April 15, 2012

My Journey to Afghanistan

It was June 2004 when Focus Humanitarian Assistance Europe (an agency of Aga Khan Development Network) invited me for an interview at its office in Croydon, UK for a position based in Afghanistan. My thoughts were completely entangled with confusion. The western media was busy publishing and broadcasting horrendous stories about Afghanistan and at such a crucial time, going there would mean putting my own life at risk.  Nevertheless, I still decided to appear for the interview.

The most hard-hitting moment of the show was the day when I opened my email and found the job offer. I was indecisive, nervous and befuddled. I contacted Dr.Adnan – my best friend who was working as a medical officer at Ipswich mental hospital and told him about the situation.  In the meanwhile, I wrote to Dr.Sardar Ahmad – an old Afghan friend from medical school days who used to work for World Health Organization in Kabul. The two close friends suggested me to accept the job offer. I decided not to inform my family members in Pakistan about this life changing decision; I knew that they would not be very excited hearing about this.

I left London for Islamabad on July 3, 2004. After two days, I left for Gilgit to meet my parents and other immediate family members as I had not seen them for almost two years. After spending a very joyable week at home, I finally departed for Afghanistan – a country where I had never been before – never even thought to be there in life. It was not easy to be in Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 incident when its painful memories were still fresh in everyone’s mind. 

On July 12th, I took a United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) flight to Kabul. Remnants of war were still obvious at Kabul International Airport.  Wreckage of Soviet fighter jets and burned out tanks were lying near the run way.  The airport security personnel guided me to an immigration desk where a middle aged, male immigration officer looked at me and greeted me with a lift of his eye brows. I also returned the gesture. Before stamping my passport, he asked me something in Dari.  I had no idea what he said and remained silent. After a few minutes, I came out through the arrival gate and went to the parking lot where the office car was waiting.  The driver took me to a guest house located on the main Wazir Akbar Khan road. He mentioned that the United Nation Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) had been renting the building for many years. But now, it has been rented out to AKDN but everyone still called it "UNAMA guest house”. My room was on the first floor, facing the main Wazir Akbar Khan road and hence I found it a little bit noisy. I stayed in Kabul for a week, enjoyed delicious Afghani food and attended all orientation meetings before heading to Faizabad Badakhshan where I was to be stationed.

First arrival at Faizabad airport on July 26, 2004
On July 26th, FOCUS chartered a PACTEC plane to Faizabad (the capital of Badakhshan province). It was eight of us who were traveling to Faizabad.  We were directed to the aircraft without passing the security checkpoint. “Oh my Lord isn’t it too small” I asked one of my colleagues after first glimpse of the aircraft. I was very excited and was looking forward to an interesting journey. After a few minutes, we all boarded the plane. There was no cockpit door and it was interesting watching the two pilots as they navigated the plane towards our destination.  The co - pilot put our luggage in the trunk, closed the door and briefed us about the in-flight safety procedures without a live demo. It was my first ever flight without a stewardess or flight attendant. The PACTEC pilots were doing everything themselves.  The flight took off from Kabul airport around 11.00 AM and started flying over rugged hills and beautiful snow covered mountains of Kabul, Salang, Baghlan, Kunduz and finally Badakhshan. In the beginning, I was a bit scared because there was a lot of turbulence and on the top of that, it was my first time being on such a small aircraft. To cut a long story short, we finally arrived in Faizabad at 12.30 PM. The landing at Faizabad airport was an amazing and memorable experience of my life.  The Faizabad runway was made of metallic sheets and had been built by the Russians in 1980. As soon as the wheels touched the runway, we started hearing loud scraping sounds. Trust me, I was scared and was in a state of shock. When the propellers came to a complete standstill, one of the pilots said, “Welcome to Faizabad. We hope you have enjoyed your flight”.  He opened the door and asked us to leave the aircraft one by one. I took a deep breath of fresh air and immersed myself in the raw and beautiful landscape of Faizabad. I felt like I was in heaven when I stepped out of the plane. Focus Faizabad’s logistic and administration team members along with office vehicles were there to pick us from the airport. We were first taken to FOCUS guest house. I went straight to my designated bed room, showered and changed my clothes.  Later on, we went to AKF guest house for lunch. I really enjoyed Afghani food.  At the same time, I was introduced to Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and Aga Khan Health Service (AKHS) team members. All of my colleagues were very friendly, warm hearted and welcomed me with open arms.  

