MarySmith’sPlace -Back in the saddle, bribery and injections Afghanistan adventures#42

Lal-sar-Jangal, Hazaristan – early winter 1989

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Next day, Slowcoach had obviously decided to accept her fate and make the best of a bad job.  She kept moving, if somewhat reluctantly, until we reached the home of Qurban’s patient, Nasir – after four hours.

After we had eaten, Nasir produced some apples. They were so very small and bruised I, at first, assumed they were for the horses. But they were for us. Other than Khudadad’s gift of a melon, they were the first fruit, I’d seen since arriving in Lal. In the summer months, melons are available, brought from Bamiyan, but bananas, oranges, tomatoes are never seen. When Bashir had shown me his English ABC book I’d pointed to the picture of an orange, asking him the Dari word for it. He shook his head, ‘It has no word in Dari,’ he replied. I said there must be, but he insisted there was not. When asked, Qurban explained Bashir had never seen an orange in his life, and assumed there was only an English name for it.

Lal’s climate was certainly not suitable for growing much in the way of fruit. It is only warm three months in the year, the soil is poor, and few farmers have enough land to grow sufficient wheat for their needs, so even vegetables are rarely grown – a few potatoes and turnips. It was hardly surprising so many children in Lal suffered from a variety of health problems caused by poor nutrition. Feeling guilty about even thinking of giving Slowcoach my precious apple, I bit into it as though it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.

Nasir brought his wife and children into the room to meet me. With the exception of the smallest baby – only a few weeks old – all the children had running noses and skin infections, head-lice and, possibly, scabies.

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 The healthiest child in the family.

I held the baby, the healthiest person by far in the family while Nasir, with Qurban translating rapidly, gave a prepared speech of welcome. This included a great many flowery sentiments about friendship, followed by references to his poor house, his poor family – ending with an outright appeal for money, for a job. He handed over a written application, setting out his case and asking for financial assistance.

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The dinner and the apples had clearly been an investment. Leprosy patients were able to apply to the social care budget for help if their economic situation, and any disability caused by the disease, warranted it. Nasir, however, owned land and was fit enough to work. Mumbling something about discussing the matter with the committee, I pushed the letter into my bag. I wished he had just asked me outright for a loan when we had met at the clinic, without the charade of the lunch party and overtures of friendship.

The following year, Nasir was given a substantial loan with which to buy supplies, in Kabul, to enable him to open a small shop in his village. He returned from Kabul wearing a very smart new suit, very little stock for his shop and the rest of the money had disappeared. A few months after this he put in yet another loan application – despite not having repaid any of the first one – this time it was refused.

Next morning, we left early to return to the clinic and, wonder of wonders, Slowcoach was quite amenable to a getting up a bit of speed, a sort of half jog. Just when I thought I was improving my riding skills, Qurban dashed my hopes by informing me the only reason the horse was prepared to go faster was because she was going home. By the time we reached the clinic I’d decided I never wanted to sit on a horse again – dreams painfully shattered by reality. I was horrified when reminded of Haboly’s invitation for the following weekend, another four hours of torture each way and, worst of all, I learned for the first time, that the journey to Waras would take two days on horseback – each way.

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In the meantime I carried on with the work I’d to do, including taking stock of medicines and equipment, a task often interrupted by the women who wanted to talk to me. Although I met dozens of women every day no friendships were formed between us as they were in Jaghoray.  Having always subscribed to the feminist principle that all women are sisters, I was appalled to discover I harboured extremely un-sisterly feelings regarding the women of Lal. Every conversation centred entirely round their determination to get medicines or money from me.  I felt guilty about my reaction to their constant whining and complaining, their shameless demands, and their dirty smell.

It wasn’t their fault I’d tell myself. I looked at every excuse I could think of – the relentless, grinding poverty, the annual pregnancies, the death of almost half of all infants before the age of five, the lack of education – but still I could not prevent the feelings of frustration, even disgust, as a woman clutched at my clothing, whining for a pejkari, an injection, for her sickly baby. I’d spend time trying to explain her child needed foods such as potatoes, green vegetables (though where she’d find them I didn’t know), yoghurt, eggs. The endlessly patient Rahimy helped to translate, but the woman would close her ears, continuing to demand an injection. Then, realising this mother desperately wanted her child to live I’d force myself to try again.

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I don’t remember where this was taken but it reminded me of when there was no worries about  lockdown hair!

MarySmith’sPlace -What contrary Mary grows in her garden

Here in bonnie Galloway, we’ve had torrential rain for the last two days – much of it horizontal, blown by gale force winds. Not a blink of sun to relieve the gloom. I dread what destruction has taken place in the garden.

I’m glad I took some photos before the weather changed!

