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 – 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.


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 adventures#35 Goodbye Bamiyan, Hello Yakolang

Autumn 1989

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Khudadad was full of apologies for the fact the truck was very old, and indeed I had reservations about its ability to take us very far. It resembled something made out of a rusty meccano set. There was no back seat as there had been in the Kamaz and I was delighted to be perched up front, assured of an excellent view.

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The driver took his place, his conductor squeezing in between him and the door. Khudadad sat next to me. It was a little cramped with four of us in the small cab then, just as we began to pull away another man opened the passenger door and pulled himself up beside Khudadad.   I couldn’t slide any further over without sitting on the driver’s lap but, somehow, the man managed to hoist himself in. Now so little space he couldn’t shut the door properly and had to travel with his head, shoulders and one arm out the window, holding the door closed with his other hand.

Khudadad muttered and moaned by my side, apologising profusely for the discomfort. I was thankful we were not travelling on Jaghoray’s roads with their potholes and rocks every other yard; this road was the best I had experienced since arriving in Afghanistan, straight, almost smooth even. The occasional bump, therefore, was disconcerting as the five of us would suddenly fly roof-wards in unison like a troupe of acrobats performing a circus trick. I was worried the man hanging out the window might be decapitated.

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Smooth (!) roads, snowy mountains ahead.

After the first half hour I lost all interest in the passing scenery as I tried to find a way to change the position of my cramping limbs without everyone in the cab having to do the same.  It made me think of the children’s song, “There were Ten in the Bed” when each time they all rolled over one fell out. Khudadad continued to apologise and I continued to lie, I’m sure by then unconvincingly, that I was perfectly happy and enjoying the journey. I wished he would shut up, allowing me to be miserably uncomfortable in silence.

When the driver pulled up at a small, makeshift chaikhana I had to force protesting limbs into action. Khudadad ordered tea but, leaving it untouched, excused himself and went outside.   Minutes later, a totally transformed Khudadad beckoned me from the doorway. He was grinning from ear to ear. Eager to see what had brought about this dramatic change of mood I hurried after him. He had found a big, shiny, lovely Mercedes truck whose driver was willing to take us to Yakolang.

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Not the Mercedes. Khudadad, third from the left

The difference between this super luxurious vehicle and the rattling old boneshaker in which we had been travelling was unbelievable. The cab was spacious with comfortable seats and there were two full length bunks behind. Khudadad was so pleased with himself that he couldn’t stop grinning. But when I endorsed his praise of the vehicle he commented, ‘I am sorry this is not the latest model. It is even better.’ He really was a bit of a glass half empty kind of a guy.

A rather elderly mujahid travelling in the truck was at first rather surly at having to give up his place for us but Khudadad was so obviously delighted by the change of transport and by his own cleverness in finding it that his infectious good humour soon had the older man smiling and chatting.  I stretched out on the bottom bunk, pillowed my head on my handbag and, wishing we could always travel by Mercedes truck, fell fast asleep and did not wake until we reached Yakolang.

It was late, nine thirty, extremely cold, and there was no room at the inn. The driver and his mates kept me company while Khudadad searched for accommodation, eventually returning to say he had secured a room in a still to be completed hotel.

It was a building site. Our room was an empty, concrete shell with no glass in the tiny window. It looked onto a central compound, around which similar rooms had been, or were in the process of being built. It was bleak and cheerless and bitterly cold. Pulling a blanket round my shoulders I squatted close to the small kerosene lamp the landlord had provided.  Khudadad went out in search of food.

He returned five minutes later, rather shaken, ‘The mujahideen here don’t like people to use a torch in the night. They just threatened to shoot me. I’m sorry I have to take the kerosene lamp.’ He disappeared again. I sat in the dark, listening intently but as I heard no shots ring out I assumed he’d been allowed to continue on his foraging expedition. He reported back glumly that there was no food left but the landlord had agreed to cook rice for us.

