We spoke with aid worker Dominic MacSorley about his work with the group Concern in Afghanistan in late May. He sent this update on his work and life post-September 11.
Everyone remembers where they were on September 11th, an event that stopped time, a tragedy so profound that it will remain with us always. I was in Concern's international headquarters in Dublin, planning to visit a country that I had just 'inherited' from one of my colleagues, a country that I was assured would not demand much of my time, a country that was described as a 'low grade emergency'. This country was Afghanistan. Concern began working there in 1998 in response to the devastating earthquake and had stayed to address the acute levels of poverty, hunger and devastation a product of 20 years of civil conflict, successive, repressive regimes and more recently, drought.
I quickly found myself on a plane bound for Faizabad, a small provincial town in the north east of Afghanistan. But getting into the country proved to be difficult. All flights, post September 11 had been canceled, the UN and the humanitarian agencies had withdrawn their international staff due to the increased levels of insecurity. It took the Concern team three frustrating weeks to secure visas, travel to neighboring Tajikistan get a seat on an old Russian plane operated by the Northern Alliance forces. In the meantime our programs had ground to a halt, convoys of humanitarian aid (food, blankets, medicines) had largely ceased and an estimated 6 million people that were dependant on food assistance, started to go hungry. It was the lowest point of our operation.
But we got back in. The Russian plane, carrying 40 journalists, myself and another Concern colleague, landed in Faizabad on October 8th, the day after the American military campaign began. We were able to restart our program immediately and within days trucks of food were on the road again to the hungry villagers. Fears that the military campaign would drag through the winter were never realized and the Taliban were ousted faster than was expected. The fall of the Taliban meant that we could expand our program into areas that had been previously inaccessible. Populations that had been displaced could go home and some of the 2 million refugees that had languished in camps in neighboring Pakistan and Iraq could for the first time realistically think about returning home.
In the past few months much has been achieved. Concern has built over 3,000 houses, expanded food distributions to over 350,000 people, set up women groups, constructed schools, bridges, roads and wells. But Afghanistan still remains critically in need of assistance. We are only now able to see the extent of the poverty in many areas. One such is Khost wa Fereng where Concern is the only international organization working to address the food security problems in an area where 25% of children were reported to be malnourished. However heavy rains in May washed away the only passable road that we used to truck in food and at the same time dislodged mines making it a significant security risk. And so we took the food of the trucks and arranged a convoy of donkeys to transport 500 tons of food over the pass and into the district. Nothing is impossible.
When I left Afghanistan in February to work in Concern's office in New York, I left with a sense of the enormity of the task ahead: to ensure that people had enough to eat, a roof over their head, a job, and a chance to send their children to school. But I also left with a sense of hope that with the continued commitment of our donors and the public, the people of Afghanistan might, for the first time in 20 years, be able look forward to a better future.
Concern Worldwide US
New York 16 August 2002
For more information on Concern Worldwide contact www.concernusa.org.