Peshawar Diary: Afghanistan on Line One

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Sigurd Hanson

I did not sleep much. Directing an emergency program is quite an experience. It's like playing Scavenger Hunt and one hundred games of BINGO at once (Let me add TWISTER). Stress. Lots of it. There are always deadlines, tomorrow's and yesterday's deadlines everyday. This morning I noticed more ashtrays filled with very short butts in our "drug free" office. But it is the positive stress that makes it all worth it.

Our people are miracle workers inside Afghanistan. Their challenge is daunting: Over 1.5 million Afghans are displaced inside the country, having left their homes because of a combination of war and a devastating three-year drought. Others are now fleeing due to the prolonged bombing and for fear of retaliation by those who may soon take power. They need food, shelter and medicine. All face starvation. The harsh winter has started. The pessimists say it already may be too late.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]I get worried when we are unable to communicate with our colleagues inside Afghanistan. After September 11th, the top authorities said that Afghans would be hanged if they communicated to Westerners. The International Rescue Committee staff inside Afghanistan was able to use rent-a-satellite phones to keep us informed from their three field sites until a few days ago. Then their communication systems jammed, and due to countless other technical and mystical reasons, we lost touch for a few days. Until this noon. BINGO: The phone rings three times.

Although, IRC colleagues cannot tell us everything on the phone, their letters eventually arrive. Again today, they are expecting looting and persecution of minority ethnic groups. A handwritten letter from a staff member describes his beating by a high authority figure. Another's home is entirely looted because he works the usual 16- hour day, everyday, taking no time for managing his own home affairs. Most of the staffers could have been the first to flee, but it is important for them to be there. They want to stay. It's lifesaving; it is meaningful.

Aid flows. From UN, the U.S. and other governments, private donors, and individuals to humanitarian aid agencies (like our office with all those cigarette butts) to the local staff to the most vulnerable people who need it the most. Lives are saved.

In Western Afghanistan, the IRC ambulance continues transporting innocent civilians injured by the bombing. In the North, more commodities delivered. It's colder. BINGO. Blankets arrive. Expected foodstuff: wheat, beans, sugar and cooking oil on the way. Three mobile clinics (think Meals on Wheels) provide health care to thousands of people, at locations where mothers and children die from preventable diseases every day.

After lunch, I travel quickly to Islamabad for a meeting with a food expert, answering her who, what, where, when questions. After the meeting my Afghan colleague and I talk about the earlier phone calls, and again confirm that the voices inside Afghanistan need to play a lead role in helping to resolve the current Afghan crisis. We call them again and make plans to ring again tomorrow.

In the evening, another working dinner with more aid workers. We share our plans, and sometimes our resources. Networking is powerful. (A wider TWISTER board.)

Before I drift off to sleep, my mind reflects. Afghanistan. A mystical place. Unique people. Resilient. Powerful. Today's phone calls reminded me that, despite the current terror and crisis, that Afghanistan really doesn't need the rest of the world as much as the rest of the world needs Afghanistan.

Sigurd Hanson is director of the International Rescue Committee's refugee aid operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is his final diary entry. To contribute, see their website or call 1-877-REFUGEE