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This is a filling station

It took about an hour for the rice to appear, plain, boiled and accompanied by some very cold, hard nan. Freshly baked nan is one of the most delicious foods on earth but within a few hours it seems to undergo some kind of chemical change after which it resembles and tastes like something one would use for repairing shoes. I was too cold and tired to eat much of the unappetising fare but was very grateful for the tea which helped warm me sufficiently to think about preparing for bed.

It was cold enough to make Khudadad abandon our cross country hike to find a ‘loo’ and point to a place just outside the compound which I discovered next morning was completely exposed to public view on all sides. Despite the thickness of my sleeping bag the chill from the concrete floor forced me to search in a trunk to find another blanket to provide some insulation. I was beginning to worry, not least because the mountains ahead were already snow-capped, about how much colder it would be in Lal, which Khudadad said we’d reach tomorrow. He forgot to say Insh’Allah.

MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanAdventures #34: in which we do not star in a Japanese documentary

Autumn 1989

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As we had time to kill before our departure, we ordered more tea. Khudadad was becoming increasingly chatty as his confidence in speaking English grew and he told me how the mujahideen had succeeded in defeating the Russian troops who were positioned on Shar-i-Gholghola. This was the site of the original citadel, overlooking the Bamiyan valley. It had once been besieged and destroyed by the infamous Ghengis Khan.

Bamiyan has always been an important city in Afghanistan’s history and was once a major stopping place on a subsidiary of the old Silk Route. Khudadad was just expounding his views on the equal fiendishness of both Genghis Khan and the Soviets, when a great clattering of feet on the wooden stairs made us look nervously towards the door.

It burst open and a dozen mujahideen, bandoliers of bullets strapped around their chests, AK 47s clutched in their fists poured in. When they stacked their guns against a support pillar in the middle of the room and sat, down my immediate panic abated. We weren’t about to be arrested. They nodded in our direction, and after making the customary greetings Khudadad, suggested we move to another room. Before we could do so, more clattering sounded on the stairs and through the doorway appeared, I guessed from his air of authority, the Commander and his Second-in Command. They were followed by – a Japanese film crew. I stared in disbelief, ignoring Khudadad’s whispered appeals that we leave.

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Two of the crew were soon busily engaged in setting up their equipment while the third, clearly the director, surveyed the room, studiously refusing to catch my eye. He suddenly pointed to our baggage, ‘Get this stuff out of here!’

Khudadad instantly leapt to his feet but I caught his sleeve, tugging him back. ‘If he wants our stuff moved he can get the muj to do it. There are enough of them and we were here first,’ I whispered. I glared at the director who caught my eye just long enough to glare back at me. We were both furious, with a totally illogical anger, at finding ourselves, thousands of miles from our respective homes, in a place we each felt the other had no right to be. I suspect we had both been enjoying the ego-boosting excitement that we were the only foreigners doing what we were doing in Afghanistan.

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There he was, on what would surely be depicted for his Japanese viewers as a dangerous assignment, filming the battle weary mujahideen, in one of the most remote areas of Afghanistan. And he finds a foreign woman, with heaps of luggage, installed in his chosen location, casually drinking tea. I, of course, had been enjoying the almost certain knowledge no other foreign woman was travelling around as I was, hitching lifts from commanders and mujahideen and truck drivers. We were both put out. It was ridiculous. We might have had so much to talk about, stories to share, but the instinctive hostility was obviously felt on both sides.

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The Commander ordered his men to move the bags out of camera shot. I detected a flicker of a smile when he shot me a swift glance. Khudadad was twittering at my side, anxious to move but, for once, I chose to disagree with his advice. I wanted to watch what was going on. He subsided miserably against the wall surveying the scene morosely.

Platters of rice and kebabs were placed before the mujahideen and the cameraman zoomed in to film the heroes of the jihad shovelling rice into their mouths. Khudadad pressed himself further against the wall. ‘I am afraid they will film me,’ he whispered.

I laughed, ‘Don’t worry, no one in Japan knows you. Anyway, they won’t film you – you’re not exactly dressed for the part – no Kalash.’ The Commander grinned, and I realised he understood English, had a sense of humour and seemed more interested in us than in the film making process.

