MarySmith’sPlace ~ AfghanistanAdventures#59 Ghastly things and lovely things

Jaghoray, Afghanistan, December 1989

Mazar Bibi Clinic under construction 1989
Mazar Bibi Clinic as it is today

Hussain had taken Rahimy, Sharif and Zahir, to see something more of the area and I was writing up my tour diary when Habib, one of the translators who had defected from Qolijou, arrived at Mazar Bibi with a jeep full of patients. I explained Hussain would not be back until late afternoon. He asked if I would examine the patients. I pointed out he had more medical training than I but he begged me to at least look at the most seriously sick of the patients, a seven year old boy. 

The child was carried into my room, deathly white, gasping for breath, barely conscious. Handing me a stethoscope Habib explained, ‘First he complained of a sore throat then he started coughing and now he has breathing problems. His father brought him to us this morning but we are not sure what to do for him and hoped Hussain could help.’ The child was seriously ill. When I looked in his mouth, I could see a kind of grey membrane covering in this throat. Diphtheria?

I turned to Habib, ‘You must take him to Rosanna at Qolijou.’ 

He looked at me, miserably, ‘Can you not give him medicine?  I can’t go to Qolijou because Moosa and the others will laugh at us and say we are useless doctors who cannot manage on our own.’   

I was incredulous that his izzat, his pride, would prevent him from doing all he could for the sick child. I knew Moosa and his colleagues might not know what to do either – Rosanna was the one I was counting on. ‘He’s desperately ill. We have to get him to Rosanna.’ Habib suggested I take his jeep and go myself with the boy. We piled into the jeep; the driver, a woman, another man, two more children and the boy’s father, who had wrapped his son in a blanket and was cradling him, as gently as he could, in his arms.  

Before we were halfway to the hospital, the father tugged at my sleeve. He gestured helplessly, wordlessly, towards his son, and I yelled at the driver to stop. The boy had stopped breathing. I wanted to try artificial respiration but as I knelt down beside the boy, his father shook his head. His son had gone; there was nothing more to be done.

Someone spread a patou on the stony ground and laid the child on it. His father gently closed his eyes, weighting them with two small stones, and tied his big toes together. Feeling totally helpless, and angry at the unfairness of it all, I broke down and wept, walking hurriedly away from the little, dry-eyed group gathered now in prayer around the child. I returned to the jeep wanting to continue to Qolijou – desperate for some reassurance from Rosanna that there was nothing I could have done – but the father wanted only to go home to bury his child. We returned silently to Mazar Bibi. 

When I saw Habib, and tried to tell him what happened, I felt the tears overflow and run down my face. I hurried off to hide in my room. A few minutes later Habib entered saying, ‘It is not your fault. No one could have saved him. Now, will you please come and check the other patients, so that these people can go home?’

I checked the two children, who both had high respiratory rates and prescribed antibiotic syrups begging Habib to get them to Qolijou as soon as possible so Rosanna could examine them.

The woman came in and lay down. Grabbing my hand she guided it to where I could feel a large swelling, about the size of my fist, in her abdomen. She told me that, of the six children she’d had, only one, born four months earlier, was alive. Again, I could only urge her to consult Rosanna. Along with my feelings of helplessness, was an overwhelming anger that so many people should suffer so needlessly. The war against the Soviets followed by a civil war had never seemed so utterly pointless.

Fortunately, there were happier times to enjoy back in Jaghoray. Jawad’s brother got married and Jon and I were invited along with Hussain and Rosanna.

The bridegroom (Jawad’s brother)
Rosanna between me and Jon at the wedding. We were all given beautiful embroidered handkerchiefs as remembrances
A young Jawad

One day, Baqul’s wife, Fatima, from Sangsuragh where our temporary clinic had been, came along with other friends to visit me. It was lovely to see them again. I took them to my room, where they insisted on coffee, in preference to tea, before settling to tell me all that had been happening in the village since I left. 

Latifa was now engaged to be married, her mother had recovered from the injuries received when her house had been hit by rockets, Hazrat had been released, unharmed, after Hisb-i-Islami kidnapped him and several women had had babies. It was a lovely afternoon and I was touched they felt the bond of friendship strongly enough to face a three hour walk – each way – to see me. They complimented me on the progress I’d made in learning Dari and our conversation flowed more smoothly than when we first met. 

Of course they all wanted to consult the doctor while they were at the clinic, but only if I stayed with them and personally supervised any examinations Hussain wanted to do. We trooped over to the consulting room where I was astounded by the change that came over them. In the privacy of my room they had been totally free and at ease, allowing their chaddars to slip off, breast feeding babies without bothering to do up their buttons afterwards. In front of Hussain, they once more shrouded themselves completely, and from conversing and laughing together at an ear splitting decibel level their voices were reduced to a barely audible whisper. Gul Bibi even refused to open her mouth to allow Hussain to examine her teeth yet, whenever he turned away, she would catch my eye, directing seductive looks at Hussain’s turned away back, eyes rolling, lips pouting. At the explosions of mirth from the other women, Hussain would whirl around, by which time Gul Bibi would have once more disappeared into the all-encompassing folds of her chaddar. The more irritated Hussain became, the more the women enjoyed their fun, but I was thankful when at last, consultations over, I could escape before Hussain’s anger erupted.