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What is this? I put a tiny bit in some years ago and have to keep digging up chunks of it

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Bees adore it

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#41 When a childhood dream becomes an adult nightmare

Lal-sar-Jangal – early winter 1989

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Qurban’s little brother Bashir and friend


The journey to visit Qurban’s family was rapidly approaching and my chance to fulfil a lifelong ambition to learn to ride a horse. As a child I had wanted more than anything to own a pony, badgering my parents to no avail. The “we can’t afford its” won. I contented myself with devouring every horsy book I could lay my hands on. I succeeded in cadging the occasional ride on a friend’s fat pony and the occasional riding lesson. My passion waned although it never completely left me.

Now, horses suddenly appeared to be very large. Qurban’s horse seemed particularly huge, and every time I passed close to where he was tethered, I had the uneasy suspicion he rolled his eyes at me in a wicked and knowing way.

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We set off in the afternoon for the three-hour ride. I was relieved to see my horse was considerably smaller than Qurban’s. Dredging my memory for all the theoretical knowledge about horsemanship stored away since childhood I declined Ibrahim’s offer of help to mount and, one foot in the stirrup I gracefully swung the other leg over the horse. The ‘How to’ books hadn’t said anything on the subject of mounting a horse while wearing Afghan dress and long chaddar. My graceful manoeuvre was marred by the necessity of having to make hasty rearrangements to my clothing to regain my modest appearance.

I took the proffered reins, afraid to grip too tightly in case the horse thought this was a signal to go, but refused the whip which was also offered. I had read my Pullen-Thomson, and knew that the bond, which would surely soon be formed between me and my horse, would be sufficient for me to direct her with the lightest of touches on the reins.

Qurban arrived, his horse impatient to be off, stamping his hooves and circling round and round, nostrils flaring. Ibrahim turned my horse around and led us to the edge of the village where I managed to raise one hand in a tentative wave of farewell to everyone who had turned out to watch. All went well for the first fifty yards. My horse stopped, refusing to put a hoof in the shallow stream we had to cross. Qurban was already miles in front, oblivious to the fact that I was no longer with him. I felt a complete idiot.  Having tried the pressure with the knees bit, the gentle tug on the reins bit and even – principles are soon abandoned in the face of acute embarrassment – a sharp kick or two with my heels, I didn’t know what else to do. Some men working in a nearby field saw my predicament and alerted Qurban, who sent his young brother, Bashir, to the rescue. He took the reins and led us through the water.

We plodded on. Plodded, rather implies a dogged determination to reach one’s destination but my horse’s speed and enthusiasm for this venture was demonstrated by a laconic shamble. I named her Slowcoach.

Qurban was still a long way ahead, half way up a mountain. On the gentle, lower slopes Slowcoach stopped. I urged her on. Qurban, impatient with my uselessness, yelled advice from far above, “Kick her!” I kicked; Slowcoach gave a huge sigh, moved forward ten yards and stopped again. I kicked, I kicked harder then, thinking I was perhaps being too squeamish about this business of getting a horse to move, I kicked harder still. Slowcoach sighed heavily again, but she did not move. Bashir had to run back down the mountain to lead her on. It was all very embarrassing.

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Bashir on Qurban’s horse, me on Slowcoach

Qurban said nothing when we finally caught up with him. On the summit of the pass he dismounted, saying we should lead the horses down as the slope was too steep for them to carry our weight. I was delighted. I made faster progress on my own two feet than on Slowcoach’s four.

We paused for a photo session of the superb views from a height of around 3000 metres.  For miles an endlessly repeating pattern of mountains and valleys, the landscape patch-worked in shades of brown and russet and golden yellow, glowed in the late afternoon sun. We were in a totally silent world. Suddenly a huge bird soared into the sky from a nearby mountain top, circling and swooping in its lonely search for prey. Qurban said it was an eagle but I knew he would have called any large bird an eagle, and debating cheerfully about other birds of prey we continued down the mountain.

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Qurban – the world beneath him – and the sun going down because I’d taken so long.

The journey which he said took three hours actually lasted for more than six and, long before our arrival, it had assumed a nightmarish quality for me. Qurban assured me Slowcoach was not lazy and offered to exchange horses to show well she could go. I agreed, but as soon as I mounted his horse, sensing my nervousness, he began to prance around. Qurban speedily reclaimed his horse before I did any lasting damage to him, and I returned to Slowcoach with some relief, but an even greater sense of failure.

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Bashir on Qurban’s horse, Slowcoach behind.

When darkness fell Qurban switched on a torch. We were walking along the edge of a precipice, on a path barely wide enough to accommodate a bicycle never mind a four footed animal. I wished Bashir was still leading me but he had gone to sleep behind Qurban, exhausted after climbing so many mountains, twice, to help me. When we finally arrived I dismounted and hobbled after Qurban like an old woman. I was already dreading the horrors of the return journey, when Qurban told he’d accepted an invitation for us to visit a patient’s house next day. “It’s not far, an hour by horse.”

