A Journey Through a World of Mercy


October 2, 2003

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    In Afghanistan, men riding donkeys brings to mind another century. Photo: Bob Newell for Mercy Corps Photo:

Afghanistan, especially northern Afghanistan, is by far the most exotic place I have ever seen.

I flew to Taloqan from Kabul. It is in the north, about 60 km. east of Kunduz and not far from the Tajikistan border. The pilots were an American and a Canadian. We flew over the Hindu Kush, which, like the Tien Shan, are some very spectacular mountains.

When we landed there, the runway was just dirt and there was literally nothing else there except the Mercy Corps vehicle and some people waiting to get on to go to the next town. There was a wind sock, but no buildings - only a bombed out tank.

The ride into town was out of another century. It could easily have been from 1,000 years ago with virtually no change. Men and boys on donkeys, women (though not many of them) in burkhas and mud wall construction. The homes here are built against the mud walls of the perimeter and the yard-garden is in the center of the compound. Dust is everywhere.

The town has one paved street, which doesn't even go to the end of the town and lots of activity. There is no electricity, though there are some generators. Most of the men wear turbans and all wear the traditional shalvar kameez (long shirt and pants). Some wear the roll up hats like you've seen on TV and some just the common Muslim skullcap. There is no western dress.

There are occasional remains of tanks and trucks along the way, and the road is in pretty bad shape because of mortar shells and tank traffic. From our vantage point, just by turning around to the hillside, we could see the site of a "quarry" where men chip out flat rocks for transport to the location of various infrastructure projects Mercy Corps carries out such as bridges, irrigation canals and the like. It is very hard work.

We also visited a dam project designed to provide a significant area with water for the canals that have been in disrepair for over 25 years. The project had to be stopped at one point because the community was not cleaning out the canals as agreed. They kept making excuses, and only when Mercy Corps suspended work on the dam did they get out the shovels.

The news we get about Afghanistan modernizing certainly does not apply to the north. All women wear burkhas, though out in the country they will sometimes pull them back from their faces if they think no one is around. I'm told that in the south, women still don't go out in public at all. In Kabul, there is more of a mixture, but at least 50 percent of the women I've seen in public wear burkhas.

This is an extremely conservative, almost medieval society. There seems to be little sense of nationhood and it is not clear to me that there is any real chance that one government can control the whole country. Loyalties are local and tribal, and it will be a long time before this is a nation as we define that term.

That said, I've seen some interesting work. I sat in on an interview of three women (all wearing burkhas, but who allowed me to see, though not photograph, their faces) who were applying for loans. They have no collateral, so they will each be responsible as a group and as individuals for all three loans. They will use the money (about $100) to finance a small business. I met one woman who already had such a loan who used it to buy chickpeas, clean them and resell them. She had been doing that for wages, but the loan allowed her to become independent and increased her income by about 67 percent (up to $2 per day). She also created a couple of jobs for others in the process.