Dr.Salim Sumar – Executive Officer of FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance –Europe and Dr.Iqbal Kermali –Country Director for FOCUS were also in Faizabad to help me acquaint myself with the area and ongoing projects. On the very first day, they took me to the office of Provincial Governor.  I still remember that moment quite well. We drove through a police guarded gate, followed the narrow trail through lush trees and shrubs until we got closer to an old building. We parked our vehicles and walked into this building. The entire building was made of mud and straw and had only three rooms. The traditional pit latrine was only a few hundred yards away from the building. The provincial or state governors in my own homeland live in beautiful buildings. The lavish decoration provides recognizable evidence of their wealth and importance. It is not possible for a common man to meet the state/provincial governor and share with him either personal or  community related issues. If you are lucky enough to get an appointment, the so called security procedures will definitely make you cry and you will regret your decision.

First official meeting with the  Provincial Governor of Badakhshan 
Let me rewind back to the original scene without going into too much detail. A guy - most likely governor’s assistant greeted us with respect and directed us to a room. When we opened the door a, middle aged, serious looking man with white beard greeted us with kindness but without a smile on his face. He was Sayeed Ikramuddin Masoomi - the provincial governor of Badakhshan. One of our local Afghan staff introduced us to his Excellency Provincial Governor and his team.  In a nutshell, he welcomed us open heartedly, appreciated Focus’s contribution and asked us to do more for the poor and deprived people of Badakhshan. As a gesture of welcome, we were offered black tea (Chai), sweets and dried mixed fruits displayed on a tray in a traditional style.

On our second and third days, we visited UN agencies and other government departments in Faizabad. The orientation period that lasted for almost a week went very well. At least, I had some idea of what life looked like in Badakhshan and what were the real challenges.  At the same time, I was also perplexed and in state of imbroglio as I had no experience of managing multi-million dollar programs in post conflict countries like Afghanistan. There were many unanswered questions in my mind.  I was constantly asking myself, “Would I be able to comply with the expectations of the people and Afghan Government? Would I be able manage and keep my staff happy? Would I be able to do what the senior management was expecting from me?”  My heart's deepest inner feelings boosted up my self- confidence and aroused my enthusiasm and forced me to say, “I can, I will”.
  
Last but not the least; I worked for Focus Humanitarian Assistance (Europe) for almost two years. During my stay in Faizabad Badakhshan, I faced some tough times. I cannot forget the Faizabad incident when AKDN offices and guest houses in Faizabad were burnt, two other colleagues and I were made hostage and beaten by an angry mob in September 2004. I also can never forget the Baharak incident when some unknown people lobbed a hand grenade at my guest house - Ehsan Assad (my colleague) and I got minor injuries but luckily survived the incident.  I will go into more detail about these incidents some other time.  At this point, I can only say that these ill-fated incidents never bewildered or frightened me at all. My courage, pride and determination were never influenced by these events. I never lost my belief and confidence in the people of Badakhshan. I always prayed to God to give me the true strength and courage to serve these people.

With Shohada community members and Mission East staff
In August 2007, I joined Mission East (Danish NGO) and it was another golden chance to work with the hospitable people of Badakhshan.  I had a very strong affiliation and deep attachment to the land and people of Badakhshan not only because I lived and worked here before but also the place in Gilgit Baltistan where I was born and bought up, the language I spoke, the type of food I ate, the kind of music I listened and the form of dance I liked – were also a few considerable reasons behind this connection. North Pakistan (now called Gilgit Baltistan), Badakhshan Afghanistan, GBAO Tajikistan and Xinjiang China have so many things in common. Same landscapes, same beautiful snow covered mountains, same food, same religion, same customs, and same language are bringing together people from four different countries.

