Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Good Friday; 22nd April 2011

We left at first light, with the moon still up over the mountains and said fond farewells to our hosts to start the beautiful journey back to Taloqan. We made it by 8am and met up with Gareth and Jane. They had done a remarkable 2 days of teaching the teachers and headmasters of the region and had a fascinating and fulfilling time. It was great to see them again and to hear about all they had achieved. We left Taloqan and drove straight to Faizabad to the centre for disabled children, where we were to stay and await the morning flight following day.

We had to eat in the bazaar, which was right beside the mosque. I would rather have gone without food as was still very nervous about what might happen in the US. The call to prayer took on a sinister tone for me now and I felt very foreign and very much a sitting target! But there is no denying Faizabad’s beauty and fascination and as we walked home through the bazaars, it began to work its magic and calm my nerves.

We lay outside on cushions as dusk fell and the electricity never materialised. We ate our supper under the stars on our last night in Afghanistan, with no news of the outside world, wondering whether or not the burning had just taken place. Slept on the floor again and with all 4 of us trying to sleep in a tiny room, not much of a night and lay awake for the now eerie calls to prayer.

I spent my last morning in the classroom of the disability centre with 5 deaf children and two blind boys and a child with Down’s Syndrome. We had such fun! They copied a poster made by children at the Arbour Vale Special Needs School in Slough. They each drew round their hands and coloured in the shapes, which I then cut out. They made a huge poster of a peacock with hand feathers. The determined looks on their faces and huge efforts at concentration as they used the glue stick and finished their work was incredibly touching and a reminder of how the simple things in life can often bring the most joy!

Just before we took off from Faizabad in the safety of the UN plane, I received a message that the Pastor had been locked up and a disaster averted. I could have happily killed him! I said my farewells at Kabul to Ollie , Gareth and Jane - the teaching workshops would continue in Kabul, but I had to be home for Easter day.

I had 4 hours to wait for my Dubai flight and still nearly managed to miss it. I sat beside a Hazara who is now living in Australia and had such a very poignant conversation. He had fled Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. Thousands of Hazaras were massacred and those that survived were denied jobs and beaten up when they ventured out on the streets. He had been given asylum in Australia and had just visited his mother and family for the first time in 11 years. As he flew away from Kabul, he knew that he might never get back to his homeland again. He could see that there was no possibility of return and no future there for his children. I know how strong the communities and family units are in Afghanistan and it is devastating that so many thousands of families have been torn apart by the war.

I landed at Heathrow at 6 am and was totally overjoyed at the surprise of 2 sons standing at the meeting point to collect me - so emotional. As soon as we got home, the whole family went to church on a sunny Easter morning. The sermon was based on the theme of Freedom from Fear. I sat there feeling free from fear for the first time in some days. I was completely overwhelmed by the feeling that I no longer had to be afraid and by the gratitude that I live in England, which for all its faults, offers me a safe place to bring up my children with freedom from fear. I reflected on all those people I had met, on the Hazara, on the lives of all those across the world who live in fear all the time. The blossom was out in the churchyard. I walked around my garden alone. So much sunshine and green and buttercups in solid yellow on the fields - everything so beautiful and so safe - so very very good to be back home.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

21st April 2011

Rough night - eaten alive by bed bugs as I hadn’t left room in my suitcase for a sleeping bag! We set off early, driving through the ancient villages and hills alongside the river towards the Mian Shar valley and a village called Kimyan, where we are running a Community Based School. On arrival, we laid out rugs by the river and breakfasted on green tea, freshly baked naan and the most delicious fried trout which the women had cooked very early in the morning. Soon we were surrounded by a crowd of children who were walking to the school. The Governor of Worsaj came to greet us and thanked us for all our work. We had met him on our last visit and been very impressed by him.

The CBS is held in an old house and as we approached we were met by the symphonic sound of children chanting the alphabet. I love these schools. So simple, held in tiny rooms in the village, packed with kids who would have no education without this initiative. I am sure it is the way forward for achieving the goal of getting all children to school by 2020.

On to the main village of Mian Shah and the Asrafia Boys School, where we interviewed pupils in tents, filled with mosquitoes and dust where they study each day. The Bibi Zainab Girls School is next door which needs more classrooms and has no furniture, with all the girls sitting on the floor.
We drove back to Bibi Ayisha and spent the next few hours, seeing all the girls and visiting them in the science lab. It is remarkable how far things have come-these girls used to study outside. It really is a beautiful school with so much hope. Their twin school had made them hundreds of mini white boards, one for each pupil, and they all wrote messages on them in English for donors and pupils back home.

We raced on up the mountain to Tarusht and its village girls school. It is just the most beautiful village, full of cherry blossom and bright green fields of wheat, right up in the heights so that the views to all the other Worsaj valleys are magnificent.

We went through a door in a wall and there were hundreds of girls standing in line waiting for us. I was totally weighed down by garlands and presents by the time I reached the school at the top of the hill.

This is the next school on our list to build and we already have the funding, so they are all overjoyed. There are over 1000 girls and just a handful of classrooms which are in disrepair.

The good will at that school was overwhelming. We sat in the courtyard surrounded by all the teachers and children, giving and listening to speeches. The choir sang.

