An Appeal for Helmand

by Joshua Foust on 1/2/2011 · 6 comments

A cross-post from my friend Alex Strick van Linschoten.

It’s easy to talk in the abstract about war. The dead become numbers, the displaced are statistics, and slowly we begin to forget about the people who live through it all. Afghanistan is a case in point. Tens of thousands of words of commentary are written every day, but very few of these seem to accurately bring these day-to-day particulars across. Earlier this month, I read an article by Josh Partlow in the Washington Post on the situation for those who have fled the conflict in Helmand — U.N.-speak = IDPs — for an area near Kabul City. It was a detailed, movingly-described account of some of these ‘particulars’ of their lives:

“For those who have escaped Afghanistan’s worst violence, some things are hard to forget: the sight of a woman’s hair entangled in the mulberry branches, her legs strewn far away in the dirt. Or the sounds they heard as they hid in an underground hole, counting the bombs to pass the time, praying the American troops would leave. Some of those Afghans have tiptoed in the footsteps of neighbors to avoid the mines. They’ve been hit with shrapnel and tied with flex cuffs, threatened by the Taliban and frightened by the coalition, seen relatives shot and homes destroyed. And so they left Helmand province and made their way to this dirt lot on the outskirts of Kabul, where month by month the settlement expands with those who have come to wait out the war. “In a situation like this,” said Sayid Mohammad, a Helmand native who has spent the past year at the refugee camp, “how could I ever go home?”” [Read the full article here]

There’s nothing new or particularly special about this group of refugees from Helmand, but for some reason this piece said something to me. It’s easy to become passive consumers of the news coming out of Afghanistan, particularly when it’s often so frustrating to read. I first read the article in London, a place where everything is taken for granted: warmth, walking on the snow, heating in the house, electricity, water, you name it. But if you allow your imagination to drift, imagine living away from home, in a place far colder than what you’re used to, in tents and makeshift huts on account of a war taking place in the villages, one that you have seen sweep through with random but seeming deathly certainty and claim your friends and family. For another account of life in the camp, watch the documentary account made by Alberto Arce here.

So I decided together with a long-standing Afghan friend and respected NGO-practitioner — she used to run HAWCA — to try to find some way to contribute to bettering the lives of these refugees at the camp. Orzala explains more:

“We contacted the UNHCR office to find out about the numbers of refugees and how we can make sure that our possible help is going to reach the neediest. Their formal response was, it can happen through government or NGOs working with refugees. A good friend who also is part of an international organisation involved in the field advised small scale donations and funds to go through private initiatives rather than the formal ones. Additionally with my experience in the past, I believe the winter will be over if we follow the lengthy procedures. I visited the site itself a couple of days ago to talk with those living there and also to get a realistic sense of how many people were living there. A representative stated that there were 870 families living there at the moment, and we got an idea of what other organisations were working there as well (Aschiana, the World Health Organization, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health along with Welt Hunger Hilfe). It seems, however, that there is a shortfall in terms of the amount of assistance being provided, as well as the speed that this is happening.”

So in the short-term what we want to do is — at the suggestion of those from the camp, but also an idea Orzala had had beforehand — to raise some money to provide charcoal. People are accustomed to using this in the winter; and it’s neither heavy nor particularly expensive. 50 kilograms of charcoal costs about $20 and so to be able to provide around 20 kg of charcoal to everyone will cost just under $7000. I know it’s easy to just close this page and move on to something different, but I hope you’ll be able to donate something — perhaps $10 or $15 — via the paypal button below so that we can try to ensure that this group of people have at least some warmth to rely on when the snows come in Kabul.

[Donations are closed]

Ed. Note: Since the donate button doesn’t display a running total, I’ll try to keep everyone updated with how the fundraising is going. The most reliable way to track your contribution, of course, is to go to Alex’s page, where he’ll have a more updated count. The latest update has him raising $2,640 from 45 people.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Brian January 2, 2011 at 1:05 pm

FYI, the buttons on registan didn’t work (PayPal rejected), but going to Alex’s page and using the PayPal buttons there was successful.

Homira January 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Josh, when I clicked on the yellow donate button, it took me to a broken link – I tried to to paste the screen below, but it didn’t work, so here’s the link itself.

Grant January 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Sadly humans seem to be prone to one of two mistakes. When we get close to a situation we lose sight of the big picture and forget the reasons for something. When we remove ourselves we lose our sense of urgency. I’m not really sure which is worse.

Theo January 2, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Not to sound callous, but how much more aid are we going to continue to throw at Afghans and Afghanistan without actually improving their lot in any sustainable way?

Isn’t Rubin’s thesis that the Afghan state’s reliance on foreign support in one form or another is responsible for its failure to develop sustainable and positive governance?

Joshua Foust January 3, 2011 at 7:32 am

Guys, I fixed the Paypal donation button, above. Thanks.

RScott January 4, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Yes Theo, we keep “throwing money” at the Afghan problem, like much of the reconstruction effort but the problem is and has been, we keep throwing it with the standard bureaucratic goal of moving the funds rather than carefully selecting and organizing projects that actually are aimed at the real problems, that bring direct and immediate benefits to the target population, and at the same time carefully field monitor the projects to insure the funds are not being stolen. We pave roads and build airports, build agricultural industrial parks, put of agricultural fairs that only cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars, bring in contract teams from Bolivia to build cobblestone roads (in a region with some 4 inches of rain per year) to irrelevant places and to teach Afghans how to build cobblestone roads while they do build cobblestone roads in Pakistan next door, etc. etc, etc, etc. Yes we have spent a bundle on frequently irrelevant things, irrelevant for the rural people that live in the area (And as usual, I use examples of Helmand where a high percentage of the “development” funds have been spent.) And as some of my Afghan contacts in the area continue to point out, everybody involved in these things are stealing (perhaps a slight overstatement). And we continue to ignore one of the key problems and at the base of much of the corruption, the opium industry, which apparently we have decided to ignore because we might hurt some feelings, rather than attempt to address the issue and support the long established double cropping, cash cropping markets and compete with the opium industry with small details like establishing an ag credit system, which is important to cash crop farmers, which the opium industry has had from the start but we have been unable to provide in our 10 years of occupation. Support the markets, for example of the cotton industry which became the second most important cash crop in the region in the mid-1960s when the British built the cotton gin, which still functions but is in need of US manufactured spare parts. And when the international market for cotton is hitting an all time high since the civil war thanks to reduced production in China, Pakistan due to flooding. The farmers have been outlining what is needed to git rid of opium cultivation in this area since 1997, and we continue to throw lots of money into the area but not on the things necessary to address this most crucial issue, nor in an effective or timely way. See my website for some of the details:

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