Thursday, 30 April 2009

Wednesday 29th April

Sarah has sent me her blog for Wednesday and Tuesday afternoon (scroll down to see). Paula

Woke up to sunshine! Absolutely beautiful morning, floodwaters dried up and away we went to Worsaj. The clearest skies and the Anjoman pass and surrounding mountains covered in snow. Always a specatacular journey and so good to be back. The air incredibly clear and scented with fresh mint and thyme.

4 hours down very bumpy tracks carving its way down the valley by the river...everything so green from the rain and above the fields, the harsh black of the rocks and then the snow line. Along our way we passed shepherds with flocks of sheep round every bend of the road, donkeys with striped saddle bags piled high with yellow rape, young boys with baby calves and girls in stunning bright coloured shalois chamise in reds and purples carrying vats of water. Oxen pulling ploughs, tiny mud bricked villages perched precariously on the mountainside, Kucho nomads drying their colourful carpets in the sun, fishermen casting their lines or nets..... it is like going back in time.

Passed 3 of our schools and finally arrived at Zouhruddin, where, as ever, received the most overwhelming welcome. So many familiar faces and such heartfelt greetings. Kids everywhere throwing confetti and handing us bunches of flowers and kissing us and putting garlands of flowers over our heads. School looks amazing and nearly finished.

Went to classrooms and visited all kids as they all wanted to see us and give us presents. Fascinating time asking them questions about their lives and dreams ...22 of them got to university last year and 35 from the boys school—just incredible ...not a single girl has a literate mother. Most want to become doctors. Speak so eloquently and many in English. They are aware of the girls in Kandahar who had acid thrown in their faces for walking to school, and the schools which have been burned down or closed...they are determined to complete their education and believe it should be a right for all children to go to school.

Sayed Oberdin is a splendid man who was a commander against the Russians and has spent his time since then fighting to get girls educated in his village...his daughter was the first girl in the province to attend university. He comes up and announces that he has kept his promise to me....I said I would only build a school wall if they let the girls do sport.....and sure enough he has put up our volley ball nets and taught them to play. We all go outside and are given a demonstration match, watched by all the school. So great to see them play and marvellous to watch Sayed Oberdin darting amongst them giving them lessons in throwing... such a change to see a man among the girls helping them .

They show me science lab, computer which they have brought electricity - microhydro electric power, themselves, and library...all immaculately kept. Fantastic school!

We are given fresh trout from the river and a plate of tiny birds...their heads still on eat for lunch.........never had this before!! The lead teacher demonstrated how to eat them and bit the head right off the tiny bird with a great crunch!

Then on to a second lunch in a teachers house... .amazing little home with a wooden courtyard and outside bread oven and fire for cooking. We sat with all the girls of the family and the men ate next door...wonderful relaxed lunch ...

Then time to head off and many fond farewells. I am going to try and plan a trek here to raise funds... the villagers say the mountains are spectacular and they will be our guides.

Visit the boys school on the way back. Introduce cricket....with bats donated by Fairstead Trust...have a wonderful time coaching the kids. One of their teachers was a refugee in Pakistan and a great cricket enthusiast and wants to introduce to the school.

Saw the new building going up by the river and looked at all the kids in tents and huddled in wooden classrooms which usually serve as stalls in the bazaar and think that next time they will be in a new school thanks to one of our fantastic donors.

Such a positive day and as we rattle back and crunch along the rocky track home, we are all so happy and feel once again that we have seen such a very positive side of life here and find it hard to believe that in other parts of the country things are so awful.

Get a message to say that 8 people including ISAF have been in an explosion in Ali Abad—that beautiful place we passed through on our way from Kabul.

28th April - the afternoon

Spent the afternoon filming for the project. Followed Fiona Gall and her team to the disability centre where we saw 3 patients and interviewed their parents. So sad, such severe disabilities. First was a woman who had an 18 month old baby with a syndrome which has left her unable to walk or sit up alone. The mother has already lost two babies in childbirth. They live 2 hours walk from the nearest clinic and many of the women in her village die in labour, unable to reach medical help. She is hoping that John Fixssen-an Orthopaedic surgeon recently retired from Great Ormond Street, who is visiting, will provide some miracle cure for her child.

Second is an older mother with a 10 year old girl with cerebral palsy. She has a beautiful face. She will never walk and will be dependent on her family always.

The last is a young boy with his father and brother. He sits with his arms and legs out rigid, his mouth held open at all times. He became jaundiced while he was a school boy in 6th grade and suffered terrible brain damage as a result. His father is very poor and runs a stall selling second hand things in the bazaar. The boy’s brother is his carer. He does everything for him and is the most loving and gracious child—his arm protectively around his brother at all times, he carries him or helps him to move by holding him around the waist and propelling him forwards. He washes him and takes him to the loo, feeds him and apart from his 4 hours schooling each day is constantly at his side. The only thing that can be done to help this boy is to give him a wheelchair, made locally and suitable for the harsh environment ....and something that will give him much more freedom and help his carer. 3 cameos of life, very moving and incredibly humbling.