“At your speed or mine?”  I asked fearfully.

Qurban considered, gave a ghost of a smile and amended his estimate, “Well, maybe three hours.”

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#40

Lad-sar-Jangal Winter 1989

Qurban’s wife, Masooma, had taken their two daughters to Pakistan to visit her parents, who had not yet seen their grandchildren. She was expected to return with Jon when he came to collect me. In the evenings I sometimes joined Qurban in his room where we talked late into the night catching up on news.

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Qurban had spent much of his life in Karachi and was eager for news of friends there, and to reminisce about his days at the leprosy training centre and hospital. Although I had known Qurban quite well during his student days he had never talked much about his early childhood in Afghanistan. During one of our late night sessions he told the story of the horrors of those days when, at the age of about seven he contracted leprosy.

He had known of the disease as his paternal uncle had leprosy. In those days, people were terrified of leprosy, believing it to be incurable. As no-one understood its cause all kinds of misconceptions and myths surrounded the illness: it was a curse of God, a punishment for sin.  Qurban’s uncle must have done something dreadful to be punished in this way, a bad person, to be avoided. He had been ostracised by the community, forced to build his house far away from the village. He wasn’t allowed to pray in the mosque.

One day as Qurban was returning from the village school he and some friends had stopped to play in the river. A friend pointed to a light coloured skin patch on Qurban’s leg, asking what had caused it. Qurban hadn’t noticed the patch before. When his friend poked it with a sharp stick he felt no pain. In that instant he understood. His uncle had several similar patches with no feeling on his body. Qurban went home but said nothing to his family – hoping the patch might disappear as mysteriously as it had come.

Eventually he showed the patch to his father. ‘It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I didn’t know grown up men could cry. His tears frightened me more than anything.’   His father warned him to say nothing to anyone. They began a round of visits to doctors, healers, mullahs, wise women – anyone who might have the means of making the patch disappear. Nothing – not the ointments, pills nor injections, made the slightest difference.   Prayers, visits to nearby shrines and tawiz (a few lines of the Quran stitched into a cloth bag and worn as an amulet) were all equally ineffective.

Despite the misery and fear he felt while his parents searched desperately for a cure, Qurban was still a child, with a child’s resilience and enjoyment of life, delighting in leading his friends in mischief. One day he boasted that he could stick pins in his leg and feel no pain.  For a few minutes he had basked in the admiration of his friends at this strange and wonderful feat. Next day his world collapsed.

‘At first I didn’t understand what had happened. No-one at school would talk to me but I knew they were whispering things about me. After school, for the first time in my life, no-one would walk home with me. But a crowd of boys was following me. I wanted to run, but I kept walking normally. Suddenly a stone hit my back, then another and another and the boys were shouting “Leper, leper!”  Then I ran.’

Qurban’s school days were over, his childhood had ended.

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Band-i-Amir – one of the most beautiful places in Afghanistan

One day Qurban’s father took him to the shrine at Band-i-Amir. This chain of five lakes, or dams, is said to have been created by Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad (PBUH). The waters are reputed to have healing powers. Qurban was excited about travelling so far, convinced that this time, surely, he would be cured.

Wondering whether he was to drink the magic water or wash the patch in it, he heard a splash. Turning, he saw threshing arms and legs churning the water. A young girl, a rope tied about her waist, had been thrown into the lake. He watched, horrified, as she was finally hauled, gasping and spluttering back onto the bank. She lay vomiting onto the shore while the people surrounding her murmured prayers.

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Taking to the curative waters. This photo was taken in 2006 when I returned to Afghanistan

Convinced he would die Qurban became hysterical, begging his father not to throw him in the water. His father agreed that they should go first to pray at the shrine before Qurban underwent the “treatment”.  The child’s sobs attracted the attention of a stranger who paused and peered at the patch on his leg. ‘That is leprosy,’ he announced. ‘You will never cure it like that – better go to Pakistan. They have medicine for this. My wife’s cousin was cured there.’

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The shrine at Band-i-Amir I think that might be my son standing in the foreground!

Qurban had wanted to go immediately.  Not realising that Pakistan was another country, he couldn’t understand why his father, although excited by the news, did not seem particularly anxious to set off on another journey to buy the medicine. ‘He struggled for months to raise enough money for the trip,’ he explained. ‘And he had to make arrangements for someone to care for my mother and the land. All this time I hated my father because I thought he had decided not to go.’ Qurban paused, blinking back sudden tears, before continuing: ‘I was seven years old, quite a big boy, but all the way to Pakistan, I complained about being too tired to walk. My father carried me on his shoulders most of the way.’

