Land of Eternal Hope, Ten years of lives shared in Afghanistan is in fact three interwoven stories. It is, first of all the story of the context, Afghanistan, which I first discover under the Taliban regime, in the year 2000, and which I witness undergo a transition from emergency to development over a ten year period, against a backdrop of persisting conflict, which continuously undermines reconstruction efforts. It has been fascinating to witness, and participate in, this transition. I first started working as a nutritionist with a humanitarian NGO from January 2000 to January 2001, and then returned for several evaluation and research missions between 2002 and 2005, which led me to work for the United Nations and other development partners supporting the new Afghan Government, until early 2010.
Severe criticism about the international aid effort and against the Afghan Government has been voiced since several years, and rightly so; too many strategic errors have been made on the political, military and economic fronts. But it is important to view reconstruction efforts within a broader perspective: in 2001, Afghanistan was a country ravaged by over twenty years of wars (plural); economic and industrial development before the war was limited to a handful of cities and fertile regions, and the central government’s control over the country’s territory and its capacity to provide services to remote provinces had always been limited. Furthermore, reconstruction efforts were deployed in the wake of several fractures: a fracture between generations due to death or exile; a fracture between the youth who grew up in refugee camps and their homeland and culture; finally, an orchestrated, manipulated fracture between the « West » and a small extremist faction of the Muslim world, in the aftermath of September 11th. The international community and Afghan authorities took upon themselves an immense task. Many underestimated what needed to be achieved and have therefore also underestimated the value of what has been done.
Land of Eternal Hope is also the story – or rather the stories – of seven Afghan friends, men and women of different ethnic and social origins, whose life course has been time and time again turned upside down by the consecutive episodes of war. Each story is banal in the context of Afghanistan, and yet unique. Through their stories, we discover the complexity of the conflict, the diversity of life experiences and points-of-view, illustrating very concretely that no war can be summed up as a simple duel between “good” and “evil”. One person’s hero is a butcher for others. One believes the Taliban should have been given a chance to gradually evolve into a more open regime; for others, living under their rule was similar to living in a cemetery. Despite these divergences, these friends are all united around the same goal: the reconstruction of their country. Listening to their stories, it becomes apparent that their lives are founded on, and have been held together by, the same pillars: their family, the education their parents fought to give them, and their faith in a God of hope and love.
Finally, Land of Eternal Hope is story of my own path as an “aid worker”; that of a young women who is thirsty to engage in rich and challenging human adventures, who has the desire to face her limits, and to test “whether she’s up to it”, all this summed up in the alibi of “wanting to help others”. Though I left for the field with few illusions, I was confronted with questions about the meaning of this type of work: why help these malnourished children to survive if they are condemned to live in a context of violence and if their future is so dark? How does one manage the destructive feeling of impotence when faced with a child one cannot, or worse, dares not do anything for? Could humanitarian aid be an act of arrogance? After all, who do we think we are when we claim to save lives, with methods and criteria that are our own? Or is this work rather an invitation to discover humility, that which grounds us and invites us to invest in our relationships with the world and those around us?
All three stories are interwoven with one thread: that of friendship and hope. Indeed, if I have learnt one thing over the course of these years, it is that, if roads and clinics can be bombed, the human spirit cannot be subdued when kindled by the light of friendship.
About the author:
Charlotte Dufour has been working on nutrition and food security in crisis and development situations over twelve years. She has worked primarily in Afghanistan, between January 2000 and 2010, with NGOs, the United Nations, the Afghan government and bilateral partners. Since 2010, she lives in Rome and focuses on nutrition and agriculture linkages with the United Nations.
Land of Eternal Hope, Ten years of lives shared in Afghanistan was first published in French under the title Amitiés afghanes, dix ans de vies partagées by the publisher Fayard, in 2011.
It was translated from the French by Philip Hodder.