After 20 years of war, President Joe Biden has announced the withdrawal of American troops…
“Last Monday in Kabul yet another two attacks took place. Two deafening explosions that caused tens of injuries and deaths. These follow the attack staged last Friday, on New Year’s Day, which had caused just as many victims. But this is nothing new. Not for us, not for the Afghans.
Every day feels the same here, time keeps repeating itself over and over again. Small attacks, thunderous explosions and continuous fighting are the order of the day, they don’t make the news anymore.
This is life in Afghanistan. Not a day goes by without an incident, without people getting injured, without stories that are very similar, but at the same time so different, stories that grab our attention, while there are thousands more that we will never know anything about. Each one of these stories is loaded with the kind of suffering that compromises the physical and emotional life of an individual, or a family, here, as everywhere else.
How can we say all this without presenting a view of war that is laced with clichés, without belittling it into an everyday occurrence, without shoving it down people’s throats until they want to know nothing more about it? I believe that the answer lies in empathy, and that means our ability to step into the shoes of those directly involved, to understand their thoughts and how they feel, including those whose cultures are very different from ours. For those of us who, through luck or by choice, have never lived in a war zone, this is not an easy thing to do.
Not even the bloodiest film can help us understand, because war stinks! It reeks of burning, of gunpowder, of sweat, blood, tears, and fear. Because fear too has its very own smell and it is unmistakeable. You can feel it on your skin, taste it in your mouth, read it in the eyes of those who surround you.
Try sitting down for ten minutes. Close your eyes. Try to imagine what it feels like. Pretend that you are Yusuf, a nurse, the team leader of our Intensive Care Unit in Kabul. You’re at home and it’s dinnertime. Your wife has set the table and you are all sitting round it together. Your youngest son is whining because he doesn’t want to eat his vegetables, your oldest boy is telling you how his school teacher praised him for his maths homework. While your wife serves the dinner, she explains that the prices at the market have gone up and that it is costing more and more to do the shopping. You have a response for everyone: a hug for the son who is doing well at school, a scolding for the little one who doesn’t want to eat his vegetables and a word of comfort for your wife, “we’ll manage somehow, don’t worry“, you tell her.
Then, suddenly, a deafening explosion knocks you for six. So strong that its shatters the windows in the house, damages the walls, making dust fly up everywhere. Your wife is stunned, the children are crying, you have never heard the little one scream as loudly before. You are dazed, confused, that buzzing in your ears won’t stop but you know what you have to do. You check everyone is ok and, luckily, no-one is injured.
The house is damaged, the cold is coming in through the shattered windows and even if you know that the children need you, first you must protect them from the elements and somehow you manage to cover the windows with rags and pieces of plastic, you move the heater in close and your wife helps you to tidy up. Then you all go to sleep, or at least try to. Even if in your heart you are more terrified than you have ever been before, you don’t let it show: the children need to feel safe. You might tell them a story or simply say a few comforting words; eventually the children fall asleep and so does your wife.
But not you. Not Yusuf, who can’t fall asleep.
Your mind is racing with too many thoughts. How much will it cost you to repair the house? Maybe you should move to a safer area, but where? How are your children going to grow up like this? Will it be safe to send them to school tomorrow? How will your wife manage alone in the house? And then your thoughts turn to your work, to the hospital and your colleagues. Even if you know that they will surely be busy doing their job and you know that the injured are surely continuing to arrive, you decide to phone them to find out how things are going and how many patients there are.
They tell you that the ward is full, that they have just admitted a young man in a critical condition, a pregnant woman, and another lady with a nasty fracture. You are the staff nurse of that department, a guide, a comfort for your colleagues and so, despite everything, you decide that in the morning you will go to work. And so you do: you leave the house, after kissing your children, encouraging your wife to keep her spirits up, having a quick look at the damage. Then you get on your bike and ride towards the hospital.
Your stomach feels tight, your legs are like jelly and your thoughts are constantly with your loved ones at home, “let’s hope everything will be ok“. When he gets to the hospital Yusuf is as white as a sheet. We can see it in his face that he’s not himself, he’s not the usual Yusuf. Sara, our specialist Intensive Care nurse also immediately realises that something is wrong and speaks to him. She can’t believe what she hears and her throat tightens. Roberto and Michela are with them, they have known each other for years but once again they find themselves amazed, lost for words.
“Yusuf, go home, your family needs you“, they tell him.
He tries to insist, he wants to stay but eventually gives in and goes home, while we learn yet another lesson. In my opinion, this is the only way we can understand. The only way to understand how it feels to live in Afghanistan or any other zone struck by war. Clear your mind, remove all your prejudices, leave behind your beliefs and abandon all certainties. Don’t let anyone or anything influence you and try being Yusuf. Let your emotions wash over you. Go ahead: try it.
This is no cliché. It’s real life, a life that is all too often forgotten, all too often judged and all too often accepted. But it’s not really life. It’s just survival. And none of us would ever accept it”.
Written by Luca, EMERGENCY’s Programme coordinator in Afghanistan
To find out more about EMERGENCY’s work in Afghanistan, click here.