Report of the Jerrahi Order of America and the Muslim Peace Fellowship participation in the Help the Afghan Children Delegation to Afghanistan
Oct. 22 to Nov. 11, 2001
The trip was exceedingly successful given the fact that we had only three weeks to travel, arrange for purchase of 239 tons of food, 1000 blankets and their delivery in Takhar Province in Northeastern Afghanistan. I cannot praise too much Suraya Sadeed, director of Help the Afghan Children, Inc. and the leader of this delegation.
Our mission could never have been completed without the personal competence, the language and cultural skills, and the reputation and contacts which Suraya and her or organization have built up over her 9 years of humanitarian work in Afghanistan. The other organization which greatly facilitated our efforts, and saved many days work in Afghanistan was the French development agency, ACTED Agence d’Aide a la Cooperation Technique Et au Developpment or Agency for Technical Co-operation and Development. We first met Frederic Roussel, Program Coordinator of ACTED in Dushanbe who remembered Suraya from previous work in Afghanistan during the earthquake disaster relief effort in 1998. He offered us housing at the ACTED hostel in Kahwaja Bahawudin and an introduction to Cyril du Pri de Saint Maur, ACTED’s Northeast Afghanistan Coordinator, and his wonderful Afghan Deputy Coordinator, Mohammad Mahir Yaqobi, both stationed in Kahwaja Bahawudin. We accepted the hospitality of the ACTED hostel, occasionally use of their vehicles and continually availed ourselves of their expertise and contacts to successfully carry out our work. ACTED was the only NGO to remain in the North with expatriate staff, and they have almost singularly been responsible for keeping the displaced persons alive in that area after the UN and all of the larger relief organizations pulled out several years ago upon pressure from the Talaban.
Our relief delegation was composed of Suraya Sadeed and myself, but we were also accompanied by two filmmakers doing a documentary film on Help the Afghan Children, Inc and this delegation: Randall Scerbo, producer, and Bill Gentile, filmmaker and professor at Kent State. We were also accompanied by a writer for Vanity Fair, Michael Learner, and his photographer, Chris Anderson. Initially the group had also included “Dr.” James King, recommended to the group by a Florida congressional representative, who purported to be the Dean of the Medical School on Seychelles Island. During our week in Dushanbe we discovered that the Seychelles Medical School has only two faculty, is not recognized by any accrediting association, and Dr. James King is neither a medical doctor nor has he written the two medical textbooks which he claimed to have authored. When “Dr.” King was unable to get us a copy of his medical license, we severed our relationship with him and he returned to the US before we left for Afghanistan.
Having two persons on the relief portion and four persons on the media portion of our group was not a good balance. Suraya and I had to struggle to assert that the primary purpose of the delegation was the relief effort, not the media, which were trying to publicize our work. The differences in values and goals between the two parts of our group caused considerable tensions at several points during the trip.
We arrived in Dushanbe on the morning of Nov. 24th on the Air Tajikistan flight from Munich. In Tajikistan we set out to find a supplier who could reasonably assist us in the purchase and shipment of a large shipment of wheat, sugar and cooking oil. After exploring several options, we signed a contract with Quader Bakhshi Co. Ltd on Nov. 27th to buy and deliver in Afghanistan 175 tons of wheat, 36 tons of sugar and 28 tons of cooking oil for the distribution of 3,600 family packets consisting of 50 kg of wheat, 10 kg of sugar and 8 kg of cooking oil. This was purchased for $116,000 half of which was given at the time of order, and the other half to be collected at the time of delivery in Afghanistan. Abdul Qader Bakhshi is an Afghan businessman who works in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and is someone with whom Help the Afghan Children, Inc. had worked on previous occasions. The supplies were purchased in Uzbekistan and shipped in 23 large trucks through Tajikistan to Afghanistan. There was a separate purchase through the same distributor of 1,000 blankets in Dushanbe for $11 each, which was also shipped on one of the trucks.
I also visited the Estiqlal (Independent) High School (off 36 Pushkin st.), the only Afghan school in Dushanbe, which serves 220 Afghan refugee students, less than one-third of the students who would like to attend. Mohammed Bobur, an Afghan medical student refugee from Mazar-e Sharif, runs it. Afghan refugee students are in a very difficult situation in Tajikistan since the Russians changed the Tajik language from Arabic to Cyrillic script when they colonized Tajikistan 70 years ago. Afghan refugees can communicate with Tajiks verbally since both languages are essentially Persian, but Afghans are completely lost in the Tajik educational system that requires reading and writing in Cyrillic.
