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1999 NCC News Archives

NCC Staff Report Positive, Negative Surprises About Conditions in Afghanistan

March 15, 1999, NEW YORK CITY -- As a possible breakthrough in peace talks in Turkmenistan has been announced by United Nations mediators, two National Council of Churches (NCC) staff members recently back from a week-long trip to Afghanistan report that conditions observed first-hand are worse than they expected but that they also witnessed glimpses of hope.

"Even though I knew Afghanistan has been a war zone for 20 years, I was still surprised to see the number of hospitals and houses which looked blown apart and to see rusty tanks left over from the War (with the Soviet Union)," said the Rev. Larry Tankersley, head of the NCC’s Southern Asia office who traveled to Afghanistan for the first time Feb. 20-26 to visit medical clinics there. "I didn’t see any evidence that things are getting better in Afghanistan. Although peace talks continue and we are hopeful about this latest report, we were told that this is typical. During the winter they talk, but during the spring and summer they start to fight again."

A March 14 Associated Press report indicated that warring factions in Afghanistan "have agreed in principle on the creation of a coalition government to include all of the country’s political forces." According to the report, the Taliban religious army now controls about 90 percent of Afghanistan while the northern opposition rules the remaining 10 percent.

"We had to get permission from the Taliban to go in and out, we were forbidden to take pictures, and because of the kidnapping problem, we traveled with an armed guard," Rev. Tankersley reported.

"I’ve been in other places with oppressive governments, but I have never been to a country where seemingly everyone is carrying guns, including ordinary people and children. It was disconcerting to say the least," said the Rev. Dr. Rodney Page, Director of the NCC’s Church World Service and Witness Unit, the NCC’s human development, disaster relief and refugee assistance ministry. CWS is one of the few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continuing to run projects in Afghanistan since the U.S. bombed Afghanistan in August 1998.

"We are only able to stay because we support partners based in Afghanistan and our projects are run by Afghans," Rev. Tankersley explained. CWS implements its own health projects and also supports the health and education work of the Afghan NGO Shuhada, which is headed by an Afghan woman, Dr. Sima Samar.

"Also, our area director Doug Bean has so far been able to travel in and out enough to monitor the programs," Rev. Tankersley said. "It would not be safe for expatriates to remain there permanently."

Yet at the same time Tankersley and Page witnessed much of Afghanistan in ruins and felt a pervasive tension, they also observed glimpses of life going on normally.

"We went though areas with olive trees and vegetable gardens, where people were working the fields and life seemed to be carrying on normally," Rev. Tankersley said. "This was surprising to me, since I only had an image of rocky, barren hillsides."

"Despite reports from Afghanistan about the crackdown on women’s dress and restriction on their movement and education, we found a different story in Jalalabad," said Dr. Page. "We saw a lot of women not dressed in head to toe, full hijab and not wearing the burqa (veil). As many women were without veils as with them," Rev. Tankersley added.

Although war and severed communications have not allowed NCC officials to obtain up-to-date reports from their projects in central Afghanistan, reports from June 1998 indicate that the 28 schools supported by CWS in the Hazarajat area remain up and operating, Rev. Tankersley said. Of the 1998 enrollment of more than 18,000 students in those schools, 6,200 are girls, he said.

Dr. Page and Rev. Tankersley said that the situation for women is undoubtedly worse in Kabul, the capital city and Taliban stronghold. There also was evidence of enforced separation between the sexes, such as a curtain between the second and third seats of a VW bus in which clinic patients traveled, hung there so that women, who must travel in the back, could not be seen by men traveling in the front.

For both men, the most important impressions during their visit came from viewing the CWS-supported medical clinics they had come to visit in Nangarhar Province, located in the eastern region of the country. Jalalabad is the provincial capital.

"With only rudimentary equipment, they are performing extraordinary service in the community," Dr. Page said. Services include medical outreach workers who go door to door, ensuring that nearly all children in Jalalabad have been vaccinated. Both Dr. Page and Rev. Tankersley remarked that women were seen both working in the clinic and being treated there. "The staff at two basic health units in Sorkh Rood is totally Afghan, and includes two women doctors and six other female medical people," Rev. Tankersley said.

"The head doctor, Dr. Ashraf Sharaf, single-handedly trained 185 community health workers in 1998. Between April and December of 1998, these health workers made 75,741 home visits, including to 870 pregnant women, and immunized 25,000 people," Rev. Tankersley reported. "Women and children make up 80 percent of the patients at the clinics."

"Health workers do not wait for people to come to the clinic, but go to them and talk about the health of their family," he said. "This is based on a model program CWS supports in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border where there are eight units treating Afghan refugees."

The clinics are desperately needed. Afghanistan has the highest rate of infant, child and maternal mortality in Asia. 182 infants die for every 1,000 born; 257 of every 1,000 children die before they reach the age of five, and 1,700 mothers die for every 100,000 who give birth.

"We visited two clinics, one which is housed temporarily in a former school built during the Soviet occupation," Dr. Page reported. "A farmer next door is donating a piece of his land so that a permanent facility can be constructed. We are about to open a third clinic in a different location."

Dr. Page and Rev. Tankersley said they were certain their ability to visit Afghanistan rested on the high regard with which the medical clinics are held by people, including government officials, in the region. Both also stressed that severe sanctions would only harm the good work that has, miraculously, been able to continue.

"Cutting off all aid will only harm the most vulnerable, including children, as it has done in Iraq," said Dr. Page. "Constructive engagement is the best way to enact change, while still calling attention to human rights abuses."

"In the midst of the horror of the situation in Afghanistan, significant things are being done to enhance the quality of peoples’ lives," said Rev. Tankersley. "This is not to downplay the oppressiveness of the Taliban, but to be committed to serving the needs of people who are suffering, especially women and children. In spite of the restrictions that warfare, lack of security and the Taliban place on humanitarian work, we can still do something."

"Afghanistan is one of the places our impact is most significant, because there are so very few NGOs there," Rev. Tankersley said.

Meanwhile, Rev. Tankersley and Dr. Page pray that the war will end, as do the Afghan people they met. "As a young Afghan doctor at UNICEF told our delegation, ‘It is time to stop this stupid war.’ The human costs have been tragic," Rev. Tankersley said.

"We need peace to rebuild our lives," said an Afghan acting in charge of the UNHCR Sub-Office in Jalalabad to the CWS delegation.


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