Even when they reached Quetta their troubles were far from over. Many Hazaras had already settled in the city and they soon made contact with people from their own area – but no one had heard of a cure for leprosy. Soon they were caught up once more in a round of visits to doctors, whose prescriptions were useless and expensive. His savings soon vanished and Qurban’s father had to find work. Not far from Quetta he found a job as a coal miner; back breaking work digging for coal in a series of open cast mines and tunnels running deep into the side of the mountain.

One day their luck changed. They met a doctor who not only recognised Qurban had leprosy, but knew of the hospital in Karachi where it could be treated.  He wrote a letter of referral to a doctor there. Within days, Qurban and his father had made the journey to Karachi and Qurban had been admitted for treatment in the large Manghopir hospital on the outskirts of the huge city. His father left him almost immediately to return to Lal.

Qurban grinned, ‘The rest you know – school, training, marriage and back to Afghanistan.’   I realised, however, there was a great deal about Qurban I really didn’t know at all. Although completely cured of leprosy, the memory of those stones thrown by his school friends so long ago had marked him deeply. Those little boys, grown up now, had welcomed Qurban back into the community – showing him acceptance and respect. But Qurban’ feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence made him question what the community really thought of him.

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Qurban in dark glasses even with his family.

Convinced everyone who looked at him saw immediately, in his loss of eyebrows, the stigma of leprosy, he had affected the habit of wearing dark glasses at all times, even indoors. He suffered periods of moody introspection, which could last for days, during which he would talk to no one, followed by a sudden cheerful gregariousness. His sudden mood swings left everyone confused. Qurban admitted he could do nothing to fight off the black clouds of depression which descended on him without warning.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistanadventures#39 – Learning who’s who at the Lal clinic

Lal October 1989

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After the excitement of arriving in Lal I experienced a sense of desolation when Khudadad left next day. Although we’d been travelling companions for barely two weeks, not only had I come to depend on him for so much – from ensuring I was well fed to finding a bed for the night – but I’d truly enjoyed his company. As the truck pulled away I stood forlornly clutching the huge melon he had given me as a farewell gift, waving until he was out of sight.

Stocktaking and updating the record cards of leprosy patients seemed such mundane chores compared to the excitement of travelling, never quite knowing what might happen or where we would end up. Having to begin all over again getting to know a new group of people none of whom, apart from Qurban, I had ever met before was daunting.

The clinic was a depressing place with dark, poky little rooms whose tiny windows allowed in hardly any light – a common design feature in houses throughout the area, to insulate them from the bitter chill in winter, when temperatures drop to -40C. Qurban had done his best to improve the appearance of my room, which was the size of a cupboard, by lining the crumbling walls with orange cloth. When I was in bed, a colony of mice staged athletics events behind the cloth, occasionally venturing out to scamper across the pillow. Qurban was negotiating over the price of a piece of land on which to build a new clinic, something I hoped he could accomplish quickly.

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Entrance to the clinic

I began to sort out who was who amongst the staff. Ibrahim was in charge of the dressings and injection room where he did the soaking, trimming and dressing of leprosy patients’ ulcers, as well as attending to other wounds and injuries. As two of his nephews had both been my English students in Karachi where they were trainee leprosy technicians, I happily accepted Ibrahim’s invitation to visit his home in Waras sometime, as I had promised the boys I would try to deliver their letters personally to their families.

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Qurban, his brother Bashir and a patient (name has escaped me)

I’d already been invited by Qurban to visit his family’s village and Haboly, the general medical assistant, was insistent that I must also visit his. Invitations quickly followed from Aziz and Rahimy and my social calendar was soon completely filled for all foreseeable weekends.

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Ibrahim on the camel on the right. Camels were rarely seen so far north

Rahimy had been a mujahid but retired from their service, cheerfully returning his Kalashnikov, to work in the clinic as a field assistant where he was paid a regular salary and was less likely to be shot at. Wounded in a skirmish, the injury had left him with a permanent disability in one hand. He was such a quiet, gentle person, demonstrating a genuine concern for the patients, it was difficult to visualise him in his former role of gun toting freedom fighter. Rahimy was to come with us to Pakistan to attend a laboratory technician course over the winter. The second field assistant, Juma, would then, the following summer, begin his training in Karachi as a leprosy technician.

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Patient on right and some of his family

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Me being maternal with a baby securely parcelled up so it didn’t wriggle

Every morning patients gathered early outside the gates of the compound. Many travelled for hours by foot, or by donkey – by horse, if they were better off. Some took two days or more to make the journey from remote villages and, most days, around fifty patients arrived to consult Qurban and Haboly. They arrived well prepared for a long wait, bringing with them kettles and dry tea and nan, along with fodder for the horses and donkeys. Children found new playmates with whom to pass the time, chasing each other amongst the groups of adults and around the tethered animals. The scene resembled a country fair and in fact, in the days following the clinic’s initial opening, one enterprising man had opened a temporary chaikhana to cater for the crowds.


