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Why I’m hopeful for Afghanistan

From earthquakes to aid cuts, it has been a tricky year, but growing Afghan solidarity gives me hope for the future.


I’ve spent much of the last year in Afghanistan. In that time, I’ve travelled to 6 of the country’s 34 provinces, covering everything from the impact of widespread aid cuts on the health sector, to a series of massive earthquakes, to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Afghans from neighbouring Pakistan.

To many, especially those outside Afghanistan, all of this would conjure a gloomy picture for the future, but despite the many challenges Afghans continue to face, my interactions with people across the country have actually left me with a glimmer of hope.

For the first time in the 10 years I've spent living and working in the country of my birth, I have actually seen the Afghan people finding ways to help their people in a time of great need and uncertainty. Rather than waiting for help from foreign NGOs and other countries, I’ve witnessed the Afghan people reaching out to one another in any way they can despite the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, increasing hunger, and an overall economic downturn.

In October, I returned to the eastern province of Nangarhar – where most of my family is from – for the first time in two years. It was one day after the first in a series of deadly earthquakes and aftershocks hit the western province of Herat, but I was in Jalalabad to report on Pakistan’s impending eviction of up to 1.7 million Afghans.

While waiting to obtain permission from the provincial Directorate of Information and Culture to head to the Torkham crossing, I found myself in a room with half a dozen young Nangarhari men who were seeking permission to erect a tent to gather donations for earthquake victims.

The men, who had already assisted the victims of an earlier series of quakes in Paktika and Khost as well as flooding survivors last year in Logar, were speaking with such enthusiasm and fervour about their “duty” to help their fellow Afghans in need, wherever they may be.

But these young men were by far not the only ones. In the ensuing days, everyone from the national cricket team – fresh from their historic World Cup victory over England – to a finance ministry team, to a group of 22 women health workers all chipped in to assist the 27,150 people the World Health Organization says were affected by the multiple earthquakes and aftershocks.

As I was preparing to head to Herat days later, I saw collection drives outside a mosque and in a park near my house in central Kabul. Passersby, many of whom were facing economic challenges of their own, were handing over whatever they could to the collection boxes.

When I arrived at Kabul International, there was also a collection box at the entrance to the airport terminals. At the domestic terminal’s final security screening, a female security worker stopped an elderly man to ask why the scanner showed that his bag was full of money.

“I’m a doctor. I came all the way from Canada to help the earthquake survivors,” he said, as he pulled out a wad of tens of thousands of afghanis. “May God accept your charity,” another security guard said as the woman told the doctor he could proceed to the waiting area, where most of the passengers were also on their way to Herat.

In Herat itself, I came across two young women in abayas who were shooting footage of a makeshift graveyard in one of the affected villages on their iPhones. The two women, who were in their twenties, said they were there to report on the devastation for “social media”.

The next day, I returned to those same villages with a group of three social media influencers who had made the 19-hour drive from Kabul by themselves.

The young men, who hadn’t been to Herat before, had already spent so much time surveying the area that they were able to deftly navigate the dirt and sand-filled roads in order to head directly to the affected villages in their small Toyota Corolla.

In each village we went to, they would tell me how the situation was evolving. It was only after spending several days on these back-and-forth trips from the city to the villages that they finally distributed the donations they had gathered online, once they knew who needed what most.

Ali M. Latifi/TNH
After decades of war, Afghans are benefiting from a period of reduced conflict, with some municipalities launching construction efforts to reimagine urban centres.

Even more surprising, perhaps, has been the way the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate government has been trying to assist people in times of crisis, despite being hamstrung by an economic decline, aid cutbacks, sanctions on their top leadership, and the continued confiscation of billions of dollars in Central Bank assets.

The restrictions the Taliban has placed on the Afghan people, particularly women, cannot and should not be downplayed by any means, however, I was heartened to see top officials of the Islamic Emirate personally travelling to Herat to visit survivors of the earthquakes.

They also established a special commission to handle the aid efforts – something they also did to assist the many Afghans who have returned as a result of Pakistan’s expulsion threats: more than 450,000 people since September.

When I spoke to the female doctors who had come to Herat without male chaperones – something that is technically forbidden by the Islamic Emirate’s restrictions on women’s travel – I was happy to see that they were willing to make exceptions to their strict policies.

Sonita Bahram, one of the female doctors, told me that rather than feeling chided and dismissed, she and her colleagues received nothing but words of encouragement from government officials: “They would say to us, ‘Good for you, may God bless you that you came all the way here in such a dangerous time to a place where many men wouldn’t dare to come’.”

This sense of solidarity, and of finding the courage to stand up for fellow Afghans, went beyond just post-disaster relief.

When the acting defence minister, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, gave an unprecedented interview to the nation’s largest private broadcaster, the all-male audience took the opportunity to ask the son of the founder of the Taliban head-on about the Islamic Emirate’s continued closure of secondary schools and universities to girls and women.

I don’t know what the future holds for my country, and all of this may seem like small exceptions amidst the Taliban’s wide-ranging restrictions and rights abuses, but it’s enough to give me some hope that my people are once again looking to help one another despite the outsized dangers and obstacles.

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