Going to Lashkar Gah


February 23, 2010

Share this story:
  • linkedin
  <span class="field-credit">
    Scott Heidler/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province — whose capital is Lashkar Gah — is plagued by violence, deep poverty and extensive opium poppy cultivation. Photo: Scott Heidler/Mercy Corps

It is six o' clock of the morning of January 5. It is still dark and cold. The vehicle waiting outside of my house is honking its horn. The horn means I have to be ready to go to airport and fly to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

I'm ready and holding my bag on my shoulder. My wife is saying good-bye to me and holding the Holy Qur'an over my head. In Islamic tradition, putting the Qur'an over a person who will be traveling means safety and a safe return.

I have been told not to take jeans to Helmand because the people who live in there are suspicious of western clothing. Helmand — particularly the fighting and violence there — is in the headlines every day and on the news every night on headlines. That news is scary. Whoever I talked to in my office about my trip to Helmand reacted as if I'm going to a gladiator fight.

Finally, after a serious security check at the Kabul airport, I board the plane and am on my way. As we're flying, I feel a heavy hand on my left shoulder, the hand of a short and strong man. I see his smile me as if he knows me. I pressure my mind to recognize this man, and then realize that he is Wasi. I can’t believe it! He is my classmate from the 8th and 9th grade. Wasi and I studied together at a school supported by a Japanese non-governmental organization (NGO) in Pakistan. He is working with the United Nations as a Finance Officer now.

The pilot is announcing our landing. Previously when I've traveled to Helmand, our plane landed on a non-asphalted runway. This time, the runway is asphalted — the airport is under construction with funding from USAID — but there is still no terminal building or other place to check in and wait. So we sit in the airplane and wait for a vehicle to come pick us up.

And now we are heading to the local Mercy Corps office, which is about 10 kilometers from the airport. I'm feeling scared as we're driving. The city looks like the headquarters of the Taliban. Almost everyone here has a long beard, turbans and shilvar kamis. I feel as if everybody is looking at me like a stranger. However, I'm confident because I know the local language and, according to tradition in Afghanistan, language is one of the most important things in somebody's identity.

Finally, we arrive at the Mercy Corps office in Lashkar Gah. We don’t have any plans for today, so I will rest.

The ring of my mobile phone wakes me from sleep. My friend Wasi is on the line. He is waiting for me on the other side of my office door. He says "Let's go to explore the city." I'm scared, but I can’t say "no" because he might think I'm a cowardly person. And so I go with him.

Here in Lashkar Gah, it's very difficult to find a vehicle with a license plate — including the vehicle I'm riding in. Wasi tells me that almost 90 percent of vehicles here are not registered with government.

Lashkar Gah's small main bazaar and only a five-minute ride from the office. At first I was still feeling very scared because I'm still thinking that everyone here looks like Taliban. After all, Helmand used to be one of the most important headquarters of the Taliban in 2001, when they controlled 95 percent of Afghanistan.

We don't see a lot of people any place we go in the city. Wasi tells me that people are scared of gatherings, because they are afraid of suicide bombings. The people of Lashkar Gah have experienced this twice over the past two years. Just a few months ago, a suicide bomber targeted civilians in one of the city’s biggest mosques. The second time, another suicide bomber exploded his bomb among the people who were lined up registering themselves for Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Eventually, after spending an uneventful seven days in Lashkar Gah, I returned to Kabul. As I was leaving, I realized that the city is not as dangerous as I feared it would be. And so now, the next time I get an assignment to go there, I won't be feeling so scared.