22-year-old Sharifa is one of the thousands of Afghan mothers struggling to overcome the hurdles that are posed by a healthcare system weakened by decades of war, poor facilities, and social and cultural barriers that are difficult to break.
He’s probably 28 to 30 years old. If you ask him, even he’s not sure. It seems like he has been working here forever, his ID card number is ‘137’ if I’m not mistaken. He is practically the 137th employed person by EMERGENCY at Lashkar-Gah. He is one of those people you would always want to go to for support and advice. He is one of those people that, when he asks for some holidays, you feel bad because you know you always need him and you almost feel like asking him: “do you really have to go to on holiday?”
He knows everything in the hospital, even the furnace that made the bricks to build it. He always knows what to say when necessary. He can see the irony in situations and has the right detachment from emergencies to always remain happy. He is capable of standing up to the colleagues in his department and, when the situation allows it, he likes to have a good laugh with them.
Gulbudin saw us grow, and we saw him grow. We (that is, I) were insecure on the first mission, afraid of that place and that somewhat frightful city name, wandering through the still unknown hospital trying to study its dynamics and how it operates. Now, several years and missions later, we get around the hospital quickly. It has become familiar to us, and Gulbudin’s beard has become a permanent feature.
He was once a very young nurse, a little insecure at first, frightened of such an important job at a young age, intimidated by the international staff around him that promised to deliver innovative healthcare.
He is now in the first-aid team, and his hair hasn’t gone grey, damn him.
It’s quiet today so we’re able to chat, but it’s always with great caution and with a bit of shameful shyness (it is not easy to talk about personal issues here, to ask about war, how life is outside the hospital, their daily lives; you are always afraid of appearing morbid, of violating their privacy… in short, you always fear coming across as insincere) but he is always available for a chat and never seems bothered by the questions.
“How’s it going, Gulba?”
“Meh… the usual, it’s always the same here”
“The family, the children – you have three, yes? – everything OK with them?”
“Yes, yes. The little boy has also become an EMERGENCY patient, he fell from a wall and has broken his elbow. I have arranged for Dr Khushal to see him.”
“Ah. Well, if he comes back for a check up, I’d like to see him. Do you ever travel much outside the centre?”
“Ah. In theory. And in practice?”
He smiles and sighs. These internationals always have so many questions.
“Well, the situation has changed in Lashkar-Gah, and when things change they often get worse. You will be aware of the number of patients arriving…”
“Yes, I had thought. They seem to arrive more often, and the number of those seriously injured has risen.”
“Indeed. The centre where we are based is a bit quieter, but there is a kind of ring around it, with a radius of about 3 or 4 km. That ring is the frontline for the fighting and my home is beside that ring. Do you know the two kids who came in last night? ”
Yes, I remember them well. This morning, they were both in ICU. The boy is six years old, his name is Ahmadullah, if I remember correctly. The surgeon says his throat and thorax were damaged when he arrived, he spent several hours in the operating room tonight trying to fix everything.
The female is 4 years old and had a bullet wound to the neck. On the operating table, the fracture to the vertebrae couldn’t be seen but the spinal fluid could be seen coming out of the bullet hole.
I remember them well because there was not much hope for them, but they are recovering much better than expected.
“Yes, Gulbudin. They are in my department, I am looking after them.”
“They are my neighbours’ children, they live beside me. Their parents told me this morning that they were playing in the garden. While the fighting is only a few metres away, it generally takes place at night and daytime is usually quieter. The parents have come to recognise this pattern and let the kids play in front of the door.”
“Shit. Were you in the house? Did you see them get injured?”
“Ah, no … I don’t live there anymore. For the last four months, I’ve rented a home here in the centre, it’s not the best and costs a bit, but my previous neighbourhood had become too risky. In the meantime, I’m paying for a bunker to be built underground for when I’m ready to go home.”
What do I say? Think Roberto, think… Think of something to say, quickly.
“Can I ask you another question? Do you promise that if it’s too personal you won’t answer?”
“If someone arrived today and gave you a passport and ticket to Italy saying you can leave when you wanted, would you?”
“Can I bring my family?”
“Well … yes.”
“Haha, are you kidding? Of course I would go! Anyone living in these conditions would leave this place! There are people who pay for an endless journey, pay a lot of money and are not even certain that they’ll get there … Of course I would go!”
And Gulbudin would come with his wife and three children.
And what would you call Gulbudin?
An economic migrant?
An illegal immigrant?
A man in poverty?
His name is Gulbudin.
– Roberto, EMERGENCY nurse in Afghanistan