From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Back to the 5th Century

Date 18 Dec 2001 16:13:32 -0500

Note #6985 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


Back to the 5th Century 

An Afghanistan adventure

Editor's note: the author of this story is an appointee of the Presbyterian
Church USA
serving in a relief and development agency in a country near Afghanistan.
After returning from the latest of several recent visits to Afghanistan he
said he felt as if he had gone back not 100 or 200 years, but 1500 years.
For the safety of him and his ministry, his name cannot be revealed. - Jerry
L. Van Marter

Draught - Dust - Donkeys - Darkness are some of the images that quickly
surface as I reflect on my recent travels into Afghanistan.

Not only are people displaced by war and fighting, but they are battered and
bowed by three consecutive years of draught.  There are few irrigated fields
- most farmers rely on autumn, winter and spring rains for their primary
wheat crop. Even though the first rains have finally arrived, almost no
planting has occurred.  Most areas have been so short of food they have
eaten the seeds just to survive, thus compounding the need.

 From Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to Rustaq in Northeastern Afghanistan it takes
have experienced - and then double that difficulty and you may be close to
good?bye to paved roads. Conjure up the most difficult off road track you
picturing Afghan auto travel.  The only cars/trucks you see belong to other
from Rustaq to Dashti Qala, I saw no other vehicles, except two tanks!
about ten hours of travel by auto.   Once you cross into Afghanistan, say
humanitarian organizations or military.   In a three and a half hour drive

In this same trip, we must have passed more than a thousand donkeys - men or
boys straddling with bare feet dangling or walking loaded animals.
Occasionally someone on horseback, and even a five camel mini-caravan will
pass by.

Occasionally you will round a bumpy pot holed curve to sink into two feet of
dust, which cascade over the four wheel Russian Niva. We engage four-wheel
drive and shoot back onto harder ground using front and rear windshield
wipers as dust dispensers.

The terrain is mostly treeless - rolling brown hills - no chaparral - almost
a moonscape look.  Villages generally are identified by mud brick walls and
single story mud baked houses.   No contrast in color.   The barren fields,
walls, and houses are a uniform, dusty brown.  Generally, there are no
windows oriented to the outside, only to the interior of the walled

Rustaq, a regional center, has a population of some fifteen thousand people
- again, almost no vehicles, primarily foot and donkey traffic.  The bazaar
has very little merchandise; much of the goods are second hand.  Basic foods
are bread, potatoes, onions, lamb, goat, beef.  Prices are beyond the means
of many. Houses have no gas, electricity or running water. Wells are common
within family walled compounds.

One late afternoon, I walked several blocks to meet with my friend John who
works for another humanitarian organization.   Fortunately I was advised to
take along a flashlight. Our meeting ended in darkness at about 5:30 p.m. 
Their generator was under repair, so no light. My walk back to our compound
was in total darkness - no light until I reached our well-lit (by diesel
generator) quarters.  If you were brave or foolish enough to drive at night,
you could pass the "city" and not know it was there.  Wonderful star-gazing
in near total silence.

Part of the darkness also relates to the spiritual side of Afghani life,
particularly as related to women.  Here in the north, which the Taliban did
not control, women are hardly seen. In my three days at Rustaq, I saw a
total of eight women.  Six were wearing the complete "chador" - covering
everything, with only a small latticed opening for sight and air.  The other
two were traditionally dressed with head scarf - no hood.  Those who expect
quick change may be disappointed as the various mujahedeen groups are for
the most part very traditional and conservative. Change may not come easily.

We have established an Afghan base for humanitarian relief at Rustaq.  Our
compound has been nearly completely renovated, including the well and is
fully operational.  We are awaiting deliver of codan radios which will tie
us into our head office.   We had fourteen expatriots and six local staff
bedded down at this facility the past few days.  Our team includes
Americans, Canadians, Germans, Norwegians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Swiss,
British, South Africans and, of course, Afghans and Tajiks.

The first medical team have been on site for two weeks. We are sending six
truckloads of clothing and blankets to the border today.  We will be
distributing 5,000 pairs of children's shoes in two days.   We are
cooperating with four long-time Afghan NGOs who have food availability, but
no clothes or blankets.  We will also be providing food as our program

The complexities and challenges of management are by far the greatest I have
encountered.  For example, once we have identified and recruited a key staff
person, it takes three weeks on average to process a letter of invitation
from the foreign office, needed for a multiple entry visa. Then on arrival,
Afghan visa is secured along with border crossing permit from the Russian
Border Guard Commander.

While the trip to our Afghan compound is about ten hours, the six  Tajik
check points (customs, immigration, etc.) and the two Afghan stops can add
2-5 more hours to the journey.  Throw in language and custom differences,
long distance three continent partner communications and the production of a
comprehensive proposal and budget and you understand the seven-days-a-week
pace we have been keeping.

We believe we are here for such a time as this and are truly blessed in the
challenge and growth of putting reality - in small ways - to the command in
Matthew 25:31?46 about "whatsoever you do unto the least of these."

Presbyterians or others wishing more information about this person's work
can contact Duncan Hanson in the Europe and Central Asia Office of the
Presbyterian Church (USA) by phone at 888-728-7228, ext. 5313 or by email at
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