She is working for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in one of the world’s most dangerous and war-torn countries. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), Afghanistan is the world’s least peaceful country, after Syria (2019 Global Peace Index).
We sit with the experienced humanitarian aid worker in one of NRC’s bulletproof cars on our way out of Kabul. Two international aid workers were killed in the past two weeks alone. Security measures have been sharpened. In front of us is another white Toyota Landcruiser transporting our colleagues who are responsible for programme activities and security.
Aid workers as targets
Globally, there is a growing trend to view aid workers as parties to conflicts, making them targets of armed groups. According to the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), 16 aid workers were killed in Afghanistan in 2019.
For aid workers, there is probably no place more dangerous than Kabul. This is where Astrid lives and works: behind tall fences and steel doors, with strict security measures and their own bomb proof room.
“Am I scared? No. We take our precautions, and we often have to change our daily schedules to ensure that help reaches those in need.”
“We are both known and respected”
NRC has been working in Afghanistan since 2003 and is now one of the largest humanitarian organisations in the war-torn country. Astrid is responsible for more than 1,300 employees reaching out to 600,000 internally displaced Afghans in 16 provinces, including Kabul.
“The fact that we have been here for so long, and that we can reach so many people in different parts of the country, means that we are highly trusted by both the population and the parties in the conflict,” she says, referring to a well-known Afghan saying: “Those you know and respect – you take care of.”
Afghans suffer the most
“We must not forget that it is the Afghans themselves who are hit hardest. They are not driven to and from work in bulletproof cars. They have no bomb-proof rooms at home. And they are the ones working out in the field when the international staff are ordered to stay indoors, behind tall fences and steel doors,” says Astrid, recalling that 14 of the 16 aid workers killed in 2019 were Afghans.
During the first nine months of 2019, 2,563 civilians were killed. Of these, 261 were women and 631 were children. In addition, 5,676 civilians were injured. Of these, 622 were women and 1,839 were children.
The children are hardest hit
She is particularly concerned about the children: “The children in Afghanistan have experienced nothing but war and unrest. Every day about 20 million children wake up to a life marked by the fear of being killed by bullets or bombs.”
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), nearly two out of three Afghans live in areas directly affected by war and conflict. More than half of them are children under the age of 18. (47 per cent of Afghanistan’s 36 million inhabitants are under the age of 15). They are increasingly exposed to violence and displacement. They lose their livelihoods and access to public services, such as health care and education.
According to OCHA, 398,000 people were displaced by the conflict in Afghanistan during the first eleven months of 2019. That’s an average of 36,000 people per month or 1,200 per day. Half of these are children.
Cold weather can be fatal for displaced children who lack warm shelter.
“Winter can be brutal in Afghanistan. NRC is working to capacity so that more people can get a roof over their heads and stay warm,” says Astrid.
A place to call home
We are driving in the direction of Bagram, an hour’s drive northwest of the capital Kabul. In ancient times, Bagram was a famous stop on the Silk Road. Today, it is best known as the US military base where thousands of Afghans were imprisoned, tortured and accused of being associated with the Taliban following the 2001 United States invasion.
We are on our way to meet Farzana, 35, a widow and mother of two. Last year, NRC built 154 new houses and upgraded the homes of 330 other internally displaced families in and around the capital, Kabul. Some of these homes are in the settlement of Barikab, on the outskirts of Bagram. This is where the small family has settled. They are now moving into a new house.
Most of the families living in Barikab have been displaced by the conflict. Some lived as refugees in neighbouring Pakistan before returning home, only to be forced to flee once more. Two-thirds of all those displaced from their home provinces in Afghanistan have sought protection in and around the larger cities. The population of Kabul has tripled in two decades. Today, the capital is home to between four and five million people.
The car stops outside the gate of a qala, a traditional wall that surrounds most houses in Afghanistan. We are told to wait in the car. Our security officer would like to check the situation first: talk to our local contact and make sure the coast is clear.
OK, everything is in order. We have half an hour. The strict security routines mean that we shouldn’t stay in one place for too long.
Growing up in a tent
The gate opens and soon the two curious faces of Farad, 5, and Wajma, 7, emerge.
Farzana welcomes us. She regrets that she can’t invite us in for tea. The house is not yet ready for them to move in to. The construction work is still in progress, and the newly cast concrete floor is not yet dry.
“You are welcome to make handprints in the fresh concrete,” she says, smiling.
