The land where hope was
This story was written a month
after the 9/11 terror attacks on the US, when Red Cross nurse Margaret
Bryson left Afghanistan to return to her home in Hastings. She was one of
the last New Zealanders to leave the troubled country before the
American-led bombing began.
A week after she was forced to leave
Afghanistan, Margaret Bryson is selling raffle tickets outside a Hastings
supermarket with a handful of Red Cross volunteers. Well-fed shoppers
trundle past, pushing trolleys creaking under mountains of food. A light
drizzle falls from a bleak Saturday afternoon sky. This, she says, is what
the Red Cross is all about.
"It's women - because they are mostly women - giving up their time. They
work tirelessly, and have done for years and years for very little reward."
Still, it's hard to imagine anything
further from Bryson's work of the previous ten months. The New Zealand nurse
was the Red Cross health programme manager for Afghanistan, supplying
hospitals and a string of first aid posts and clinics along the front line,
and negotiating with the Taleban and the Northern Alliance.
Now back at her mum's place in Hastings,
Bryson says she has learnt over the years to switch between different
"If you didn't, you just wouldn't survive," she says.
But other things are not so easy. Like the
thought of the friends and colleagues still in Afghanistan, and the work
"The concern now is what is going on there and all that we left behind...
It's disappointing that after nearly a year of getting a programme running
in what I think is the right direction, everything has changed."
Within days of the 9/11 terror attacks on
New York and Washington, the Red Cross, anticipating retaliatory attacks,
pulled its foreign staff out of Afghanistan. Much of its work continues, but
a project to bring relief supplies to the country's most desperate region
has been halted.
"We were getting supplies to 68,000 families in Ghor, one of the largest,
poorest and most inaccessible regions, where they've had three years of
drought and crop failure. It was a massive effort, the biggest we've
undertaken, and we were about a third of the way through when we had to
And with thousands more fleeing their
homes, foreign expertise in building and supplying refugee camps will be
missed. The Red Cross still has about 1000 Afghani employees in the country,
but they, too, may be forced to flee, says Bryson.
Nor will the bombing of a Red Cross
warehouse in Kabul on October 16 help the relief effort.
"All our buildings are clearly marked, and contain vital supplies of food
and equipment. That they've been destroyed is unacceptable," she says.
A recent World Health Organisation study
ranked Afghanistan below even Congo and Somalia, finding that Afghanis could
expect to live in reasonable health only to the age of 33. The causes, says
Bryson, are conflict, poverty and lack of education.
"How can you have an understanding of what contributes to bad health if you
don't have an education? People don't know it's important not to defecate
where you get your water - how do you educate a nation not to shit in the
river? And a large proportion is nomadic. If you have to supervise someone
taking their medicine for six months and they're nomadic, how do you do
TB, skin diseases, typhoid fever, and
diarrhoeal diseases and malnutrition in children are rife. Marriages tend to
be arranged within the family, so congenital abnormalities such as club feet
are common. Then there are the seven million mines left by the Soviets, and
all the unexploded shells and bombs lying around.
"At the end of the day it comes down to education. But the more you train
and educate people, the more skills you give them to leave. It's a vicious
Bryson's job supporting the country's 16
hospitals required "an awful lot of travelling" on some of the world's most
abysmal roads. More than twice the size of New Zealand, Afghanistan has just
2000km of paved roads and 20km of railway.
"Every trip's a nightmare. Before I left I did a tour of the front line to
supply and identify all the first aid posts. The road followed a gorge, and
it was just mud which heavy trucks have dug big holes into. You've got
nowhere to go, so you're driving on the edge and there's a great ravine down
one side and a cliff on the other. So it's pretty unlucky if you meet
somebody coming the other way."
By comparison, crossing the front line
between Taleban and Northern Alliance territory was relatively
"You have to go on foot for an hour across the lines, and that's a bit
spooky. You're very exposed and it's very hot, and you've already spent six
hours on a dreadful road to get that far, even though it's only 50km from
You'd think a woman running a major health
programme would have a hard time in Taleban-controlled Afghanistan. Not so,
says Bryson, thanks to a bit of grey hair.
"Age for them commands respect. If I was a 20-year old they might think
differently," she laughs.
"Besides, at the end of the day they're
just people you're dealing with. The people at ministerial and hospital
management levels have been there forever, they've survived all the
different regimes. It's made little difference to them who's been in power
for the last 20 years. It's all been awful for them."
Bryson's first stint in Afghanistan was in
1990, long before the Taleban came to power and when the Russian-backed
government in Kabul was under siege by the Mujahideen.
