women in burqas, the martyrs’ wives and relatives who were queuing for their meager allowance which, in a country with little scope for women to really work and earn an income.

It is worth pointing out that the term “Martyrs and Disabled” refers specifically to people who have been injured during conflict related activity. People who suffer any form of physical or mental impairment from birth are not hailed as heroes in the same way but are often hidden away in homes, stigmatised, unsupported, especially women. Given that there is a considerable amount of intermarriage within families, mental health issues are quite rife, particularly in rural communities. It makes me feel so helpless to think that there may be many a man, woman or child who will never enjoy opportunities in life simply because they are not regared as “normal” nor “martyrs” in the Afghan sense of the word.

I was left with the same sense of helplessness when we visited the government hospital the other day. Mohib and I went there together to see whether we could put in some ramps and other structures (e.g. disabled toilets) to make the buildings more accessible to people with disabilities. It was one of those visits when you have to keep your professional face on when all you want to do is cry. The hospital, like most of the infrastructure here, is in a terrible state: overcrowded wards, rusty stretchers and beds, toilets that the world filthy would not adequately describe ….and only very few doctors and nurses in site to care for the many, very ill looking patients. The smell of stale chlorine remained engraved in my nostrils for hours after the visit, as did the pictures of the many children with bandages around their little heads…..who knows what IED (informal explosive device) or mine they got too close to! As with every conflict or post conflict situation, it is always the kiddies who suffer most. During a recent IED explosion in the market, targeted at a record shop that sold “subversive material” (i.e. Western movies and CDs), the victim was a 14 year old boy on his way home from school. It makes my heart bleed.

In the office things are going okay although I have just had a pretty difficult week with management issues which have included issues like bullying, rude behaviour and allegations of theft and professional misconduct in a recruitment process—most of which before my times. Exactly the kind of thing you want during your first few weeks managing a new team! I will not bore you with it all-suffice it to say for now that I had to sit down with my chief engineer last Thursday and give him a severe warning which he took surprisingly well. Possibly there is a bit of boundary-testing going on ……..it may be normal in any new team, but it remains incredibly exhausting.

I am at the point where my first R &R would be due and I now understand why R&R is every six weeks. It is not the work as such that tires you out here, but, rather, the dynamics of working in such a different culture, having to use translators and never quite knowing whether they are translating what you are saying, having to watch out for corruption and cheating when it comes to financial matters, and people not listening, quite apart from the fact that people are proud and incredibly sensitive….with my chief engineer, for example, I feel I am always walking on egg shells. The financial “diddling” I can kind of understand, in a warped way, although I have to clamp down on it, of course. But if you think that the head of a government ministry earns little more than $100 per month when UN staff are paid 10 or more timed more (even my UNV stipend is higher than their salaried), you can understand why they might think that the little amounts they may try to retain for their benefit are no skin off our noses.

Jalalabad meeting with union of disabled