Trees for the forest and a frozen day with the destitute

When I planned this trip to Afghanistan, I was staunchly against doing any form of reporting on the war or the effect that having 40-odd nations in the country over the past 13 years has had on the politics and economics of the place.  I was determined to find what makes the country tick on a day to day basis. I wanted the stories about the famous icecream seller just outside of Kabul, or the sports teams.

Well, so far so good. The war has been a passing distraction as we spend our days wandering bazaars, and dirt streets lined with hundreds of men selling mangey livestock, or at the dog fights, or chasing after wayward cricket balls at the public parks with the young kids.

Until today, that is. But the surprise of all is that what I saw beside one of the main roads in Herat, being some of the most numbing images I’ve witnessed to date, originate not from the fighting in the southern provinces, but because of infighting between ethnic groups in the north west.  And realising that casts a whole new palour on the black and white image of Afghanistan as a country at war with the US. It’s not. It’s at war with itself.

So grant me a skerrick of leeway to post something (gasp) sincere. Andrew nearly fell off his seat when I hinted at actually wanting to write something serious. It’s a rare occasion. Buckle up.

Late yesterday afternoon we took a right hand turn onto the Customs Road, which is the main arterial that circles the northern part of Herat and just happens to run directly past the temporary digs of the US Embassy.

It’s a road pretty much like any other road you’ll see around here. And as we discovered today, it doubles as an incredibly effective wind tunnel.

Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t matter much. Except as winter barrels in, bringing bone crunchingly cold temperatures, there’s now also 300 families who call this roadside home.

I’ve heard a lot of NGO and aid workers talk in the abstract about IDPs and regurgitate statistics about the number of people forced off their farms or from their towns as a result of security issues because of the war. About  32,000 Internally Displaced Persons (such a neat and clean disassociative phrase, don’t you think) are knocking on the doors of Kabul city, swelling it’s already crushingly poor population.

A Brookings Institute report into the potential catastrophe of growing IDP numbers states:

As of March 31, 2013, a total of 534,006 people were recorded by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) as internally displaced by conflict in Afghanistan. These statistics combine conflict-induced and other displacements, as well as both relatively new and protracted caseloads. Internal displacement has already been rising over the past year, and is projected to continue to increase over at least the next 12 months. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, over 100,000 people were displaced by conflict in Afghanistan in 2012 and a further 32,000 by natural disasters. In the first six months of 2013 an additional 60,000 people were displaced internally, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

If you’re anything like me, your eyes have glazed over and I’m certain only three of you actually finished that extract. Statistics like this make it nigh on impossible to see the trees for the forest.

That’s probably a good thing.

From on the ground, when you’re watching kids no older than three beside the road hang back as their parents fight viciously to get their hands on free clothes and food brought each night from generous locals, it’s easier to think big-picture. The reality of feeding, clothing and warming just these 300 families is sickening.

Overlay that with the ethnic tensions that permeate not only the camps of the people themselves, but the views of the people who are involved in crafting solutions – from the top of government right down to implementation level, and you’ve got a soggy mess of humanity.

For the Herat IDP’s, some have tents to provide shelter at night, donated by local businessmen. The government – municipal and federal, and the aid organisations, haven’t even stepped foot near the settlement yet, so we’re told.

But tens of others have no tents. Three women sit just off the road, facing inwards, completely still. They look, quite literally frozen in place. The only hint of movement is when one of the children, gloveless, eyes watering, wanders to the group. I see a nod. He wanders off again.

Andrew spent dawn at the camp, and said most were already up and about trying to light fires. But there’s no wood and no coal. A decision had obviously been made by one man to burn clothes, his need for heat in the short term overwhelming thoughts of wardrobe choices.

We went back this afternoon as the sun sank behind the hill that frames the road. AQ had seen a man selling second hand gloves from a cart in the city earlier in the day, and stocked up to drop them off for the bare fingered kids. His loot was gone within minutes of stepping out of the car.

The IDPs are used to vehicles bringing gifts and waves of people surge from one beige Corolla to another as city workers stop off on their way home. As the cars pull over to the side of the road, the men and women transpose into rabid animals. These camps show the best of human resilience and the worst of human nature.

Some of those who are without shelter will die tonight.

It’s a challenging thought, not least because I cant gauge my emotional response. Watching these people from within the heated interior of our car, I could rationally comprehend their difficulties. I could make assessments about pending difficulties, I digested the reality that a few, the very young and the old, were literally dying as I watched. But I couldn’t muster an emotional response. I had disassociated.

Only yesterday we spoke with some of them, so I knew their circumstances, they weren’t abstract sketches.

I had laughed with a couple of the children. I talked to one man, Mohammad, a worn sixty-year-old with three teeth, leather skin and a love heart tattoo on the flesh side of his thumb, about his dead wife and his broken heart.

We knew they were there because of ethnic fighting. I saw again today the young man who’s three year old son had been murdered in their home before he and his wife had a chance to leave their town.

Andrew taps on the back door window. We all jump. He calls an end to it by proffering his right hand, blood everywhere. He’d cut it somewhere, somehow, but it was so cold outside only the stickiness between his hand and camera told him something had happened. He told us by the end of his ten minute stint outside that his hands were too numb to depress the shutter button.

We take off down the road for the nearest pharmacy, warm, comfortable, safe. Thirty minutes later we are in a pastry shop buying a selection of sweet goodness, before we head back to the hotel and slam the open window shut on the frigid air.

Outside, ten minutes away by car, some of those people are dying. And I feel nothing. I feel too much.

Andrew managed to capture some pretty incredible images of the roadside camp. It’s not clear whether these kids had shelter for the night or not, but even with tents, it’s little salvation against the inhumanly cold temperatures perishing wind. 


 The best of human resilience and the worst of human nature, all rolled into a convenient 500m strip of road. What did Hobbes say? Life is nasty, brutish and short? Some days, it certainly feels like that. 


 Dusk at the camp. The temperature in Herat dropped to nearly ten below zero later that night. 


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