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The aroma from the kebabs made my mouth water. I reminded Khudadad we’d have to leave soon and, maybe we should also eat. The cook was apologetic. No kebabs were left. When plates of boring rice were put before us, the watchful Commander obligingly sent over a share of their kebabs.

He then began to address Khudadad in Dari, asking the usual questions about me – who was I, what was I, where was I going and why? When he heard I was working for a leprosy programme he switched to English to include me in the conversation. I shot a triumphant look at the film director with whom he spoke only through a translator – one up to me, I thought.  ‘You are most welcome here. We are happy you want to help our people, especially those with leprosy – a terrible disease. Are you going to Lal sar Jangal?  I know of the clinic there.’

I was surprised and impressed he knew of the clinic in Lal; that he knew something about and was sympathetic to leprosy patients was astonishing. Most people showed only fear and ignorance of the disease. The Commander, despite interruptions from the film crew who wanted to get back to work, continued to question me about the disease, its treatment and the number of people in Hazara Jat who suffered from it. He also talked about the need for more doctors and health services in the area, especially Yakolang, and asked if we could expand our programme to that area.

I was happy to tell him we were hoping to open a clinic in Yakolang, which is between Bamiyan and Lal, in the near future.

A shout from below made Khudadad leap to his feet, saying, ‘Our truck is leaving, we must go.’  He shouted for the bill but the young Commander interrupted him, ‘You are our guests. We do not allow guests to pay. I hope we shall meet again.’  I gave my thanks and said goodbye, thinking gleefully, if childishly, the Japanese director was going to have to foot the bill for our lunch.

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Goodbye to Buddha for now


MarySmith’sPlace -The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33

Bamiyan, Autumn 1989

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The view from my window



A murmur of male voices penetrated my subconscious in the morning. A row of men wearing expressions of ill-concealed curiosity gazed in the direction of my sleeping bag. A ferocious glare from Khudadad had them gathering up their belongings and murmuring goodbyes as they hurriedly left the room. The cook, in a grease spattered apron, was busy at his stove, for some reason situated on the veranda overlooking the street. Breakfast smelt good.

Through an inch deep layer of oil I recognised a fried egg, under which was a kind of meat stew layered with slices of fried tomatoes. Scooping up some of this mess with a piece of fresh, warm nan I tasted cautiously. It was delicious. Cholesterol and calorie laden as any cooked breakfast should be, by the time I had mopped clean the dish with a final piece of nan, I felt that there would be no need to eat anything else all day.

Khudadad was going out to arrange transport. ‘Is there any chance of seeing the Buddha before we move on today?’ I asked hopefully.

He grinned, ‘Look out the window!’ Directly opposite was the Buddha, all 175 feet of him, and he left me gazing in awe at the giant figure.

A few weeks later, on my return journey, I was able to spend more time viewing the statues. Our little group of tourists comprised, Jon, Rahimy who was coming to Pakistan to be trained as a laboratory technician and Zahir, a leprosy patient coming for treatment and possible reconstructive surgery on his badly deformed face.

General consensus dates the larger, and later, Buddha from sometime in the fifth century. The drapes on the figure would once have been red, the hands and feet gilded. Nothing was left of the face or the hands and only a few very faint traces of red remained.

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The oil drums and the volley ball net give some sense of the scale of the statue

The site was now a major base for the mujahideen. Near the feet of the Buddha a net for volley ball had been erected. We are asked to take photos of the fighters but despite their outward appearance of casual welcome, they would not allow us any closer. The caves encircling the feet of the Buddha which were perhaps once used by the priests, or visited by pilgrims, were now ammunition stores, bomb shelters, living accommodation – as were the caves stretching along the sandstone cliff face between the two Buddhas. It was difficult to visualise the scene of long ago, when the monasteries would have been filled with robed monks and pilgrims from India, China and other far off lands mingled to pray and seek enlightenment and peace at the feet of the Buddha.