The family fled to neighbouring Pakistan about five years ago. “We stayed in tents and lived from hand to mouth. It was a hard life, especially for the children,” she says.
Three years ago, they returned to their homeland, settling in District 8 of Kabul, with so many other returning families. Here, too, they lived in tents.
“We are looking forward to moving into a proper house that we can call our home. The children have never lived in a house before. They were both born and raised in a tent.”
The house is 25 square metres and has two rooms. In one corner of the courtyard, NRC has also built a toilet.
The children, Farhad and Wazhma, have never been to school either. “Here, unlike in Kabul, they will have the opportunity to go to school. That means they can create a future that is better than the life we have lived so far,” says Farzana.
Dreams come true
Having her own house is a dream come true, and she is optimistic about the future.
“We will manage now. I have a cleaning job in Bagram and earn enough to keep my family alive.”
But the dream doesn’t stop here: “When we can afford it, we also want to connect to the power grid, but that’s still just a dream.”
However, the family is dreading the winter, which is both long and cold. The mountains that surround the village are already covered with snow on the peaks.
After the half hour is up, we are told that we must leave. We get back in the car. The next stop is outside the home of the Bashir family.
Selling cigarettes to survive
The family’s house is surrounded by the same traditional walls. It is home to Bashir Ahmed, 43, his wife and six children. There is hectic construction activity going on. A pile of bricks is in front of the gate and Ahmed’s two brothers are busy mixing concrete.
Ahmed soon shows up at the gate. He is leaning on a crutch as he welcomes us. Inside the courtyard stands an unfinished new house situated between two other houses.
“This will be our new home. I hope we can move in before the cold and rain of winter,” says Ahmed.
Ahmed’s two brothers live with their families in the other two houses.
“We’ve been living with them for a while. It’s been cramped, but now we are looking forward to living in our own house and getting some more privacy,” he says.
Serious injury in the war
Ahmed is originally from Kandahar. At the end of the Soviet occupation, there was fierce fighting in and around his hometown. He was 12 years old and working at a raisin factory when a grenade hit the factory building. Ahmed was severely injured and became disabled. When the Taliban took over the city the family, like so many others, fled to Pakistan.
“We returned to Kabul four years ago, where we lived in tents under miserable conditions. I fed our family by selling cigarettes on the street. We are grateful that we have been given the opportunity to settle down here. Without NRC’s help, I would never have managed to build my own home,” he says.
The windows and doors are already in place. Now only the floor remains, but he is worried about the winter.
“Winter is cold here and we have no heating. Last night, it was freezing and, even with several layers of blankets, the children couldn’t keep warm,” he says, recalling the harsh winter last year when his youngest son almost froze to death.
A positive future for the children
Now, he sees a positive future for his children. “We are not refugees anymore. We are permanent residents. My children can go to school. That gives us hope and faith in the future.
“Our main concern now is food shortages. We are struggling to provide enough nutritious food for the children. We only eat rice and potatoes. We can’t afford cooking oil. And meat is a luxury for us, something we can only treat ourselves to once in a while.
“Fortunately, my two brothers and their families help us. But most of all, I want to be able to take care of myself and support my own family.”
We say goodbye to Ahmed and his family. The security situation does not allow us to stay longer, although Ahmed would like us to stay for a cup of tea.
“Never been tempted to give up”
It strikes us that most parents we meet see a positive future for their children. At the same time, we know how bad the starting point is for children, especially for girls.
I ask Astrid whether it makes a difference. Aren’t you ever tempted to give up?
She answers: “No! These are innocent women and children. And sometimes only a little help can make a big difference. A simple wood stove for USD 20 can be enough to keep a family warm during the winter.”
But the road to peace and social development is both long and bumpy: of the 3.7 million children out of school in Afghanistan, 60 per cent are girls. In some provinces, as many as 85 per cent of girls are not in school.
In 2018, over one thousand schools were closed due to the difficult security situation, affecting 545,000 children.
Focusing on the girls
“Every child we manage to keep alive, and every boy and girl for whom we manage to secure an education is worth the effort. Remember, these are the ones – the new generation – who will secure peace and rebuild this country. That’s what drives me and what sometimes makes me feel both proud and emotional.
“What I’m most pleased to see is how the education programme I started 15 years ago as an NRC project coordinator in Kabul has grown. In 2019, we helped more than 180,000 children and young people receive an education.
“I hope and believe that this generation that is now receiving an education will be able to achieve what those generations before have not managed. I’m an optimist, otherwise I’d never have been able to do this work for so long.”