Kabul: Outside the Oases

By Dara McLeod

This post originally appeared on The Hill's Congress blog.

I arrived in Afghanistan last week with my Refugees International colleagues to assess the needs of displaced people in this war-torn country. This is my first visit to Afghanistan, and it defies expectations.

Yes, there are the obvious signs that I am in a country at war – soldiers on the streets, the constant drone of helicopters overhead, an abundance of barbed wire and security barricades everywhere you look. On my fourth day in Kabul, there was a suicide bombing a block away from where we went for a meeting just a few hours later.

There are also surprises. Many of our meetings are held with aid workers in expat-friendly restaurants dotted throughout the city. After I pass through the armed guards and obligatory security checks, I have found myself in rose-filled gardens – little oases in the midst of this dusty, bustling city. In these spots, the reality of war seems very far away.

But this weekend, I came face to face with some of the consequences of that reality. I spent Saturday and Sunday visiting a displaced persons settlement located along the side of a busy Kabul road. The people living in this camp are amongst the poorest of the poor. For the most part, those I met with were former Afghan refugees who had fled to Pakistan during previous conflicts, only to return to the squalor of their present lives.

Noor Mohammed lives in the settlement with eighteen members of his family. He tries to get work with local companies, but his lack of a permanent address means employers refuse to hire him. Instead, he feeds his family by helping vendors in a local vegetable market, and begging for leftovers from the ostentatious wedding hall across the street.

Bibi Dada also has to beg for bread to feed her children and grandchildren. She returned from Pakistan five years ago in the hopes of rebuilding a better life in her homeland. But the hardship of her life in the settlement has killed that hope.

Next month, President Obama will announce the beginning of the drawing down of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan. Other countries have already begun the process of withdrawing their troops. But as the international coalition winds down its military mission here, the efforts to provide humanitarian aid to people like Noor Mohammed and Bibi Dada must be increased. If we want to see tangible results in Afghanistan, this assistance must not be tied to political objectives, but be solely aimed at meeting the needs of the most vulnerable people. And in Afghanistan, those needs are great.

Dara McLeod is Media Relations Manager for Refugees International, a Washington-DC based organization that advocates to end refugee crises and receives no government or UN funding.