The two and a half years stay with Mission East was an amazing period of my life. It was one of the best international organizations to work for in Afghanistan. This organization has done so much to increase access to safe drinking water supply and sanitation services in North East Afghanistan.

With AKHS - health team in Darwaz District of Badakhshan
In January 2010, Aga Khan Health Service Afghanistan (AKHS-A) provided me with an exceptional opportunity to design, implement and oversee the community health programs in the province of Badakhshan. Badakhshan drew international media and donor agencies attention in 2003 when a joint survey report of UNICEF, CDC and Ministry of Public Health Afghanistan (MOPH-A) revealed that Badakhshan had the highest recorded rate of maternal mortality [6,500/100,000 live births] in the world.
I feel not only lucky but blessed to be part of AKHS-A, MOPH, USAID, UNICEF and other development agencies in Afghanistan to come up with effective strategies to implement long term health partnership programs in Badakhshan. AKHS-A also provided me with a golden chance to work on some new innovative projects that have rarely been executed in the world. The cross border health program between Afghanistan and Tajikistan was one the most amazing and memorable project that I have ever come across in the twelve years of my career. Every day, every hour and every second that I spent with AKHS were the most creative periods of my life.

The prolonged, impressive and memorable journey of six years came to an end in January 2012 when I decided to bid farewell to Afghanistan to join my family in Texas USA.

With Badakhshan Midwifery School students and faculty staff
Afghanistan will never fade away from my memory. Every morning I get up and miss the beautiful mountain landscapes of Badakhshan when I look out the window from my house in Sugar Land, Texas. I really miss my friends, colleagues and above all, the friendly, peaceful, loving, warm and hospitable people of Badakhshan. I have no words to express my feelings to those other than to say “thank you”. You will always have a special place in my heart.  I will never forget those difficult days when you took me to your house and saved my life when the security situation worsened in Faizabad.  I will never forget your kind hospitality and warm welcome to your house on Eid, Novroz and other occasions when I was alone in my guest house.   How could I forget the rocking farewell parties you organized, those beautiful words you spoke and the wonderful gifts you gave me when I was leaving Afghanistan?

With Dr.Nadira Hayat- Afghanistan's Deputy Health Minister
My journey to Afghanistan would be incomplete without recognizing the people who supported me along the way.  My special thanks go to Dr.Salim Sumar [who is the Chief Executive Officer for FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance Europe] for providing this wonderful opportunity to come and work in Afghanistan. I was always on my toes in my career because of him.  I am very grateful to Jacques Dailoux (who was the Desk Officer for Mission East in Brussels) for giving me a fantastic opportunity to work with a well respected organization in Afghanistan. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have yet seen a humble person and true professional like him in my career.  It will be a great injustice if I do not thank Dr.Gijs Walraven- Director of Aga Khan Health Services (in Aiglemont France), Dr.Nayamat Shah (former Country Director for AKHS program in Afghanistan) and Dr.Fatima Mohbat Ali (Regional CEO for AKHS in Afghanistan and Central Asia) who believed in my capabilities and gave me the opportunity to work for Aga Khan Health Service in Afghanistan.  

With Excelleny David D.Pearce- U.S Ambassador to
Afghanistan and Dr. Waliullah -  Governor of Badakhshan
Last but not the least, Afghanistan not only developed my career but it also brought a special aroma to my personal life. This beautiful land blessed me with an opportunity to meet and marry my beautiful wife –Shazia Nota. My journey to Afghanistan would have not been possible without her never-ending love and support. She lived without me in USA for so many years but encouraged me to work for the people of Afghanistan for such a long duration. Thank you so much my love!

Although my six years journey has now come to an end but the beautiful memories will continue to live in my heart and mind forever.

4 comments:

  1. Dear Dr Aziz

    Your career journey is really a learning module for every one like me..wish you a very good luck for all your future endeavors ..

    Regards

    Hussain Karim JAFAQ
    Kuwait

    ReplyDelete
  2. I did read the article.. Doc and I worked from the same building in Faizabad and I know he has put his best to work with the people of Badakshan. I was last year in FZD with NAC for a week or so. Doc People have lot of respect for you.

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