We move on to the Taloqan District Hospital to meet a doctor who will give us an interview about healthcare in Afghanistan and show us around the hospital. I brace myself for the worst—Afghan hospitals I have visited in the past have been the most harrowing and deeply upsetting places to visit, filthy and full of despair and smelling of death and urine. Human misery at its most manifest.

This hospital couldn’t have been more of a surprise and shows what can be done. It is run by a wonderful man who fled to Holland during the worst of the fighting. He continued his medical training and work there and then decided to return to his country and play a part in its redevelopment. He gave us a very eloquent and fascinating interview, discussing all the problems related to health care in Afghanistan—the relentless years of war, the huge distances to clinics and hospitals, the appalling roads and transport, the economic problems, the lack of infrastructure and capacity, lack of qualified doctors, restrictions on women seeing male doctors, shortage of female doctors, poor security—with doctors and clinic workers being murdered and facilities burned down and so much more.......But he also offered great ideas for improving the system and examples of what has already been achieved.

He showed us around his immaculate hospital which would shame any NHS facility by its cleanliness. We saw the neonatal unit, the operating theatre, the obstetric unit. All very basic, but clean and functional. Then onto the malnutrition unit...where starvation and disease are still manifesting themselves in tiny wasted bodies with huge empty eyes. It is shocking to see and deeply disturbing, but at least we know that these children are now in capable hands in a clean and safe environment and most will get better.

He is a remarkable man and this is a remarkable hospital and a symbol of true those schools we saw yesterday, it shows that with determination and commitment, things can improve...these are the success stories about which we never read.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Tuesday 28th April

Sarah's posting for today is below... she has also sent some picures of Sunday's journey, scroll down to see. Paula

Torrential rain all night pelting against the tin roof, gushing down the pipes, a bleak reminder that our travels are in jeopardy. Not one to give up, rise at 5 and prepare for the day ahead! Pack blankets, food and water and set out for Worsaj, rain still cascading down from threatening skies. The bazaar is awash with mud, carts struggle through the sludge, women in sodden burkhas, bowed down and bedraggled, weave their way through the chaos of the morning.

Through the steamed up windows of our car, I see traffic at a standstill ahead. I get out and survey a scene of devastation. The road has become a river. From the hills a frantic torrent of mud stained water is racing down and across the road and is depositing rocks, silt, mud and boulders at its will. Cars and lorries are stuck in the debris and people are picking their way over large stones to cross to the other side. A man in striped Badakshani coat and drenched turban, leads his burkha-clad wife carefully across the floods. Men line up to push a stranded vehicle out of its abandoned position, its wheels spinning and sending muddy waters spraying into the rain-soaked air. It is hopeless. Our journey aborts just minutes from home and Worsaj will not be utterly disappointing.

You cannot hurry Afghanistan. Plans can never be set in stone and my Western approach of trying to jam everything into a short visit is proved stupid! So many times I manage it ....but this time it is not to be. In fact, we will be lucky to get back to Kabul if the rains continue like this, let alone manage all our school visits. So we will sit and wait and watch and hope!


Monday, 27 April 2009

Monday 27th April

In a hurry - so excuse clipped writing...

We left Taloqan at dawn and headed across the hills to Keshem. Massive reforestation is occuring and thanks to the rain everything so green. Wild roses growing everywhere and spectacular views of hills and villages and the distant Hindu Kush. But the rain continues and the mud swamps all the towns and villages. We arrive at Jari Shah Baba--with its new classrooms funded by Equitable and Eureka Trusts, looking wonderful and protecting the girls from the elements--if not for our classrooms they would be outside in the mud in atrocious conditions.

A wonderful welcome and the best news of all is that we watch a volleyball match - the first time I have ever seen girls play sport in Afghanistan...the whole school comes outside to watch. Great court and net funded by the UK twin school The Holt. This school is a real message of hope in the region and one of the best I have seen... with science lab, excellent library and computer room all up and running. A far cry from a few years back when most in tents. We visit the classrooms and deliver twin school letters and projects before fond farewells and off to the next school.

Mashad is a Girls' school for 2500 girls in Keshem centre. Last year I saw the majority of these girls studying outside on the grass. This year, mud everywhere and the girls all huddled into our 20 new classrooms funded by David Chislett ..... they are not painted yet but due to the weather, all the girls are sheltering inside and are so grateful to us for the new buildings and so happy - they send us special thanks from their parents too. We interview 2 girls aged 14 and they are an inspiration. If there are children like these, studying in these schools, then Afghanistan must surely have a better future. They are polite, determined, eloquent and bright and so well disciplined. Remarkable interviews and make all the hard work to find funding so worthwhile.

