MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #22 with fighting and kidnappings

Now we were living on the building site work on the new clinic was speeding up and patients seemed unconcerned about the makeshift consulting room. I still spent part of the day writing out case notes and prescriptions. It was good practice for my language skills and could listen to the gossip – even if I did still need Hussain to translate much of it.

Much of the talk was about the fighting which had recently taken place. From what people were saying it had been more than the usual inter-party skirmish and several days of heavy fighting had resulted in casualties, both dead and injured, on both sides.

We decided to visit the Qolijou hospital.

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Qolijou Hospital from the mountain behind. Built at a time Soviet air strikes were a possibility, it’s well camouflaged

The grounds were swarming with mujahideen and a weary Rosanna was in the outpatient department.

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A group of mujahideen posing for their photo – they don’t usually point their guns at each other!

She and the translators had been kept busy patching up the wounded. The stranger with her introduced himself as the “prisoner doctor”. He was an Egyptian surgeon, brought to the hospital to operate on one of Nasre’s men, critically injured in the fighting. I had heard of four foreigners who the Nasre Party had kidnapped a year earlier. They had been sent by an Islamic Arabic organisation to work on a programme it was funding in a Pushtoon area.

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The ward in the hospital

En route they, three doctors and a teacher had been taken hostage. No one seemed to say with certainty what Nasre hoped to gain by this, nor even if negotiations were taking place. Some said Nasre wanted money, others believed the Party was demanding the organisation should build and supply a hospital for Nasre in Hazara Jat. Until meeting the Egyptian doctor I’d never known whether to believe the story or not.

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What can happen if picking up a landmine. This lad lost his sight and a hand.

We went to the staff room for tea and he was allowed to speak with us in English (there were enough Nasre spies amongst the Translators to report back if any attempt was made to pass on messages to the outside world). ‘Mostly our days are spent in a mountain cave, hobbled by leg chains so we don’t try to escape,’ he told us. ‘They took our watches and radios. Otherwise, we are well enough treated.’

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A bit luckier, only part of his hand gone after playing with a bomb

I’d hear one of the men had tried to escape and been shot but didn’t like to ask. The hostages had no idea if negotiations were taking place or what their fate might be, and that, along with their enforced inactivity, was the most difficult thing to bear. ‘We would be happy to use our skills but are not allowed. Only when mujahideen were in need of treatment are we asked for our medical knowledge.’

Following this last battle one seriously injured mujahid was brought to the surgeon who explained he could do nothing in the cave, the man required urgent surgery. Nasre commanders decided to bring patient and doctor, along with what looked like half their fighting force to guard the prisoner, to Qolijou where the necessary operation had been carried out. The surgeon was being allowed to remain twenty four hours in the hospital to care for the patient during the intensive, post- operative phase, and then he was to be returned to his mountain prison. ‘I hope,’ he added, ‘they will bring me back after ten days to reverse the colostomy. In the meantime, I shall try to convince Nasre to allow me, and my colleagues, to work here more often. We could do many surgical procedures, and teach the translators how to carry out the more simple operations. So much could be done for the people.’

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The hospital pharmacy

Unfortunately, the patient died less than a week later so, sadly, the “prisoner doctor” never returned to Qolijou. The hostages were, I heard, finally released, after about two years in captivity.

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The X ray room

I wish I’d known the outcome sooner. It may have had me less anxious when my husband, Jon, the programme co-ordinator was kidnapped in Jaghoray a couple of years later. I was six months pregnant in Quetta, Pakistan when I received the news. As I was thirty-six and considered rather old to be having a first baby – elderly primagravida, as they put it – it had been agreed (reluctantly in my case) I shouldn’t accompany him on a tour of the clinics in case anything happened. As it was I had no idea if they would demand money, keep him for months or years, or shoot him. He did get back to Pakistan before the birth of our son – but that’s a story for another time.

48 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #22 with fighting and kidnappings

        • What you say about anxiety is very true. As for the childbirth adventures – they are etched so clearly in my memory I don’t need to consult my diaries. I went into labour early and ended up have a C-section because the baby was in distress. I spent a week in the Government hospital and they let my husband sleep in my room. Whenever he left the hospital my room was invaded by nurses and patients all wanting to see the foreign baby. I will write about it at some point.

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  1. It’s heartbreaking to see the young lad on the table without his hand and sight … I wonder what happened to him. The kidnapped doctor and his eagerness to work struck me … his dedication to his profession unwavering. OMG … your husband was kidnapped!! I’m glad he was released safely and relatively quickly in time for the birth of your son.

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  2. I’ve been trying to cut back on my book buying as there’s a limit and I probably crossed it a while ago – but I’ve just gone to Amazon and bought Drunk Chickens and Macaroni. This is an amazing account written with truth and without hysteria or bigotry. Looking forward (apprehensively) to the next instalment.

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    • Thanks so much, Trish. I hope you enjoy Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni. I think it lets the reader really get to know the women with whom I worked, much more than in my blog posts which are based on my first visit to Afghanistan. I’m pleased you are enjoying the posts. Thanks for reading.

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  3. So many people have been injured, even losing their lives, by IEDs. The Halo Trust has been working for years to clear the country of landmines. HALO’s programme in Afghanistan is completely Afghan-led, with 3,400 staff, recruited directly from towns and villages affected by landmines. You can read about its work in Afghanistan and other countries here:
    I was very relieved Jon was able to get back to Pakistan in time for our son’s birth. I was less pleased when he told me he had arranged to pay the ransom to ensure his release!

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  4. Those kidnappings must have been incredibly stressful for all concerned, including you! You led such an interesting life, Mary, but I certainly don’t envy you that time of worry and insecurity. This continues to be a fascinating read.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    • It was, Robbie, especially as I didn’t know what was going on or if he’d get back to Pakistan. When I went for a routine ante-natal check once the doctor commented that my blood pressure was high and I promptly burst into tears. I’d been holding it together pretty well until then. I told her what had happened and she promised she would stay with me during the birth even if he didn’t get back! As it turned out, she was indeed there as she performed the C-section.

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  5. Pingback: Afghan adventures #22 with fighting and kidnappings ~ Mary Smith | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  6. War is evil and it’s legacy lasts longer and is more evil. Land mines and unexploded bombs. The fate of those taken hostage too was stark. I am relieved to hear your husband survived and even got back in time for your son’s birth. Thank God you remained behind. 💜💜

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    • You are so right, Willow. Nothing good ever comes out of war. I’ve just been watching the news of the people, mostly woman and children, in Syria fleeing from the bombs in Idlib and they have nothing. Humans never seem to learn, do they? I’m glad I stayed in Pakistan – though a wee part of me still thinks if I’d gone with Jon he wouldn’t have been kidnapped. But, I hate to think what travelling on those roads would have done to the baby.


      • I think you should may be think if you had gone you may of been kidnapped too, then what would if happened to you and the baby? War is awful and sadly it will never change. You are a brave woman, you have changed people’s lives 💜💜

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  7. Another heart stopping post Mary and the temptation to say something to the hostages to reassure etc must have been on your mind, but aware of the consequences. Their ability to still feel compassion and want to help spoke volumes about them. That must have been very scary, waiting for news and being six months pregnant. Thank goodness he

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  8. What experiences you got here, Mary. A wonderful, but horrible read too. Looking at the pictures it would be such a nice area, with a long lasting tradition. What happend there, involving the poor people. You did a good job. Michael


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