On April 13 the US Air Force dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever detonated. It landed in Achin, an Afghan district in the province of Nangarhar, close to the border with Pakistan. On the same day, hardly 30 kilometers away, our colleague Frank van Lierde talked to families trying to escape the chaos and destruction of war who are receiving help from Cordaid and other aid organizations like Care, Oxfam, Save the Children, Stichting Vluchteling, World Vision, and the ZOA of the Dutch Relief Alliance. Read this blog from Afghanistan.
The very first GBU-43, the “Mother of all Bombs”, has been dropped. Were there cheers in the room where the decision was made to press the button? Probably. “Another great job done”, proclaimed Trump once the deed was done. Afghanistan: land of military experimentation.
The story of Shah Bebe
Someone who was not celebrating that day was Shah Bebe. She comes from Achin. I meet her in Tagab Camp, an informal settlement on the side of a dusty hill, not too far from where she once lived with her husband and children. The settlement owes its name to the Russians. The Soviet invasion forced local people from their homes. They congregated here and built a camp. The camp became a settlement. 35 years later this settlement is still providing refuge for people forced to leave their homes as a result of continued violence.
“About a year ago we were driving in the car”, she says, “when men from IS suddenly blocked our way. My husband and brother were taken away and killed. Three months later I fled with my three children, and the three children of my brother-in-law. Their mother fled to her parents, leaving her children behind with me.”
Shah Bebe; to her left one of her own sons, and next to him two of the three children of her murdered brother-in-law.
Most Afghans in this region live in poverty. Some are able to make ends meet by doing odd jobs. With a bit of luck and the right connections you can get a job with the local government as a jack of all trades, security guard, or as chef in a government-owned hotel with no kitchen and no guests. That was the kind of job Shah Bebe’s husband did in government service. So did her brother. And that is why IS executed the both of them.
Long winter months in camp
In this hinterland between Afghanistan and Pakistan the winds blows fiercely. And when the wind is not blowing, the scorching sun bakes the back of your head. The harsh sunlight draws the tears from your eyes. But this is only spring. “When I first came here to Tagab Camp I lived in a tent.”
Her husband killed, left alone with six children to trudge through the mountains, find transportation, reach Tagab Camp and survive months in an open tent. “It was hard. The water we drank was polluted and we didn’t have enough to eat.”
Shah Bebe and six children between the ages of 4 and 12 spend a couple of long, winter months in a tent. The nights are cold and they are very unsafe. Yet she manages to protect herself and these six girls and boys, and keep them all alive. All this as a widow, in a completely alien community.
Where does this woman find such strength? From under her burka I hear a voice full of passion. Alongside her are two sons of her murdered brother-in-law and one of her own sons. When I ask how he likes the new village, the youngest replies with a shy voice “my Daddy is killed by Daesh”.
Fortunately, for the last six months, Shah Bebe has been able to live in a house together with other displaced families. “With money from the Dutch Relief Alliance I have been able to rent a room in this house”, she explains. “And thanks to their help I can send the older children to school.”
War goes on
In the meantime the war is raging ever closer to them. Every day helicopters rattle over our heads, every day there are attacks, and every day there are civilian deaths. Killed by IS, by the Taliban, by numerous other militias that change their names by the day. And by the bombs of NATO or the USA.
The mega-bomb that was dropped yesterday may well have damaged some IS tunnels. But perhaps it didn’t. In any event, its victims included civilians: those that died, those who lost loved ones, and those whose homes have been destroyed and are once more packing their belongings. Just like Shah Bebe and over one million displaced people in this beautiful country.
And this number is only increasing. To make matters worse Pakistan, which has been oppressing and exploiting Afghans, has been enforcing a tough policy on deportation for more than a year. Hundreds of thousands are being forced to leave the country, without any papers, and return to Afghanistan. These so-called ‘returnees’, who once fled the violence of the Soviet forces, the Taliban, or the Americans, are returning to a country with which they no longer have anything in common: no connections, no job, no home. And often also without the papers they need to claim help as refugees.
They end up in cities such as Jalalabad. If they have the means, they rent a room. If they have no money for that, they put up tents and hope that the landowner doesn’t bother them. Otherwise, they are forced to pack their bags again.
The story of Mati Ullah
One of the Afghans deported from Pakistan is Mati Ullah, a carpenter who worked as a day laborer in Peshawar. “We had a good life in Pakistan”, he says. “Now we are hiding out for a while with my uncle in Jalalabad.”
Mati Ullah, his brother and his children were all born in Pakistan. His brother, his elderly father, and their wives and children have all found temporary refuge in the uncle’s old home. Mati Ullah himself lives in a tent provided by the Dutch Relief Alliance. He put the tent up in a relatively safe place in the inner garden of his uncle’s home. Thanks to a payment he received from the Dutch Relief Alliance he can pay for food and medical expenses – one of his sons has a serious blood condition – and other provisions for survival.
Until they find proper jobs, he and his brother do what they did in Peshawar, but on a much smaller scale. Behind the tent they have set up a small carpentry workshop where they make furniture and hope that they will find customers in their new neighborhood. But no one buys from strangers here.
1,2 million displaced persons in Afghanistan
In 2016 there were 1.2 million displaced persons in Afghanistan. It is forecast that this year there will be an additional 450,000. But if the war were to escalate now, this estimate would need to be significantly increased. Last year 650,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan. This year a similar number will be forced back over the border.
No country could deal with a crisis like this. In just a couple of years the agricultural land surrounding Jalalabad, capital of the densely populated province of Nangarhar, has turned into hastily erected and poorly built residential areas and tent encampments. Food production is falling, food prices are rising, and the inward flow of displaced newcomers is unstoppable. Towns and villages are sinking under the pressure. So are schools and hospitals.
People here have been living in a state of war for fifty years now. They have learned to live with ambushes and bombs. Where will we get food to eat for tomorrow? How can I afford a doctor? Must my five-year-old son earn some money by shining shoes instead of going to school? How can I survive in a tent when it’s unbearably hot in the summer and freezing in the winter? These are the questions that weigh them down. Added to that is the refugee crisis that makes it harder by the day for the displaced persons and their host communities alike to deal with the daily misery.
Mega-bombs such as the GBU-43 that was dropped yesterday solve nothing. They will also cause civilian casualties. Then there’s the anticipation of retaliatory action by IS. And these reprisals will mostly affect ordinary civilians. The only thing that is certain is that the stream of displaced persons will keep on increasing over the months ahead; as will hunger, danger, and immeasurable suffering in this beautiful country, in this disgusting war.
Dutch Relief Alliance
Cordaid and six other Dutch aid organizations that make up the Dutch Relief Alliance are currently supporting almost 80,000 people like Mati Ulla and Shah Bebe. At the end of May the DRA aid program in Afghanistan will end for the time being. It will have run out of money. But our people will remain in those locations, ready to continue their work. Especially now that the need is greater than ever. To enable us to continue this work we are actively campaigning for funds. Your contribution towards our work is more than welcome.