Extract

Paris, November 1999

“And Afghanistan? Would you be up for Afghanistan?’ We are sitting beside the coffee machine. The head of the nutrition department of Children in Crisis (CIC) looks at me with a smile that seems to say: “I may as well ask”.

Pause. The question comes out of nowhere. Burundi, Congo and Sierra Leone occupy centre stage in humanitarian crises: I had expected to be heading out to Africa.

“Afghanistan? I hadn’t thought about it…”

In a daze, I see mountains. I see an inaccessible country, cut off from the world. I see the silhouettes of veiled young French women, volunteers working for an NGO, alongside bearded men wearing broad turbans and armed with Kalashnikovs, seen in a television report a few months earlier.

“Why not? Yes, I’m up for it…”

(…)

I know as I leave that I’m at one of those crossroads which life puts in your path in an unforeseen and almost teasing way. I see myself choosing, before my head can get a word in, “the road less travelled by[1]”. If I had known that this was not a year’s adventure which was starting, but one which would take up an entire life, the knot of anxiety and excitement which gripped my heart as I was leaving would probably have suffocated me.

Kabul, January 2000

(…)

Two days after my arrival, I see Dr Sabir for the first time. Jeanne, Sylvie and I bump into him as we leave the guesthouse. He’s a bearded man, fairly large, quite young, wearing a shalwar kameez, the traditional tunic that men are obliged to wear by order of the Taliban. A V-neck jumper under which the tails of his tunic appear and a black anorak keep him warm on this winter morning. Behind the smile, underlined by his beard, I detect soft, lively and cheerful eyes, and I hear a voice full of heart, tinged with shyness: “Welcome to Afghanistan!” Dr Sabir, who is in charge of the supplementary feeding centres (SFC), will be my assistant.

Jeanne, Sylvie and I go on our way. “You’re lucky”, the girls tell me jokingly “He’s the most handsome of the team!” This man with an elegant appearance smiles warmly at me as he walks away, perhaps as intimidated as I am. “Am I really up to this task? Will I let him down, this man with the beautiful smile, him and the other members of the team?”

In Afghanistan it’s customary to differentiate between people by referring to their father’s name. So Sabir is Sabir, son of Habibullah, which means “loved by God” or “friend of God” as Dr Sabir explains to us on our second meeting, and so he becomes my “Dr Friend”. He is the first teacher in my professional life and the first friend in my Afghan life.

Sabir

“When was I born? In Afghanistan, it is difficult to know when you are born… I think I was born in around May 1970. In the North of Kabul, in a district called Farza. It’s a very pretty, green valley. We have a big family, like most Afghan families. There are seven of us brothers and 2 sisters. I’m the second child. When the Russians took over in Afghanistan and the civil war started we had to leave the village. When the mujahedeen came to our village, they announced that no one could work for the government and the communist regime, and my father was a government official. He was neither against the mujahedeen nor in favour of the communist government. He simply had to work to provide for us.

We had no option other than to flee: we had no land to cultivate, nothing to survive on. For my father, it was a difficult decision to make to leave with such a large family, but finally he decided that we should go, partly because our school had been destroyed by the mujahedeen. He feared that if we stayed in the village, we would not get an education.

So, in 1980, we came to Kabul. It was a difficult time. We had to leave in a hurry, leaving most of our furniture and belongings behind. We didn’t tell anybody that we were leaving. My mom told our neighbours: “My son is sick and we need to go get treatment for him in Kabul”. But we left and did not come back.

(…)

I graduated from the University and I started my first job as a doctor in Indira Gandhi hospital, in Kabul in 1992, about the time when the Mujahedeen took power in Kabul and the fighting started between Rabbani[2] and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar[3].

After the Russians retreated and the fall of Najibullah’s regime, the Mujahedeen came. We were full of hope the day we came out from the hospital and saw some Mujahedeen walking around the city. We thought: “the war is finished now, the Mujahedeen will take power and the Communist Regime is finished”. But unfortunately after two or three weeks, all our hope was gone: they started fighting and the city was bombed.

Those were the darkest days of Afghanistan: they destroyed the city and killed so many civillians! Over the 14 years of jihad against the Russians, they had been indoctrinated to believe that the people in Kabul were their enemies. They told us: “You were there, so your son, your mother and your sister went out with the Russian soldiers and had a good time with them.” But the people of Kabul weren’t happy with the Russian presence. Everyone knows that Afghans don’t like foreigners taking control of their country.

Working in the hospital was terrible. The Mujahedeen were coming to the hospital with their guns, their shoes full of mud, and they would even go into the operating theatre. Once we stopped them and asked “Why do you come into the operating theatre with your dirty shoes?” They answered: “You are communists. You do not respect the Mujahedeen. With these shoes I will enter Paradise, so why won’t you let me in?” Whenever someone died, for whatever reason, we the doctors had to escape from the hospital for two to three hours because if a child from a Mujahedeen family died, his parents or relatives would come and beat us. They thought we were not giving proper attention to their relatives because they were Mujahedeen. We tried to explain to them “There is no power, no drugs, no injections, you brought your child in a very serious condition…” But they rarely understand.

These were the darkest moments of my life. We cried, our mothers cried, our brothers were killed, but no one heard our voices. No one asked: “Who brought the mujahedeen?” although it was western countries that armed them against the Russians! And when the Russians left, they forgot about Afghanistan.”


[1] From the poem of the same name by Robert Frost. The poet, walking through a forest on a well-cleared path, discovers a smaller, overgrown path to one side, whose destination is unknown. He eventually choses the overgrown path.

[2] Jaimat-e Islami party leader, see the attached biographical summaries of the main actors in the civil war

[3] Leader of the Hezb-e Islami party

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