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Happy to have their photographs taken but were not going to let us explore the large Buddha

It was sad to think of the countless battles and invasions the Buddha had witnessed and withstood. Even, it seemed, the notorious Genghis Khan – not averse to laying waste to all that he encountered – had drawn the line at destroying the magnificent figures. I wrote in my diary that evening, ‘If ever Afghanistan is again at peace, her doors opened once more to travellers and tourists, one of her greatest treasures, surely one of the wonders of the world, may well have been destroyed. What centuries of war and weather and vandals and thieves have not succeeded in doing the mujahideen look set to achieve in a few short years.’

Only, it was not the mujahideen who destroyed the statues but, some years later, the Taliban, who deliberately blew them up, reducing them to rubble.

The smaller Buddha, at the far end of the bazaar, still very impressive at a height of 120 feet had been sculpted earlier, towards the end of the third or early fourth century. As we started to cross the fields toward the cliff face, a blood curdling shriek stopped us in our tracks.

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Small Buddha. The second opening from top left is as far as I climbed.

It was the mujahideen halt call, a terrifying sound. A sound you did not ignore.  We halted. High above the Buddha we could make out a tiny figure, gesticulating wildly. It started running, and within a few minutes had miraculously scrambled down the seemingly sheer cliff face, and was heading towards us. He didn’t appear to be pointing his Kalashnikov at anyone in particular but we didn’t dare move. With a sweep of his arm in the direction we had been heading, this small, wiry mujahid told us we were about to walk across a mine filed.

If we wanted to see the Buddha, we should follow him. Somewhat shaken, we followed closely in his footsteps, along a barely discernible path, until we were once more on safe territory – gazing up at the unperturbable, if battered, face of the Buddha. Our guide beckoned us from the doorway, ‘You can go inside if you like.’  We liked.

At first the steps were broad and shallow but as we climbed higher they became steeper and narrower. Huge windows were cut in the rock every few feet. They made me nervous, as there was no protective barrier across the yawning gaps, and it would be all too easy to topple straight out – and down.

About three quarters of the way up a doorway led out onto a wide veranda which contained several niches where presumably smaller figures had once stood. A few patches of colour remained of the paintings on the rock walls, but we could not decipher what they had depicted.  Rahimy, Zahir and I decided to wait on the veranda for Jon and the mujahid to complete the climb to the top. Climbing up was easy enough, apart from those gaping windows, but I knew I’d have problems coming back down again, without any handrail to help in negotiating the narrow steps with their sharp turns. Rahimy admitted to having no head for heights, and we were both concerned about Zahir. His asthmatic wheezing was alarming although he assured us he was all right. Partly the problem was caused because, having no nose he had to breathe though his mouth at all times and a heavy head cold was not easing the situation.

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A seated Buddha statue on the cliff face

Jon went on, returning like a jelly, shaking from head to foot. His legs could barely hold him and he had to rest for a while. He said he’d been doing well, until on the way down his legs had suddenly started to tremble and gone on trembling, especially whenever he passed one of the yawning openings. Needless to say, the mujahid had climbed up and down as though he did it as a matter of course every day – which he probably did. He now pointed us in a direction which was mine free, bid us farewell and was back on his cliff top perch before we had even reached half way to the jeep.

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Caves, which were monks’ cells or pilgrims’ rooms, later became refuge for people whose homes were destroyed in the fighting.  

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Ancient burial sites

Khudadad returned with the news all trucks heading  towards Lal sar Jangal and beyond had left at four o’clock that morning. Of course, they had. However, he’d found a driver willing to take us to Yakolang, roughly half way to Lal, from where he assured me it would be easy to find another truck to Lal. We were to be ready to leave around lunch time.

MarySmith’sPlace – On the road again: Afghan Adventures#32

Autumn 1989. Thanks to comments from new visitors to the blog not everyone knows when my first trip to Afghanistan took place. I’ll try to remember to put a date at the start of each post.

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I was immersed in the clinic statistics one day when Hassan burst in.  ‘I have found transport, but the people are leaving immediately. Are you ready?’