"While the situation is terrible, the main thing that was different in Kabul
this time was that there weren't armed people wandering around. It wasn't
safe, but there was some kind of order and there weren't a lot of weapons in
the streets. Whatever sort of draconian measures were there to impose that
order is another story. It's not like when I was there 11 years ago, when
the city was bombarded with rockets day and night and there were massive
Despite the turmoil of the last decade, she
found many of the same staff in the hospitals - even if it was difficult to
recognise them, now they have all been ordered to grow beards.
As a foreigner in Taleban-controlled
Afghanistan, the worst thing was the restrictions, says Bryson.
"We couldn't go to the market or move freely in the town. None of the
foreigners were allowed to drive, and as women we had to sit in the back. It
was very frustrating not being able to move around or have any contact with
our Afghani colleagues outside work. The Afghans are very hospitable and
they find it very difficult that they can't invite you to their homes."
Despite the Taleban's notoriety, she says
at first many Afghanis welcomed them for the law and order they brought.
"It doesn't matter for them who the government is. They just want peace,
they want their children to go to school, to have access to health care, not
to be hungry, to think that there's some future. Of course they hate the
fact they have to have beards and all of that, but that's almost a minor
detail compared to the overwhelming lack of hope, the sense of
She draws a deep breath and lights another cigarette. "I find that extremely
difficult," she says.
Nor is the economic situation for the
ordinary Afghani much to cheer about. The average wage is a little more than
a dollar a day, and the exchange rate has plummeted to 70,000 Afghanis to
the dollar. The Ministry of Health pays its doctors about $10 a month, which
the Red Cross supplements by up to $40. For every person paid by the Red
Cross, Bryson estimates that salary supports another 30 people.
I ask her if the Afghanis know what is in
store for them, or why they are being bombed. She answers that the Taleban
may have banned television, but radio - in particular the Voice of America
and the BBC - is hugely popular.
"I was in Kandahar (headquarters of the Taleban) at the time of the World
Trade Centre attack, and we knew if the Americans were going to retaliate
that was the first place they would hit. I was giving one of the boys at the
hospital him a bit of grief for not doing his work properly and he told me,
'I can't concentrate - my seven year old child doesn't sleep at night any
more. Where can I take my family? Where can we run? To the desert?'"
"It's terrible really. But they'll carry
on, they're stoical, those men with the great big grey beards, they're only
a year or two older than me, though they look like old men. Nothing fazes
them, they've seen so much. They've seen too much for one lifetime."
But Bryson, too, has seen a lot. Her CV
reads like a catalogue of late 20th century conflicts: Somalia, Sudan,
Yemen, Rwanda, Iraqi Kurdistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan.
While in Kosovo in 1999, she was seriously
injured driving over an anti-tank mine. "It was a pretty nasty accident,"
she says. So nasty that her spine was fractured and the doctor sitting next
to her was killed.
A few days later, this extraordinary woman
- who has set up a hospital in the war-torn mountains of Kurdistan, lived in
a freight container half buried in snow, and whose spine since Kosovo has
been held together by titanium rods - is wearing a floral apron and baking a
Where does she draws her strength from, and
why doesn't the unending conflict and suffering wear her down?
"I'm just doing a job I had the privilege to stumble onto and suited me
fine. Strength comes from the local people you work with. I'm full of
admiration for them. Everyone who's ever been to Afghanistan is passionate
about the people."
"As a nation they're just incredibly
hospitable, very special people, and they've endured more than enough
hardship already. They've lost heart. They'd ask me constantly: Margaret,
what will become of us?"
In 1999 Margaret Bryson
was awarded the highest honour of the International Red Cross, the Florence
Nightingale Medal. She has also received the New Zealand Red Cross
Outstanding Service Award and is a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
First published in the New
Zealand Listener, November 2001.
Margaret Bryson at home in
Hastings. Her necklace, made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli,
was a gift from the staff of Kandahar hospital. Photo: Duncan Brown,
Hawke's Bay Today
"It doesn't matter for them who the government is. They just
want peace, they want their children to go to school, to have access
to health care, not to be hungry, to think that there's some future.
Of course they hate the fact they have to have beards and all of
that, but that's almost a minor detail compared to the overwhelming
lack of hope, the sense of helplessness" -
Red Cross nurse
"As a nation they're just incredibly hospitable, very special
people, and they've endured more than enough hardship already.
They've lost heart. They'd ask me constantly: Margaret, what will
become of us?" - Red Cross nurse