Whenever we tell people we used to live in Afghanistan, the reaction is almost always the same. First comes the ‘easy’ questions – people ask about the food, or if British, about the weather. But then comes the question you can see them really itching to ask. Was it dangerous? Or for those with less inhibitions – did anything bad happen to you out there?
These security questions are more complex to answer without being either blasé, or overly dramatic. I often say that if you know where to go and who to go with, Afghanistan can be perfectly safe. In fact, I often urge people to visit. But did anything bad happen to me out there? Well, I often brush that one off. Nothing that bad, I say, and move on.
However, in truth, there was one incident I think about often.
I moved to Afghanistan just two weeks after leaving university, to work for Turquoise Mountain, an NGO regenerating the old city of Kabul. One part of my role was to oversee a local health clinic. The clinic was partly run by Dr Jerry Umanos, an American pediatrician who had given up his Chicago practice to spend nine years volunteering, treating children in Afghanistan.
Over the course of a decade Dr Jerry must have dealt with some fairly harrowing cases. We didn’t see eachother all that often, but whenever I did see him I remember thinking he was funny, unfailingly upbeat and energetic.
One afternoon, a year after I had arrived in Kabul, I received a call from a colleague. Dr Jerry, and two other American Doctors, had been shot dead outside a nearby hospital. The attacker was a member of the Afghan Police Protection Force assigned to guard the building.
In the hours that followed the phone call telling me that Dr Jerry had been shot, I personally questioned what I was doing in Afghanistan. Dr Jerry was a heroic figure; he had given so much to Afghanistan, but had paid for dearly for his sacrifices.
That very same afternoon Dr Jerry’s wife delivered a statement outside their family home in Chicago which stuck with me then, and sticks with me still.
‘I want the people who hear this to know that we don’t hold any ill towards Afghanistan, or even to the gunman who did this’, she said. Open your hearts, she urged those listening, ‘understand that the Afghan people are no different from us’.
I can’t imagine the strength that she needed to make that statement so shortly after her husband’s death.
Tragically, since Dr Jerry’s murder in 2014 conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated further. Since early 2016, insurgent groups in Afghanistan have sharply escalated their attacks in Kabul and other major urban areas, leaving thousands of civilians dead and injured. Last year was the bloodiest year of the war to date, as was the year before that, and indeed the year before that. It looks very likely that 2019 will be even bloodier than 2018.
President Trump’s surprise announcement before Christmas ordering half of America’s 14,000 troops in Afghanistan to return home, comes as unwelcome news. For peace talks with the Taliban to take place, Afghan government forces must retain pressure on the battlefield, or at the very least hold the line. Trump’s announcement will give Taliban forces confidence, and will only make the military task harder for Afghanistan’s beleaguered armed forces.
Five years on and Afghanistan’s future looks as uncertain, and perilous as ever. It is a prescient moment to remind ourselves of those like Dr Jerry, and his wife, and their inspiring examples of courage and empathy.
Unlike President Trump, at ISHKAR we firmly believe that 2019 is the time to redouble our commitment to Afghanistan, not to abandon it. We owe it to the countless innocent Afghans and internationals alike, who have given their lives striving for a brighter future.
In memory of Dr Jerry Umanos,