I was ready. Khudadad was ready and grabbed my bags as we hurried down the steep mountain path behind Hassan to where an open-topped jeep was parked. It was bursting at the seams with mujahideen, all, naturally, clutching their AK-47s like so many security blankets.  Hassan introduced the large, black bearded man behind the wheel, ‘This is my very good friend, Commander Husseini.’ The Commander looked remarkably like Sayed, only bigger – and fiercer. He gave us a brief nod, and we were on our way.

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Small hamlets of flat roofed, mud built houses hugged the steep slopes of the mountains and orchards of apricot, almond and mulberry trees dotted the valley. The open topped jeep afforded a wonderful view as we snaked up the pass. At least, it did for the first ten minutes. Dark clouds loomed overhead and a stiff breeze made me pull my chaddar more snugly around me. The higher we climbed the less able I was to hide my shivering. Khudadad asked where my jacket was. I glanced round at the stony-faced mujahideen perched on top of our luggage.

‘It’s in my bag. Don’t bother about it; once we are over the pass I’ll be fine.’ I did not relish having to ask the mujahideen, the surliest group so far encountered, to move. Khudadad had no such reservations. After telling the Commander to stop he evicted the muj., before ferreting amongst the baggage and bits of what looked like bomb making equipment, but were probably spare parts for the jeep, until he unearthed my jacket. I wriggled around trying to get it on without allowing my chaddar to slip immodestly, the mujahideen scrambled back into their places, expressions, if possible, even more surly.

At the summit of the pass a heavy downpour of sleet-laden rain, viciously stinging our faces, drenched us within moments. Wishing I wore contact lenses, I attempted to wipe my rain spattered glasses for the hundredth time on a chaddar which had become a sodden rag.   ‘Where are the blankets?’ demanded Khudadad. I nodded towards the back of the jeep.

‘You can’t ask them to get out again,’ I protested. He could. This time his ferreting produced a large blanket which he proceeded to wrap solicitously around my shoulders, reserving part of it for his own use. I suggested he offer the end of it to the soaking wet muj at his side; he stoically refused Khudadad’s offer. Despite my shivers, I could not help but smile at the sight we must have presented.  Khudadad and I huddled together soaking wet, blue with cold, wrapped in a big, fluffy yellow blanket, across which strutted a handsome blue peacock, while around us a dozen grim faced freedom fighters steadfastly ignored both the rain and their unorthodox travelling companions.

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Shahr-i-Zuhuk, the sandstone mountain stronghold, looked menacing under its mantle of black cloud as we passed, branching off onto the Bamiyan road. After about an hour, Husseini pulled up beside a small stream and everyone climbed out. I was hopeful it might be a tea stop but Khudadad explained with a heavy sigh, ‘They want to pray. I have to pray too.’   He left the jeep reluctantly. It was the first time I had known him pray on our journey, and to do so in such appalling weather conditions indicated just how much a man of influence and importance was our Commander Husseini.

As the men washed in freezing water before spreading their patous as prayer mats on the cold, wet ground I was thankful no such pious devotion was required of me. The rain had stopped but, with the approach of evening, the temperature was falling, the leaden sky remained threatening, and I was chilled to the bone. It was the first time I had been cold in months, an unpleasant warning that winter was on the way.

Commander Husseini assured me that we would soon be in Bamiyan and the sun suddenly broke through the clouds for a few, brief minutes as though to encourage us. In the deepening dusk the commander pointed out the many, many graves whose fluttering flags indicated that here lay some of Afghanistan’s martyred heroes. I remembered the reverent hush which had descended on our jeep one day in Jaghoray when Gul Agha had shown me the site of one martyr’s grave. Here, there were countless and I realised the men with whom I was travelling had really fought against the Soviet troops, who’d held Bamiyan until shortly before their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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The smaller of the two Buddha statues carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan.

Before darkness fell I was able to catch a glimpse of one of the giant Buddha statues in the cliff and a series of caves. The journey had taken five, rather than the anticipated three hours, and my excitement at seeing the Buddha was tempered with thoughts of finding somewhere warm and dry. Khudadad directed Commander Husseini to stop outside what, he assured me, was the best hotel in town.