The paperwork for overland travel to Afghanistan was significant. The Tajik visas issued by the Soviet Embassy, for which we had paid $300 in Washington, were declared invalid when we arrived in Dushanbe, but could be replaced by valid visas issued in Dushanbe for another $100/visa. [Visas issued by the Tajik Embassy in Munich were accepted.] The Tajik border with Afghanistan is controlled by Russian military with at least 4 check points over the last 10 km of road to the border. To travel overland to Afghanistan, one needs not only the Afghan visa issued by the Northern Alliance Foreign Ministry in Dushanbe, but more importantly, a hand written letter from the Tajik Foreign Ministry with names of all. The names on that letter were sent in advance to the Russians so that they would be pre-alerted to our arrival.
We left for Afghanistan on Wed. Oct. 31st. The trip to the border took significantly longer than we had anticipated. We had rented a vehicle for $300, arranged by the Tajik Foreign Ministry, and set off around 4:00 pm for the border. After many stops to adjust the motor for the changing altitude of while crossing the mountains, we arrived at Farchor, about an hour from the river border at around 9:30 pm. We stayed for the night in a “hotel” in Farchor with no indoor plumbing and no lights, since we had arrived after the electricity in the town had been turned off for the evening.
After going through the 4 Russian check points, crossing the border at the Amu Darya River on the pontoon boat on the morning of Nov. 1st was not that difficult. At that point in time, that one pontoon boat was the only land crossing from the north into Northern Alliance controlled territory of Afghanistan (things have changed significantly in the last week), and all supplies arriving overland had to cross that tractor-powered, cable-pull, pontoon boat. The river crossing, at that time, was only a couple of kilometers from the Talaban front lines, and massive US bombing was taking place on a ridge a few miles from the river at the time of our crossing. The river at that point is about a mile wide, and the pontoon boat is capable of carrying only one 10 – 15 ton truck, or two smaller vehicles at a time, plus a handful of passengers. Our supplier was already at the border and offered a vehicle, and ACTED sent a second vehicle to take us from the river to the ACTED hostel in Kahwaja Bahawudin, a one-hour drive to the west. ACTED was a great host, and offered us what space they had available, but they were already overrun by 31 international journalists for whom they had also offered shelter. We were offered one 9 X 12 foot room as our space with two single beds, which meant that most of us were sleeping in sleeping bags on the floors of various hallways in their compound. Most of the journalists were in tents in the courtyard, and all of us shared the several outdoor toilets and the one “shower room” with the wood heated bucket of well water for bathing.
ACTED was a tremendous source of information on the concentrations of displaced persons in the area that were in need of food. They had surveyed all of the DP communities in the area and were pleased that we were willing to use our food in the area of most need. They also had complete lists of family unites in each community, and were willing to loan us their lists and well as some of their local staff to assist in the distribution. We met with Cyril du Pri de Saint Maur, ACTED’s Northeast Afghanistan Coordinator, and agreed to distribute in the following villages and camps: Baghi Bayan (689 families) in Dashte Qala North; Qum Qishlaq (1,222 families), Lolaguzar Camp (875 families) and Lolaguzar village (689 families) in Khwaja Bahawdin; and Kafter Ali/Ariq Qishlaq (284 families) in Yangi Qala. This is a total of 3,759 families, only slightly over our projected total 3,600 families. In discussion with Cyril we learned that ACTED used a 6 person family as their standard. The distribution standard that they use in northeast Afghanistan for on month’s supply of food for a family was 50 kg of wheat, 5 kg of sugar and 6 liters of cooking oil. We agreed to use the ACTED standards and would trade our excess cooking oil and sugar to Acted in exchange for additional wheat.