After my last post a couple of Hazaras left comments, including a YouTube link to a video of Sangi Masha bazaar and the bridge which some years ago replaced the scary one. I was fascinated by how different the bazaar looks and completely amazed at the new bridge so much so I sent the link to Jawad to confirm it was the same place. He replied to let me know the person who made the video, Mehdi Ahmadi, ‘is a cousin of my children’. Worth watching – it’s under twenty minutes, the bridge is about ten minutes in. ‘Meeting’ young Hazaras who are finding and enjoying my Afghanistan Adventures and sharing their own memories in the comments brings me so much joy and makes me feel I am still very much connected to Afghanistan and its people.

Mazar Bibi Clinic in winter – such a glorious blue sky

50 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace ~ AfghanistanAdventures#59 Ghastly things and lovely things

  1. How tragic Mary and it must have been heart breaking to experience. Wonderful to see how the country has developed and that there is a younger generation following your blog. I was very touched by the visit from the ladies….poor Hussain didn’t stand a chance lol..Another amazing post and so pleased you are sharing your time there with us…hugsx

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  2. A heartbreaking experience, and yet everyone still knows to not just carry on but make improvements and create a better world for their people. Still, how frustrating it must have been for you to see such suffering knowing if only a small percentage of financing and effort went into the lives of the people instead of the war the situation would be so different…but then you know just how complicated Afghanistan is and you do your best. Admirable life, Mary ~ thank you for sharing these adventures with us.

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    • Thanks, Randall, I appreciate your comments, especially what is perhaps the most pertinent – Afghanistan is complicated. After Taliban was pushed from power, things did change for the better in many areas – health, education, roads infrastructure – but security is still a far off dream as fighting continues.

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  3. That’s basically the first time I’ve seen any greenery in Afghanistan, Mary. It looks lovely on the video. Other photos have seemed quite dry and barren. Guess I was wrong. Another interesting but sad (in places) posting, Mary.

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  4. That bridge is certainly an improvement, and it was good to see the young men laughing and smiling, when we so often see them grieving after suicide bombs, or walking around with assault rifles.
    It was understandable to be so frustrated and upset over the death of the child, but when you are trying to cope in near 17th century conditions, what else could you have done?
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    • I wouldn’t be nervous crossing the bridge now! Things have changed a lot since my days there – we never saw cars in the bazaar, only Russian jeeps. Cars wouldn’t have survived five minutes on the ‘road’ conditions back then. I know I couldn’t have done any more to help the boy – though it still distresses me that he could have been taken tot he hospital sooner if someone hadn’t been too worried about losing face. Fortunately, medical facilities have also improved nowadays.

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  5. Another amazing chapter Mary. I can’t imagine how bleak some of lows must of been …. Thank goodness for the good things that pulled you through. How wonderful to know that the work you were involved in has blossomed and grown despite wars and hardship. You have changed lives.

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  6. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – AfghanistanAdventures #59 Ghastly things and lovely things by Mary Smith | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  7. Did you ever find out if you’d made the right diagnosis for that child, Mary? What stands out for me in your stories, is the affection and caring you shared with everyone you met. I’m sure you made a difference in their lives ❤

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    • From what I heard from Rosanna and read in medical books it probably was diphtheria – the grey membrane was the give away – and it was too late to do anything. I certainly didn’t feel much affection for Habib not taking the boy to the hospital a couple of days earlier. At least the other two boys survived.

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  8. Thank you for sharing this very heart touching emperiences, Mary. Its so unfair what these people have to deal with, and it always looks like a never ending story of sadness. One must not wondering about some of them could be radicalised, and used for sadiest things. Best wishes, Michael

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  9. Your distress at pride preventing a speedier access to help for the boy came through clearly. It must have been a frustrating and desperate time. The wedding must have helped to balance things a little. I watched the video – did you understand everything that was said? I love languages but there was nothing there for me to grab onto as familiar. As for the new bridge, THAT one I’d happily cross!

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    • It was frustrating and sad – I wished I was miles away from Afghanistan at that point. The wedding was lovely and the women coming to visit me. I didn’t understand everything on the video but I felt if I listened often enough it would come back to me. When I went to visit Afghanistan ten years after leaving I hadn’t used the language in all that time but it did come back so I’m sure it’s still stored away somewhere in the brain’s filing system. Yes, I wouldn’t have a problem crossing that bridge and it was great to see it in the video.

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  10. What a terrible situation, and it could have been so easily prevented with vaccination. Thankfully there were good times as well and plenty of humour, although I’m not sure Hussain appreciated it! Thanks for sharing your adventures, sad and joyful, Mary.

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    • It was desperately sad. Unfortunately there was little being done in the way of vaccination programmes at that time. A few years later, I was able to persuade an organisation to visit the clinic where I was based to vaccinate all the babies. The good times and the women’s friendship helped me through the bad times.

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  11. Pingback: Mary Smith ~ AfghanistanAdventures#59 Ghastly things and lovely things | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

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