In addition to these “general” patients Qurban had a case load of around two hundred leprosy patients scattered across his extensive control area. He had an almost equal number of registered tuberculosis cases. It was too much for one leprosy technician to cope with so Qurban was keen for Juma to start his training as soon as possible to lighten the load.

Tuberculosis patients caused the greatest concern because of the rate of absenteeism, and lack of personnel to follow up missing patients. The effectiveness of the tuberculosis drugs in some ways works against controlling the disease in Afghanistan – and other developing countries – because soon after a patient begins his treatment he feels well. Believing he is cured, he discontinues the medication. If he is being prescribed drugs by a private doctor the cost for the full course of treatment is prohibitively expensive and, understandably, the impoverished patient has other uses for his money. The biggest danger, when a patient stops taking his medicine before all the bacteria has been destroyed, is the remaining bacteria mutate into a new strain, resistant to those particular drugs.

When news spread a foreign doctor had arrived the numbers of patients, especially women, increased. Despite Qurban’s cajoling I refused to play at being a doctor. ‘In my country a person would be sent to jail if caught pretending to be a doctor. It’s too easy to make a wrong diagnosis or prescribe the wrong drugs. I’m happy to check female leprosy patients and talk to mothers about nutrition and family planning but I’m not going to pretend I can do anything more than that.’

Qurban laughed, ‘You are not in your country now. The people here are desperate for medical care. Anyway, everyone in this clinic is a doctor, even the cook!’ I’d heard the cook being called Dr Aziz but had assumed it was simply a term of respect. I hadn’t considered the possibility that he might actually prescribe medicines for people and was only slightly reassured to discover he confined his prescribing to aspirin and vitamins.

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‘Dr’ Aziz, the cook

We finally agreed I would do the stock taking, write my reports and carry out leprosy examinations on female patients. I’d be available to talk to women about nutrition for their children and for themselves in pregnancy, to explain how contraceptive pills should be taken or to teach a woman how to work out her fertile days. The dwindling number of female patients soon made it clear the women were not interested in hearing a foreigner talk about mashed potatoes and greens for their children, and had no magic drugs to make their babies strong and healthy.


Down the Rabbit Hole of British Politics

I’m honoured today to be a guest blogger on Robert Goldstein’s blog, writing about the ‘rabbit hole of British politics’. Rob’s is my go-to blog to help me understand what’s going on in American politics.

Art by Rob Goldstein

I asked fellow blogger, Mary Smith, to write about her experience of the chaos in the UK. The United States is not alone in its struggle to come to terms with an election outcome that may be the result of Russian Interference.

Sometimes, when I look at the UK’s current political picture, I feel as though I’ve fallen down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole and ended up in a land where everything is topsy turvy and incomprehensible. Bizarrely, Prime Minister Boris Johnston says he’s proud of how the coronavirus pandemic has been handled – this in relation to the 40,000 deaths so far, the highest death rate in Europe. In fact, at the moment of writing this, the UK has the third-highest death rate in the world. When he boasts about being a world leader in defeating Covid-19, is this really what he means? This, from the Prime Minister…

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Do you care? #CarersWeek

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

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I wandered through into the kitchen, snuggled in my dressing gown, to boil my own kettle for my second coffee of the day… an unaccustomed luxury. I am usually at work by that time, dragged reluctantly from sleep by the alarm clock, woken by the cold pre-dawn walk with the dog and, seven days a week, drink my second cup of coffee perched on the end of my son’s bed. Last night, I had dressed and driven back to work when I should have been on my way to bed. Tomorrow, I will be at work before breakfast. These things happen in my job. While my son, quite rightly, objects to me calling him ‘work’, he is, after all, both my job and my employer (and it is better than some of the things I have called him…).

It has been a while since I wrote about being a carer…

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MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#38 – We finally reach Lal sar Jangal

Autumn 1989 Yakolang to Lal

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It was bitterly cold at four o’clock in the morning and I really hated leaving my snug, downy bed for the trudge across frozen fields to a frozen truck. Paying a quick call behind a tree before we departed, I shuddered at the thought of how it must be to live here in the middle of winter, the snow thick on the ground for months on end. In an attempt to defog the windscreen, the driver drove with his window wide open. Sitting immediately behind him, I felt the full force of the icy air blasting in my face.