The first four of our 10-ton trucks crossed the Amu Darya River on Saturday, November 3rd. We visited the crossing on the 4th to take picture and inquire about the remaining trucks. It seems that a conflict between the Russian border guards and the Tajik customs officials caused the Russians to end all crossing on Sunday, Nov. 4th. We agreed with our supplier that they would go ahead and send the 4 trucks of cooking oil and sugar from the border to the ACTED warehouse in Lolaguzar Village. The Russians took all day Monday the 5th for military supplies, and we were told that on Tuesday, the US TV networks bribed the Tajiks, the Russians, or both to get vehicles with their supplies across the river in advance of our trucks. Only on Wednesday, Nov. 7th did our remaining 19 truckloads of wheat finally cross the river into Afghanistan. There is only one flight a week from Dushanbe to Munich, so those of us who had agreed on a three-week trip were approaching our limit in time. Once again, ACTED staff came to our rescue. They agreed to loan us ACTED wheat from their warehouse so that we could start our distribution in our few remaining days in Afghanistan. We decided to distribute first to the 689 families in the Lolaguzar village. These are all displaced persons whose homes were destroyed in western Takhar Province about a year ago in the fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Talaban. The distribution was very orderly and took place on November 5th and 6th. A distribution area was roped off and the bags of wheat, boxes of vegetable oil and bags of sugar were placed on the ground. The wheat came in 50 kg bags, the vegetable came in 2-liter cans, and the sugar was dumped on a tarp and a 5 kg measuring can was available for the distribution to each family. A table was set up with a local ACTED staff reading the names of the head of household for each family from his list. One of the village elders then called out the name and one or two members of the family came into the roped off area to collect their portion. The entire village was there to watch, and when one or two imposters tried to collect for a family of which they were not a part, they were quickly ejected. I could never figure out how the elders knew that one woman, fully covered in a burka, was not the rightful woman to collect that family’s portion, but everyone approved as imposters were discovered and ejected empty-handed.
I was also able to visit on two occasions the Lolaguzar grade school that was built by ACTED with funds from the Turkish government. There were only 4 classrooms, perhaps 150 students, but tremendous enthusiasm from the children able to attend. The school was for boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon. I shared drawings from schools in Evanston, IL and Chestnut Ridge, NY, and the students of Lolaguzar gladly completed drawings to return to children in the US.
Suraya assured me that she could handle adequately the remaining distributions without the rest of us, so the filmmakers and I returned to Tajikistan on Wednesday, Nov. 7th (the Vanity Fair writer and photographer had actually left on Tuesday). ACTED agreed to work with Suraya to complete the distributions. We saw the remaining truck of wheat crossing the river into Afghanistan on Wednesday as we were crossing into Tajikistan.
I counted six times that our driver needed to bribe Northern Alliance or Tajik officials in order to get through check points between Khwaja Bahawdin, Afghanistan and Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
In Dushanbe I visited Frederic Roussel, the ACTED Program Coordinator in his office to discuss possible future relationships between ACTED and the organizations represented in this delegation. He was very open and encouraging and willing to offer his support for future formal or informal relationships. ACTED works broadly in areas of housing, education, agriculture, health or emergency aid.
1. I would encourage continuing relations with Suraya Sadeed and Help the Afghan Children, Inc. I was disappointed that because of the security situation we were not able to visit any of the established HTACI schools, clinics or vocational programs, but I did have a very close first hand look at HTACI’s emergency assistance program, and the wisdom, values and commitment of Suraya Sadeed, HTACI’s director. She is a really exceptional person who brings wisdom, cultural sensitivity and linguistic skills and spiritual commitment to her work. I watched her walk into offices and browbeat government or military officials into giving her documents or authorizations necessary to carry out our mission, usually without the required fees, much less the usual bribes. Her dedication and compassion for the people of Afghanistan was an inspiration to everyone on the delegation.
2. It is still a bit early, and the situation is in flux as I write this report, but I believe that the Talaban have left from much of the area of northern Afghanistan. From conversations with displaced persons and ACTED staff, most DPs will want to return to their home communities as soon as security permits. Emergency assistance should be used to assist refugees to return to their homes as soon as possible. Most of the DPs I talked with reported that their homes had been destroyed before they fled the area, so housing and food, until crops can be planted and harvested, will be important.
3. One of the greatest tragedies of last 22 years of war and repression in Afghanistan has been the neglect, misuse and repression of education of Afghan children. It is estimated that 5 million girls and 4.3 million boys under the age of 15 are illiterate. An investment in the education of Afghan children would be an investment in the future those children, their families, the nation and the world. Children in Khwaja Bahawdin and in DP camps asked me for pens and pencils more often than any other item. The children are longing for education; it may be the wisest investment for the future.
It was an honor to represent the Muslim Peace Fellowship and the Jerrahi Order of America in my participation in the Help the Afghan Children, Inc. delegation to Afghanistan from October 22 to November 11, 2001. I feel privileged to have played a small role in working with Suraya Sadeed to transform the $20,000 from the Jerrahi Order of America and the hundreds of dollars from the Muslim Peace Fellowship into the urgently need food and blankets, which, with the help of ACTED we were able to deliver to persons displaced by the war in Takhar Province of Afghanistan. Please convey to your donors the profound gratitude of the thousands of Afghan recipients whose lives have been made a little more comfortable through the generosity of their contributions.
-- Doug Hostetter