Four decades of violence didn’t prepare me for this mission
A WFP staff member takes us on a perilous journey to reach some of Afghanistan's most remote communities. Having suffered personal tragedy and twice narrowly escaped with his own life during Afghanistan's decades of violence, the staffer knows as well as anyone the huge challenges posed by the country's decades of violence combined with a rugged and often impassable terrain.
Badakhshan in far-eastern Afghanistan is known as "the roof of the world". Isolated by weather and geography, local communities are rarely seen, mentioned or understood by the outside world.
For almost seven months a year, families are completely cut off by heavy snow. Winter starts early and they only have a small amount of time each year to grow enough food. A change in weather can have a dramatic impact on their lives and their food security.
I'd been invited to join my colleagues on a five-day mission to isolated communities in Badakhshan and learn more about how they are improving their resilience to climate change and weather extremes, so they can access food all year round.
The road to Wakan
I flew from Kabul to Faizabad with the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service. There, I met up with Najibullah Rahmani, the Head of our Faizabad area office and his team. Together we set off to the first mission site — Baharak district, 50 km away. The area is so remote that aid workers rarely visit the region. Even a breakdown of a vehicle can have serious consequences.
Najibullah was calm but he had a problem to solve. Three WFP trucks had been blocked at a checkpoint by local militia, trying to pass through a district controlled by the Taliban. The trucks were loaded with nutritious food for malnourished children, as well as flour, vegetable oil and pulses for families and health centres.
We drove straight to the checkpoint to check on the trucks and also to pass through it for ourselves. The men guarding the checkpoint weren't hostile, but adamant that only their commander — whose mobile had been switched off — could let the trucks pass. Najibullah dialled number after number before he was able to reach him. The commander only said one thing before he hung up: "These trucks will not move past until you have given food to the people in the villages under my command."
Four decades of violence did not prepare me for this mission
I grew up in Afghanistan and violence has affected my life since I was a child: When I was 10 years old, my father was pulled from a bus by armed men. We scrounged the woods along the road for weeks but never found his body. When I was a student, I was beaten by Taliban and forced to cut my hair and grow a beard. Later, I worked as a journalist for international media and for the High Peace Council. Once, a helicopter I was riding in nearly crashed in an area controlled by an armed group; I thought I would die, either in the crash or shot by the fighters.
A few years back, I was on my way to the office when a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle showering my car with debris and from the explosion. My car still has a dent in the hood, reminding me of the incident every time I get behind the wheel.
Like all colleagues, I never let go of my mobile phone, always ready to check in with WFP's security team after an explosion in the city or to call my family and friends to check on them.
Nevertheless, this mission to Wakhan was outside of my usual comfort zone. We had to travel through a district that is entirely controlled by the Taliban to reach one of the most remote parts of the country. Few people visit Wakan, and I felt fortunate to have this opportunity.
Before I left, I sat with one of WFP's security officers, going over every step of the planned mission. I knew I wanted to join this mission to document the work of WFP far out in the field and show this to the rest of the world.
Falling rocks and washed-away roads
With the trucks stuck at the checkpoint, Najibullah decided that we'd drive on, while continuing to do all we could to help the trucks to pass.
But the guards did not let us pass in our WFP vehicles, either. Our only option was to take a narrow, winding road around the district. We did not expect any further interference by armed men, but the mountainous route is known to be perilous with frequent rocks falling from the mountainside onto the road or water destroying parts of it.
For hours, our drivers worked hard to force the vehicles around holes and over stones of the unpaved road along steep crevasses. The car could not speed up because of the lack of oxygen and the high altitude. Snow from last winter has not melted and towers on both sides of the road. The only respite we get is a stunning view of wonderful mountains, including glimpses into neighboring Tajikistan.
The phone network is sketchy at best and whenever we got some signal, Najibullah tried to call the local commander's contacts to see if the trucks could pass through. And he got lucky: He reached an associate of the commander who informed him that the trucks would be allowed to pass. Immediately, Najibullah contacted the NGO who would be distributing the food for WFP to alert them and ask them to tell local families that the food was on its way.
‘Afghanistan suddenly seemed peaceful'
After two days on the road, we arrived. When we drove into one of the villages, families came out to wave at us and give us a warm welcome. WFP has been working here for years and we were treated like friends.
The area was calm and there were no security concerns. Yaks, used for transport, roamed the pastures at the project sites. Afghanistan suddenly seemed peaceful; the pressure of Kabul, the constant expectation of a shooting or explosion, receded with every hour I was there — for the following two days. Here, I slept without the constant expectation of being woken up by an explosion.
I've worked with the UN for nearly 10 years and this was the first time I've driven in such a remote area without an armed escort. We spent days on the road but it was the most pleasant drive I've had. Being able to see the difference that WFP has made here was worth the long drive.
"Before WFP and Rupani started a community forestation project here, there was nothing but dirt and dust," said Wali Jan, head of a civil society association, pointing over a vast, green plain. "Now you see, everything is green." In a few years, grown trees will be cut down here to be sold as building material.
Women and men behind such a transformation were happy to share their stories with me. There was Sanam, an elderly lady who used to collect wild plants for her family to eat. "Now we eat real vegetables that I grow in my garden," she said.
"We planted poplars and received food from WFP to get through winter. Our children will grow up in a green world," said Noor Begim.
Due to an unpredictable security situation in Afghanistan, the WFP staff member who wrote this story has chosen to remain anonymous.
Read more about WFP's work in Afghanistan.