At the prayer stop I shivered, watching the men washing in icy water from a stream.  Khudadad didn’t join them. It certainly woke them up and they returned to the truck, talking and laughing together, although for the most part they ignored us. The breakfast stop was at a small chaikhana where Khudadad insisted that I sit on a particular piece of floor space. This was almost entirely taken up by the driver, who reluctantly shuffled sideways to allow me to enjoy the glorious warmth generated by an underground central heating system. Hot air from a fire is forced through tunnels under the floor. I understood the driver’s reluctance to give up even a few inches of blissful heat.

Breakfast was tea and bread with individual pots of butter. The butter was so hard I couldn’t see how I was to spread it. The driver solved the problem by sprinkling his butter liberally with sugar, then eating it with a spoon. I followed suit.

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The sun finally warmed the cab to a tolerable degree. The road wound up mountain after mountain. At the top of each pass the conductor leapt out to cover the bonnet with a large blanket. This, Khudadad explained, was to prevent the engine, which had become dangerously over heated on its laborious struggle uphill, from cooling down too quickly on the downward slope. At the bottom of the pass the blanket would be removed until the top of the next one was reached.  On the steepest part of the climb all the passengers sitting amongst the apples in the back of the truck got out to walk, to lessen the load, as the ancient vehicle groaned its way to the summit. These mountains were higher than those I had seen in Jaghoray, rising to a height of over three thousand metres.

When Khudadad informed me that we were nearing the top of the highest pass, I looked out and saw the road snake away behind us with one or two toy town vehicles far, far below. On the descent, two bends from the top, the driver misjudged the turn and brought the truck to a halt, its front wheels teetering on the edge of the drop.

Everyone, including Khudadad, leapt out to help the conductor heave boulders in front of the back wheels to prevent the truck from taking a nose dive down the precipice.  Outside, sounds of shovelling and digging were accompanied by a great deal of shouting but inside the cab with the entire bench to myself, I enjoyed the luxury of stretching full length. I closed my eyes. In a sleepy haze I heard someone knock on the window, a voice declaring, ‘Khau raft– She’s asleep!’  Khudadad’s voice in my ear woke me. He was shouting, ‘You must get out!  Get down! The driver is going to reverse the truck. Get out!’

‘Why can’t he reverse the truck with me in it?  Does my weight make any difference?’

Khudadad shook his head in exasperation. ‘It’s dangerous. You have to get out, now!’

Grumbling about having my nap disturbed I clambered out joining joined the cluster of people gathered on the steep mountain slope. We watched the driver reverse the truck back on to the road. ‘See.’ I beamed at Khudadad, ‘I knew he could do it. You have no faith, that’s your trouble, no faith at all.’  I took my place again on my allotted twelve inches of seat.

‘Were you not afraid?’

‘No, he is a good driver; he knew what he was doing. And the conductor had put half a mountain in front of the wheels – the truck couldn’t possibly have fallen over.’ I didn’t admit that until I had actually seen the drop over which we teetered – once forced out of the truck – I had been unaware of the danger.

The driver demanded a translation and was obviously delighted at my praise of his driving – he smiled at me for the first time since we had met.

The scenery changed as we left the high mountain passes, driving now through the flat valley of Kirman with rugged rocky outcrops on either side of us. Few vehicles were on the road but we were clearly in horse country. Many riders had to rein in their mounts as we passed. Frightened by the noise of the truck, the horses stamped their hooves and tossed their heads, obviously longing to flee from the terrifying monster approaching them. Again the landscape altered and we were in the midst of great, rounded, sweeping mountain vistas, vastly different from the more rocky and rugged mountains of Jaghoray.

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Khudadad pointed, ‘On top of that hill, on the other side of the river, is the Lal clinic.’

By the time the truck pulled up a welcoming committee had formed. Jumping from the cab I scanned the blur of faces until I caught sight of Qurban’s familiar features as he pushed through the crowd to greet us. Khudadad received a huge hug and kisses on both cheeks, I got a brief handshake and we were swept off to have tea with my “brother” and his colleagues.

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Qurban and his mother and siblings

Introductions were made to a host of staff, patients and curious visitors but I knew it would be days before I succeeded in sorting out who was who.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventrues#37 One more sleep before Lal

Autumn 1989 somewhere between Yakolang and Lal

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Juma Khan, the truck owner joined Khudadad and me for tea in the guest room. He was accompanied by his elderly wife whose eyes were filmed by cataracts. Pointing to his wife’s eyes he asked what could be done; did I have any medicine to make her see again? My heart sank. I was going to be a very disappointing guest.

I shook my head, explaining only an operation would help. The nearest hospital where such surgery could be performed was Kabul. We all knew, without further discussion, that Juma Khan’s wife would end her days in darkness. More patients from the village arrived for consultations – children with eczema, children with scabies, malnutrition, diarrhoea. The picturesque rural scene I had seen as we arrived disguised the poverty, ignorance and disease in the village.

