Risking Life and Limb in Afghanistan
by Mary Ferreira and Haris Kakar
Recently I had the pleasure of working with and mentoring a young journalist from Afghanistan, Haris Kakar, a participant in the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalists Fellowship Programme which ran for 5-weeks this year – one week in Geneva and four weeks in New York.
A total of 11 journalists (Radio/Internet/Print/TV) had the chance to work with UN staff and follow coverage of important events. At the end of the fellowship, each journalist had to finalize a project in their field of work. Haris, a print journalist, chose to write an article about humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan who risk everything to help the needy. Elizabeth Scaffidi from SCD assisted in the editing process. Here’s Haris’ story…
“United Nations, New York – For 30 years Mohammad Nabi has been delivering aid to his vulnerable countrymen and women in central Afghanistan, risking his life to help others get “better health and education”.
As the security situation deteriorates, the conflict in the central Asian nation rages on. Aid workers across Afghanistan continue to worry about the humanitarian situation as well as their own lives.
Afghanistan faces a crucial moment: expecting to hold second major presidential elections next year as NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces pull out.
Fifty-nine year old Nabi is an aid worker for the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in the central Wardak province. Forty kilometers from Kabul, Wardak has been a fierce battleground for fighting between Afghan government troops and insurgents.
“We are providing health and education services to people there with a half-million of the population benefiting from our aid”, Nabi says.
But delivering educational and health supplies is not an easy task. Gunmen regularly target military and civilian vehicles along the highway. The roadside bombs, frequently used by the rebels as weapon of choice, often kill civilians along the highway, which connects Kabul to southern Kandahar province.
“Our security is a big challenge for us in this province. We are often stopped for hours by different insurgent groups,” Nabi adds. He keeps close contact with tribal elders and community leaders for a worst case scenario.
“Tribal elders and villagers mediate our release when they [insurgents] arrest us while delivering aid.” he asserts. Although Nabi is well known among Wardak villagers, for precautionary measures he must change his appearance, such as grow a beard, don traditional clothes and even wear a turban to disguise his identity.
“But people make any possible effort to help us and rescue us.”
Armed men have frequently beaten Nabi and his colleagues. He has even been tortured, but declines to share that story.
Humanitarian agencies have been targeted by insurgents and extremists in the past. In August, five aid workers of the International Rescue Committee (ICR) were shot dead by unknown gunmen in western Afghanistan.
In May this year, suicide bombers stormed the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Kabul, killing and injuring several people. Days after an attack on an IOM compound, a suicide bomber killed a guard in an attack on a regional office of the International Committee of Red Crescent in eastern Afghanistan. A senior UN official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said aid agencies are continuously under attacks, spreading fear among the agencies and their workers.
Afghanistan is still considered a “high risk area” in the United Nations. Nadir Farhad, a spokesman for UNHCR in Kabul, says the country’s security situation has been responsible for the delay in delivering humanitarian aid to Afghans. “It is a tough job to deliver aid to people in Afghanistan,” lamented Mr. Farhad.
Andreas Stefansson, Swedish committee country director says being an aid worker in Afghanistan is “a tough and challenging job”.
He says that his agency’s workers are being arrested, mistaken for government employees by insurgents. For this reason, they rely on councils within local villages to protect their aid workers rather than security forces.
The future of the humanitarian situation is unclear – Mr. Stefansson says it depends on “internal politics and foreign countries contribution to stabilize or destabilize” the country. But Nabi remains committed to helping his people as he delivers textbooks to boys and girls to make a better future. “I am happy with my job despite its risk because I serve my people.”