I followed him up a flight of steep, narrow, stairs, asking, ‘Is this the hotel I’ve heard about from Jon? The one with kebabs and a toilet with a door?’

Khudadad laughed, ‘Very good kebabs.’ He stood aside to let me enter a large, empty room.   A boy hurried in with a gas lamp which he was about to suspend from a hook in the ceiling until I indicated that I preferred the only source of heat on the floor beside me. I was shivering violently. The boy immediately handed me his patou and I pulled it round my shoulders. The heavy woollen shawl soon helped to overcome my shivers and I was grateful for the boy’s concern.

Khudadad and I cupped glasses of tea in our numb fingers, sipping thankfully at the reviving brew. By the time I had drunk my second glass I was warm enough to start thinking of other matters. ‘This IS the hotel with the toilet isn’t it?’ Smothering a sigh, he picked up a torch, pulled his patou more firmly round his shoulders and led the way back down the stairs. At the far end of a very muddy yard the dark shape of a small outbuilding was just discernible.  Taking the torch, I picked my way carefully through the mud, skirting puddles. The building had not one, but three loos – a five star establishment, indeed.

I pulled open the first door and recoiled at the sight of copious mounds of excreta deposited around the hole. Hastily shutting the door, I tried the second, then the third, which had clearly, and quite recently, been occupied by someone with severe diarrhoea. Returning to the second toilet I attempted to find two turd free spots for my feet while concentrating on hanging on to the torch and my hand bag, unfastening the string of my shalwar, ensuring they did not drop too fast into the shit and keeping my chaddar above ankle height. Finally, torch clenched between my teeth, hand bag slung around my neck, I completed the task – resolving never to utter a word of complaint at Khudadad’s marathon hikes in the great outdoors ever again.

The kebabs were, indeed, very good and well fed and warm again I unrolled my sleeping bag. As we settled for the night Khudadad told me not to worry if I heard things – gunfire, soldiers marching – as it would be the mujahideen carrying out night exercises. ‘Just practising,’ he assured me.

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I was glad of the warning when, lying awake long after Khudadad began snoring gently I heard the menacing ring of the night patrol marching through the town. However, it was not that which kept me awake – but a flea in my sleeping bag. As it feasted, I scratched until finally, I had to drag myself out of my warm cocoon to grope in the dark for the Stingeze.  This revolting substance, whose main ingredient is ammonia, had been a real find in Sangi Masha bazaar, the only thing to bring instant relief. It did mean, though, by the time I was finally able to sleep, I smelt strongly of wet nappy.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures#31 Women’s health, women’s work, women’s place in the scheme of things

Next day, I spent the morning in the women’s clinic with Zohra. I was embarrassed at finding it difficult to understand the women who fired questions at me, making me feel my command of the language was still pitiful. In my defence, their accent was very different from that of Jaghoray.

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Besides those patients with diarrhoea or throat or eye infections, several women had come for ante-natal check-ups. Two had vaginal infections, one, a prolapse of the uterus; four wanted contraceptive pills while another desperately wanted to become pregnant. Most of Hussain’s female patients complained of a mixture of infections of eyes, throat or chest. Apart from the occasional woman who complained of burning urine, he rarely had any patients with gynaecological problems. Afghan women simply cannot discuss such intimate problems with a male health worker, never mind allowing a physical examination. A great many women suffer appalling health problems in silence.

Islam teaches that women should be modest in dress and behaviour but, somewhere along the line, this has been reinterpreted in such a way that modesty has given way to women feeling a terrible sense of shame women regarding their bodies and reproductive systems. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), in his teachings, surely never intended women be denied medical help, nor be allowed to die before exposing the most private parts of their anatomy to a male doctor?

As long as the words of the Prophet continue to be interpreted, in the rural areas in particular, by illiterate misogynists, women will always be denied rights – and the west will continue to misunderstand the teachings of Islam.

The nearest hospital which could provide obstetric services was in Kabul, a journey which could take two or more days depending on road and transport conditions and whether there was fighting along the way. A woman needed a male escort but going to Kabul was a dangerous mission for young men who risked being press ganged into the Afghan Army.