Apart from a couple of doctors of doubtful qualifications in the bazaar of Yakolang no other medical facility was nearer than our clinic in Lal. Some years ago, an American Government funded mission group had built a hospital in Yakolang. It had been closed, even before the Soviet invasion, amidst rumours of spying and proselytising.  I had seen the modern buildings as we drove through the bazaar earlier and, faced with so many children for whom I could do little to help; I wondered why one of the many aid organisations working in Afghanistan did not re-open the much needed hospital. Our organisation was tiny, but where I wondered were Oxfam, Save the Children, the UN agencies?  Khudadad answered, ‘This place is too far from Pakistan. They don’t want the bother. It is easier for them to help in the nearer, Pashtun areas.’

Although he spoke in English, on hearing the word “Pashtun” Juma Khan’s wife let out a long wail of anguish followed by a voluble speech full of anger and grief. Khudadad explained, ‘This family are originally from near Jaghoray, but the Pushtoon took their land and forced them to move. Many, many families lost their lands at that time and moved here.  The land is not good and farming is hard. They will always hate the Pushtoon people. That is why the Hazaras must have some power when there is a new Government.’

It was quite a speech from Khudadad and the emotion in his voice was clear. ‘When did this happen?’ I asked.

‘During the time of Abdur Rahman Khan,’ he replied. ‘They will never forget.’

L0020789 Emir Abd or-Rahman, Rawalpindi, April, 1885

Abdur Rahman Khan ruled from 1880 to 1901 and is known for uniting Afghanistan after years of fighting when the Durand Line was being negotiated with the British Raj. He also forcibly removed thousands of Hazaras from their lands which were given to Pashtuns. Thousands of Hazaras were killed, raped, sold into slavery and many thousands more left Afghanistan for Iran, Baluchistan (in what is now Pakistan). The Governor of Baluchistan reported to the foreign department of India that he believed Abdur Rahman was intending to exterminate the Hazaras.

Even though she was not even born in the days of Abdur Rahman Khan’s rule I understood Juma Khan’s wife’s anger and grief. At home in Scotland people still talk about The Killing Times, as though they took place a couple of decades ago. It was a period of church conflict in the 17th century.

The rest of the party soon arrived for dinner. More tea was served. Having seen the tea consumption of the average Afghan, I fail to understand why the English are considered to be a race of tea drinkers. Dinner was “sheer brinj” (literally, milk rice) and for me it was a first to see it served as a main, savoury dish rather than as a pudding. I watched to see how I was supposed to tackle the moulded ring of glutinous rice, surrounded a well of hot oil. As he dipped balls of rice into the hot oil, Khudadad muttered, under his breath, complaints about the fare.

I found it unappetising myself but, not surprisingly it was a filling meal and I soon felt that I had eaten more than enough. The driver bellowed a question which Khudadad translated, ‘He wants to know why foreigners eat like birds while Afghans eat like donkeys?’ I mumbled something about how hard most Afghans work compared to us puny foreigners, which provoked much laughter.  I was amazed at how much food they managed to put away, especially as not one of them, even the giant conductor, was even slightly overweight.  If the amount of food they consumed was impressive, the tea drinking which followed was truly awesome. Two enormous kettles containing several gallons of tea were brought, with a smaller teapot for the foreign bird.

As the guests talked and talked I grew more and more sleepy. I might even have fallen asleep had I not been diverted by the antics of a little mouse, scampering nimbly over the bedding and cushions round the edges of the room.  Khudadad caught my eye and grinned when he saw what I was watching but no-one else appeared to have noticed, so engrossed were they in their conversation. At last, the driver upended the kettle. It was empty.  Juma Khan immediately offered to have more tea brought and I smothered a sigh at the thought, but apparently the signal for departure had been given.

Khudadad had been unusually quiet throughout the evening, taking little part in the talk, and I wondered if something was wrong but he replied, ‘No, no. I was a little bored. They were talking about their business.’

While we prepared our beds Khudadad continued to talk, translating chunks of the after dinner conversation, delighted with the improvement in his English which enabled him to be so articulate. I lay down, but Khudadad carried on talking, making up for his silence earlier in the evening. When he had completed his run down of the evening’s discourse, which seemed to have been mainly about the price of goods and transport costs, he began on the political history of the revolution. I would have found this a more interesting topic but, unfortunately, at this point, his English failed him and he turned off the lamp.

There was a sudden scampering by my head as the mouse ran across the pillow, seeking his bed for the night. After a while, I realised he’d found it, inside my pillow case. ‘Khudadad, the mouse is inside my pillow.’ He switched on his torch and we took turns trying to dislodge the mouse, until the ridiculousness of the situation struck us and we both dissolved into helpless laughter. I chose a different pillow, leaving the mouse to his peaceful slumber.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan Adventures #36 Will we ever get to Lal?