Back to Taloquan and the rain still falling may stop us venturing down distant valleys tomorrow. We intend going to Worsaj village where we will stay with the locals in their homes and visit the schools for 2 is a wonderful place and they have been asking us to stay with them for so long ... will be an amazing experience if we get there. Meanwhile Fiona and Eleanor Gall and their team of orthopods and physios have turned up and we will all share a room tonight in an overloaded guest house!

Sunday 26th April

Good news - Sarah managed brief email contact...

Sitting in Taloqan with Leslie, Canadian journalist, Lucy, German documentary maker, Olympia, Slovakian twin project leader, and Kamawi, Afghan Twin sShool Coordinator...a cosmopolitan team and all light years younger than me! We have been sitting in the dark as no electricity but now have a few hours of generator power. No hot or running water ...just a bucket of cold water that somehow doesn’t appeal even after our 8 hour journey from Kabul to the North.

We travelled up through the Salang Pass and its 3000 metre tunnel, Hindu Kush still snow clad from the winter. Then through the rolling hills of Ali Abad—never so green as now due to the best rainfall in years. Never manage to describe these hills ...but try to imagine someone has emptied thousands of cushions from the sky and layered them with swathes of velvet in every shade of green, brown, and red. Nestled amongst them are mud bricked villages and tall poplars and the foreground is a mass of wild flowers—vermillion poppies, purple and yellow thymes .. and a beautiful scent of spring. And the river runs through it.

Security has tightened and we are not allowed to stop, as in the past, to sample kebabs and naan on the river bank, or search the bustling bazaars for dried fruits and mangoes.

Our plans must all change for our school visits as there is a celebration day on Tuesday—Mujahideen Day...commemorating the withdrawal of the Russians in 1992- and all the schools are closed and the cities are deemed dangerous for expats. So we have a delightful plan to visit Kishem and its 2 schools tomorrow (Monday) and then Tuesday will head off for 2 days in the remote and beautiful Worsaj, in my favourite valley, in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, where we have built 4 schools. They have begged us to stay in their villages for years and now we will. It will be an amazing experience staying in their homes and then we will visit the schools when they reopen on Wednesday. So no communication for a while.

Monday 27th April

Sarah has sent me a text to say that all is well, but due to a public holiday the travel plans have been changed.....

She will travel to Mashad on Sunday and visit Jari Shah Baba today (Monday). On Tuesday she will travel to Zouhruddin, stay in the village overnight and visit the school the following day (Wednesday).

On Thursday she will visit CRDC Taloquan (newly twinned with Mary Hare) and RAD Kunduz, (twinned with Arbour Vale).
She will also try to visit Sari Sang.

Communication is likely to be restricted to text for the next few days, so the earliest I will be able to update the blog with pictures and text will be Wednesday.

I will post any other news as soon as I get it ..... Paula

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Friday 24th April

Sarah's first posting is below..... Paula

Once again find myself sitting at Dubai Terminal 2 awaiting flight to Kabul, UK time 0238! Those long haul flights seem cruelly designed to hold you confined in a tube, unable to escape an unhealthy inundation of thoughts and for some reason I always feel forced to assess my life as I travel the time zones alone ...and isn’t always comfortable!

As I take off from Heathrow a fight breaks out between a man and woman beside me...they have been but 2 minutes in the air and have never met before, but exchange vile language and tempers boil up and explode about the angle of a seat.......and I think perhaps it is not so surprising that wars break out ....

Dubai still holds its bleak record for me of being the loneliest place on the planet....teaming with people from every nation and yet as empty at heart as anywhere. Millions of people in transit ,a collision of cultures , thousands of lost souls like busy ants, saving money to send home to dependent relatives across the world. One giant sacrifice, severed from homelands and families so far away.

An “interesting “stop over hotel....I now know why it was so much cheaper than all other hotels I could find!! Arrived v late and walked into a bizarre atmosphere—no women, music blaring from all corners of the hotel. To pay my bill, I was led along seedy corridors and into a darkened room. A woman in a canary coloured sari was singing on a dimly lit stage and behind her ,like startled birds, a row of Indian women huddled against the wall .Adorned in gaudy saris , faces painted like Russian dolls, lined up like plastic targets at a fairground –barely out of childhood, they stood exposed to the tables of leering men. Into this scene, I was led, right in front of the stage, to the corner of the room and a bar where they dug out a credit card machine which failed to operate. And so was led back to Reception where I had to part with precious cash , my mind lingering on the fate of those poor young girls. Firmly chained my door and snatched 2 hours sleep which was cruelly punctuated by the fire alarm going off as someone lit up in the lift!

Now safe in Kabul and so wonderful to be back. As I put first steps on the tarmac I always stop and look around me at the mountains of Kabul. Hamid here at the compound , an ever faithful friend ,and greets me with a cup of green tea with cardammon and an irrepressible smile.