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Building better lives in the midst of conflict

Afghanistan, February 29, 2012

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  • Young men learn small engine repair at Mercy Corps' INVEST vocational training programs in Helmand Province. They eagerly returned to classes as soon as possible after rising unrest last week. Photo: Andrea Koppel/Mercy Corps

The last week has seen significant violence in Afghanistan as demonstrations and protests have erupted across the country in response to the news that U.S. troops at Bagram Airbase burned copies of the Holy Koran. Over 20 people have died, hundreds have been injured, and many cars, tankers, police vehicles and shops have been burned. U.S. bases have been attacked, American flags burned, and on occasion, Afghan security forces have themselves turned on their international counterparts, resulting in the death of two American soldiers, and more recently, the deaths of two senior U.S. commanders in Kabul.

Trying to do development in the midst of such violence is very challenging. Not only is there the immediate threat of getting caught up in the fighting, but the message that the world cares about Afghanistan and wants to help is very difficult to get across when there is such anger directed towards the international community.

Mercy Corps works in many of the places where fighting has been taking place, and our position of impartiality and our long term relations with communities has historically enabled us to continue to work, even in very challenging circumstances.

One of the things that has really hit home during this experience is the importance of staying in touch with communities, ensuring that we as an agency understand the concerns and challenges that face the people who we serve in such changing circumstances. Mercy Corps has worked in Afghanistan for over 25 years, and this longevity has built a unique trust with the communities in which we are immersed.

As the uncertain tensions and violence in Afghanistan continue, Mercy Corps remains committed to the people who we work with. Our predominantly Afghan team is working tirelessly to ensure that their needs are met, and that even where activities are suspended, communities experience only minimal reductions in the services that we provide.

While our vocational training schools in Helmand were closed during the height of protests last week, our teachers and staff continued to call and check in with students, ensuring that they were not getting caught up in the violence. We had numerous reports that students were continuing to study even at home and were eager to resume the lessons.

If there is one thing that I have learned in the last two years of working in Afghanistan, it is that the Afghan spirit is incredibly resilient. Afghans have been through some horrendous experiences, but they remain positive that one day life will get better. Their faith and their optimism humbles me as I work with them every day, and their continuing hospitality to our international staff even under very trying circumstances only takes the respect that I have for them to new levels. Working and living in Afghanistan is certainly a challenge at times, however it is also a great privilege. I am conscious of that every day.