Autumn 1989

In the morning, our breath escaped in great clouds of steam. The mountains to the north were topped by white snow caps, glistening in the early sunshine. With no sounds from other travellers to disturb us we had slept late and it was after eight o’clock before Khudadad, went in search of transport.

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I watched a donkey train being led into the compound. Two very young ones frisked around playfully, kicking their heels and nipping at the necks of the older donkeys. They bore this abuse stoically before suddenly nipping back, in a far from playful fashion.

Khudadad returned, saying he’d finally tracked down a driver who was going past our destination on his way further north. We would leave around midday. He looked depressed. ‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it?’ I asked. ‘Even with a late start we can still reach Lal today can’t we?’

He nodded, ‘Yes, yes, we can reach Lal today.’ I’d still not fully learned the Afghan habit of giving an answer the person asking most wanted to hear, with a disconcerting disregard for truth. I accepted his reply, assuming his desolation was only in having to travel in another boneshaker rather than a Mercedes.

We sat outside where it was warmer in the sunshine than in our ice box of a room and watched the donkeys. The littlest one had by now decided that the compound was no longer big enough, it was boring, and he wanted to see the world. Off he went, out of the compound and down the lane towards the bazaar. ‘We better catch him,’ said Khudadad, and we gave chase. By the time we reached the main street the donkey was galloping along, hotly pursued by his master and a couple of passers-by.

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Leaving them to it we crossed the street of what, Khudadad explained, was the new bazaar, turning down a little track which led to open fields bordered by a wood of poplars. Their leaves, dressed in autumn shades of gold, shivered and danced in the breeze as we wandered towards the river. It was wide and fast flowing, although shallow. ‘In spring, when the snow on the mountains melt it becomes very big, very deep. All the land is flooded then,’ he explained.

Soon after lunch we boarded the truck but did not, as I had anticipated, take to the open road immediately. Instead, the driver went to the old bazaar where he took an incredibly long time to load up with apples, bound for some market place beyond Lal. I was becoming increasingly impatient to be on our way, afraid that if we delayed much longer we wouldn’t reach Lal that night. When the driver eventually began to rev the engine, three men pushed their way on to our bench and, although Khudadad protested to the driver, we had no choice but to squeeze up. An additional passenger who tried to gain entry was vociferously refused a place by all five of us, now squashed like sardines in a tin. He was found a space behind, making a total of nine people in the cab.

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I marvelled at how little the others seemed to mind the discomfort. Even Khudadad, had he been travelling alone, would not have voiced any protest about the cramped conditions. The alternative to travelling for hours this way was to walk, for maybe up to two days. I wondered how I would cope, faced with a two day hike to Lal, and tried not to feel too resentful about Khudadad’s elbow in my ribs.

The driver was a large man, but his conductor was a giant. An oblong of solid muscle whose clothes, all stopping well short of his ankles and wrists, gave him an uncanny resemblance to the Incredible Hulk. An elderly, white bearded man, who sat very erect – or it may have simply been that he had no choice but to sit bolt upright sandwiched between the travelling companions on either side – was the truck owner.

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By the time we left the bazaar Khudadad had fallen asleep. As well as his elbow in my ribs, I now had his full weight against me, squashing me against the window. Feelings of resentment grew. When we stopped after little more than an hour’s driving – much too soon for a tea break – I asked if we had a puncture. Khudadad looked a bit shifty. ‘The truck owner lives in the village over there and has invited us for tea.’

I couldn’t just about see a huddle of houses in the distance. ‘But if we stop for tea now  how will we reach Lal tonight?’

Khudadad looked shiftier still. ‘He says the driver is going to stay here for the night.’  Interpreting my expression as one of concern that we were being abandoned by the roadside, he added, ‘We are invited too.’

I was furious with Khudadad. He’d known all along we wouldn’t reach Lal that day. Added to the day’s accumulated delays and discomforts, this “invitation”, which could not be refused, was the final straw. The realisation I had absolutely no control over events in my life while travelling made me doubly angry. I jumped from the cab, refusing to be helped by Khudadad, and marched towards the village, thinking bad thoughts about so called hospitality  thrust on one whether wanted or not. By the time we arrived I had succeeded in regaining my composure – throwing a tantrum, though it may have temporarily relieved my feelings, wouldn’t change the situation.

The village was lovely. Bathed in late afternoon sunshine the half dozen mud houses and tiny mosque had a picturesque appearance complemented by the browns of the surrounding fields, newly ploughed. A sparkle of water indicated where the river cut through a thicket of poplars.  Khudadad and I were installed in a room which had beautiful gilims and rugs covering the floor. The mattresses were at least a foot deep and their enormous bolsters all wore matching, embroidered covers. I began to look forward to bed time.

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