RAMBLINGS : Afghanistan
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The land where hope was lost
 
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 worlds.
"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 left undone.
"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 leave."

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 that?"

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 circle."


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 straightforward.
"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 Kabul."

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 civilian causalities."

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 helplessness..."
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 cheesecake.

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 Margaret Bryson

 

 
"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 Margaret Bryson

 


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Copyright Peter de Graaf 2011 : Ramblings designed and built by Peter de Graaf : Last updated February 2011