There was total exuberance and joy there and after the ceremony, we were completely mobbed as we walked to the headmasters house for lunch. Hundreds of women in burkhas came out to greet me and took my hand and dragged me in to a dusty courtyard and up some steps into a traditional mud bricked house.
I counted 44 of them squashed in to the room around me. Burkhas were discarded and suddenly those anonymous blue veiled ghosts, became beautiful, lively young women, full of curiosity about me and my life. I passed around photos of my children and never got them back. They just wouldn’t part with them. Copious amounts of rice and mutton were brought in and fresh yoghurt. The headmaster popped his head around the door every now and then with a huge smile, triggering the women to disappear under their sea of burkhas.

Saying goodbye was a whole village affair and I became lost in a mist of giggling blue women. Now under their burkhas, I could identify only a few through those imprisoning grids, their characters too large to be hidden away. Hugged and kissed, I retreated to my car and waved goodbye to these wonderful people, feeling totally overjoyed to have come to this place and so happy that we are building a school here.

Some of the villagers and the rest of our entourage-which always grows when we do these travels, decided that we should have a cup of tea up in the most beautiful area of the mountains. So we went with these men-school consultants, teachers, district education authorities and some, who to this day I am not sure I know who or why they were with us- up the rough track on a calm, clear evening towards the mighty snow ranges of the higher Hindu Kush. At last we stopped and climbed on to a plateau, where the rugs were laid out and we sat down to a panoramic view on the top of the world - so happy to be there.

Utterly beautiful and totally lost in time, the only sound was the hooves of the donkeys bearing their arduous loads back to the villages below. In the distant valleys you could see the ancient ploughs and brightly clad girls working in the fields. We walked and walked and it became more and more beautiful - it was so good to walk ….we are so well cared for here and get fed all day by such generous hosts. It was just lovely to stretch legs and walk in this stunning place.

On our way home, as dusk was falling and the villages were lit up by their hydroelectric bulbs, we spotted a school with no roof and classrooms demarcated in the dust outside this shell of a building. We decided to have a look as I said we had to put the school down on our list. I had noticed it earlier with so many children outside. We crossed a bridge on foot as the road was too narrow for our car. Climbed over the stone school wall and dropped down into its grounds. The whole building was falling down and the classrooms were open to the skies above and absolutely hazardous with broken beams and debris poised to fall into the classrooms below. As always happens, the headmaster magically appeared within seconds of our arrival and villagers turned up to tell us what had happened to the school. A local politician had promised to rebuild it prior to the elections ….but once elected, he had done nothing and because he had made a pledge to do it, no one else had helped. The irony was that the school in all its appalling decay, had been given the most spanking new, beautifully built latrine block by a German aid organisation. So here we were in classrooms with no ceilings and hundreds of children studying outside, with the best loos available to man …. nowhere to study, but luxurious loos!---pretty much sums up the haphazard aid in Afghanistan!

I am determined to build all these schools and to provide all the children in this region with safe schools and good teachers. It is a massive task but in a place like this in Afghanistan-where as many girls as boys come to school and thousands are being educated every year, it makes such great sense and we have to manage it some how.

With these thoughts swimming around my head, we arrived back at Tarusht late at night. The stars were so bright and the moon lit up the valleys and men in turbans were waiting for us in the square. They welcomed us in to their home and we sat in a huge long room on red carpets and soon about 20 male guests arrived. They were wonderful company and very light hearted and great fun to be with. But the sadness was that they told me how 80% of the men in the village end up going to Iran as illegal workers on construction sights, living in appalling conditions, in order to earn $1000 a year to send back to their families. There is so little work here other than farming and I hope that some time in the future we can help to develop some kind of job opportunities here.

We had yet another feast-which began with a speciality of massive plates of rice cooked in milk with salt and sugar, served with a huge trough in the middle of the rice which was filled up with oil!

A great delicacy, but as a starter on a well full tummy, a bit daunting. Copious plates of food followed, as always so incredibly generous.

Felt so happy with them all, but then received news from England that the US pastor who had been at the burning of the Qur’an which triggered the deaths of the UN workers, was planning to burn another copy on Good Friday. The Courts were trying to ban him but it looked as if he would go ahead. My guide told me that if he did, then the back lash would be far worse than the first time and that our lives as well as his would be in real danger. Today was Thursday and he was planning to go ahead next morning in the US. This meant we would be travelling to Taloqan City and would arrive during Friday prayers at the Mosque—just when the Mullahs would show their anger.

I went from such happiness to real deep fear in those few seconds. Ollie was great and we made a plan to leave at dawn and go straight to Faizabad and meet the teachers there, to return to Kabul if we could on the Saturday. In Faizabad we wouldn’t necessarily be safer than Taloqan, but at least it has a small runway which could offer possibility of rescue if things got really nasty. I really believed that if the pastor went ahead, we would be in the most horrible situation.

Sleeping that night was not easy. I had to climb a ladder into a small room where I slept on the floor and 4 of the family clambered on to cushions beside me. The downside to hydroelectric is that the mother wanted the bulb on all night! I got bitten again and was lying awake worrying away about the security situation. The irony was that if anything went wrong I knew I was in the safest place, and that once we left the next day, we would lose that security. But we had to get to the teachers and also had to try and get home.