During the last decade, I have been privileged to witness both renewed interest and tangible development in Afghanistan. This progress has been reflected in positive changes slowly manifested as success stories of individuals and groups achieving visible, tangible results such as realizing schools, clinics and access to clean drinking water. These small victories are often owned by communities and protected by their desire to improve their own livelihoods, ensuring a better future for the country’s population that is of predominantly school-attending children.
Despite all of the ongoing reconstruction and state building, the rural areas of Afghanistan while suffering the greatest deficits, were the last to benefit from the “billions” of dollars of incoming international assistance. On the eve of the twenty-first century, while the rest of the world was gripped with trepidation over the ‘Millennium Bug’, my Afghan colleagues and I were confronted − following a meeting with community elders on food distribution in the remote province of Ghor − with the sight of several children placing piles of hay in front of our battered vehicles. This simple gesture of hospitality speaks volumes about the immense internal reserves of rural communities that have yet to be exhausted, even after decades of conflict. This dignified determination pays no mind to the fact that they are at the crossroads of a distinctly Western new millennium or that they may soon be the recipients of large amounts of international assistance. They are almost immune to any further man made or natural shocks that may yet befall them. And while this overpowering reality sits comfortably alongside the other realities of urban and peri-urban communities, where conditions and priorities can sometimes differ greatly, they are all bound by the need to survive, and by the desire to better themselves and their circumstances for coming generations.
While things move slower in the remote rural areas, where life is ruled more by the seasons than by politics, there stands, at the other end of the spectrum, the Afghan capital. During my time in Kabul, where I was working as a senior adviser for the Afghan government, a very private incident that unfolded speaks volumes about the outsider’s perspective of a nation deeply divided and the ever-changing reality on the ground.
Tragically, the incident referred to involved the recent loss of a dear friend, who drowned in the Panjshir River while attempting to save a fellow colleague, resulting in an extensive search and rescue operation involving local communities sweeping up and down the river to recover the bodies.
An eternally optimistic and energetic champion of Afghan unity, my friend embodied as positive a picture of ethnic cohesion as is possible, even under circumstances of the greatest misfortune: he was Hazara, the colleague whose life he dove in to save was a Pasthun, and the majority of the communities searching for their bodies were Tajiks.
Both of these young men represented and continue to personify the new cadre of young Afghans for whom a future Afghanistan is a reality, irrespective of past perceptions and discord. This new reality is a destination towards which to aspire, and within which to build a meaningful and productive future for themselves, their families and their people − all too often overlooked by policy makers and donors alike.
Unordinary Lives takes these realities and juxtaposes them with yet another reality of those that have suffered greatly at the hands of strife together with the various forms and stages of reconstruction and progress within Afghanistan. Decades of conflict have left many more shattered souls and minds than they have bodies on the periphery of society. These individuals, ostracized due to a lack of understanding, social unease or simply because there are not the facilities nor the know-how to manage them, are all captured here. The purpose of this assemblage is not to shock readers into action, as much as to bring those suffering such predicaments into a light of their own, to be accepted and greeted with dignity, with mutual support, and embraced.
Karim Merchant, freelance international Consultant on Rural Development and Senior Adviser on strategy, policy and programs.
Karim Merchant has been working in emergency relief and development across Afghanistan for over 13 years. He has worked for NGOs, the United Nations and most recently, as a Senior Advisor to the Government of Afghanistan.