In the afternoon Zohra introduced me to her neighbours, Gul Chaman and Fatima, who lived below Zohra and Hassan’s house. Since their husband, despite the protests of Gul Chaman, had taken Fatima as his second wife ten years previously, the two women had not spoken to each other. Gul Chaman, with her children, occupied one room of the house, Fatima and her brood, the other. A strict rota system had been instituted for conjugal visits – and for the use of the tandoor in which each wife baked the bread for her own family. Hostilities between the mothers did not extend to the two sets of children who played together, receiving comforting cuddles for scraped knees and bloodied noses from whichever mother happened to be nearer at the time.

Making bread

Bread straight from the tandoor. On the left fresh pasta called ‘ash’ I should maybe say this and the next photos are not from Sheikh Ali but from a different place on my travels.

When it was her turn for the tandoor, Gul Chaman showed me how she baked bread. As the heat inside the oven was tremendous she wore a long, very thick leather gauntlet on her arm.  She would reach right into the furnace to slap the prepared rounds of dough on the walls. When done, she hooked them out with a metal rod. The smell of bread fresh from the oven is one of the most delicious things in life.

Not to be outdone, Fatima gave a display of weaving the brightly coloured gilims and laughingly persuaded me to try my hand. I soon realised this was not a skill I could master – my inexperienced fingers proved to be all thumbs, and totally uncoordinated. It was slow, tedious work and even with three or four women working together at the long frame it could take a month or more to complete one gilim.

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Working on carpets

After clinic was over for the day, Zohra often had friends visit for tea and chat, but she admitted in the last year she had been out of the compound only twice, once to offer condolences when someone died and once to attend a wedding. I was unhappy when I realised I was expected to behave within the prevailing standards set by Hassan. When I mentioned going to see the bazaar the suggestion was swiftly vetoed, ‘There’s nothing to see in the bazaar, this is a poor village. If you need anything I can get it for you.’  It was the same whenever I enquired about Khudadad. ‘Don’t worry. He’s fine. He’s happy.’ Whenever I asked Hassan about transport he would tell me not to worry. Then he would embarrass me by asking if I was not happy in his home, was I not being looked after properly and was there anything I needed to make my stay more comfortable?

I was happy to spend time with Zohra listening to her stories about the work she did to improve the women’s health but there was really no work for me here and I was anxious to reach Lal.

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Spinning wool

Choosing a time after lunch, when I assumed Hassan had left on one of his undisclosed outings, I slipped into the guest room. Khudadad gave me a huge grin. ‘Where have you been?  When are we leaving?  I am very bored here!’  We managed about three minutes of conversation, centring mainly on the fact that Hassan seemed not to be trying to find transport to Lal and did not want Khudadad to wander about the village by himself before Hassan’s soft voice made me jump.

‘Is anything wrong?’ he asked, from just inside the door.

‘No, nothing. I just wanted to talk to Khudadad. I haven’t seen him since we arrived.’ Hassan sat down and I understood that he was not going to allow me to sit alone with Khudadad. As his guest I felt I could not make an issue of my freedom being so curtailed. Conversation rather dried up and, after a few moments, I rose to return to the family section of the house. I wondered if Hassan thought that, if left alone together, Khudadad and I would immediately fall on each other in an ecstasy of unbridled passion. What did he think happened when we slept in roadside hotels without a third person to guard our morality?

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Washing sheep’s fleece before spinning. 

One day, a beaming Hassan informed me he had arranged for a jeep to take us to Bamiyan, the following day. We were to be ready to leave at the usual setting out time in Afghanistan – four o’clock in the morning. It seemed a bit excessive. Bamiyan was only a three hour drive from Sheikh Ali – as did Zohra’s contribution of hard boiled eggs, chicken and dried fruits and nuts.

The driver never showed up. We ate the hard boiled eggs for breakfast and had the chicken for lunch and Hassan was very apologetic about it all and promised to look for another driver.