“Then you ask why I don’t live here –
Honey, how come you have to ask me that?”
– Bob Dylan
It’s snowing in Mazar tonight: sheets of white that blow in off the mountains, crisp gusts slipping into sleet along the edges of the road. We pass a man wheeling his bicycle through it all.
After my time in Turkey was unexpectedly cut short by a combination of visa issues and coup, I am on the road again. This time, Afghanistan.
I am here to roll out a new emergency assessment tool to UN and NGO agencies, which has me in constant motion – each week a new province, a new city. This week finds me in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province in the north of the country, where winter is closing in.
My accommodation in Mazar can best be described as ramshackle, in a conflict-y sort of way. Faintly reminiscent of one of Kabul’s peak-opium ‘poppy palaces’ left to rot, it is large, cold and empty. Although Mazar is typically seen as being the safest part of Afghanistan the building was damaged in a recent Taliban attack on the German consulate. The blast was 2 kilometres away, but powerful enough to blow out the windows on the nearside of the house and warp the frame of the balcony doors, rendering them impossible to shut. At night they clank and bang in the wind. I am the only inhabitant, and the initial effect is as unsettling as you might expect.
It is strange and invigorating to be back in ‘the field’ once more. I was in Turkey working on the Syria response and, by the time I arrived, it had long passed the risk threshold for international staff to cross the border into northern Syria – Jabhat Al Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) weren’t exactly renowned for their tolerant attitudes towards foreigners, after all. And so the whole thing was carried out through remote management, an inherently frustrating model that left my Syrian friends and colleagues bearing the brunt of the risk while the rest of us sat just 25 km from the border in the pretty Turkish city of Antakya.
While the work was by no means easy, Turkey itself was a very pleasant place to live. Antakya had all of the amenities which are usually denied to you in a humanitarian aid environment – infrastructure, electricity and functional internet, foremost – and Istanbul and Beirut were but short hops away. In comparison to South Sudan, say, there was nothing to complain about. But still the sense of disconnect and lingering guilt sat heavy.
And so it was with considerable excitement that I was told within minutes of arrival in Kabul that I was driving down to Jalalabad, on the Pakistan border in the east of the country, the next morning. Far from the attention of the international community, Pakistan has decided to expel, at exceptionally short notice, over one and a half million Afghan refugees, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for generations. I was to travel with my boss to carry out an initial assessment of the returnees, to feed into the UN appeal that was expected imminently. After a year of working on programmes I never saw, with people who I spoke to every day but could never meet, the opportunity to get closer to the reality on the ground, and to work directly with the people implementing the actual programmes, felt like a blessed relief.
The road from Kabul to Jalalabad is beautiful, if stark. It wends through mountain ranges and flood plains and is lined with reminders of the historical and ongoing violence. Recently burnt out trucks compete with Soviet-era tanks, decorated as markers of victory, for attention. Much of it passes through areas outside of government control. At one point on the journey my boss turned to me and said: “It all gets a bit Taliban-y after this bridge.”
Welcome to Afghanistan.