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While Kabulpress.org enjoys huge input from Dari speakers throughout Afghanistan, the English pages have been much smaller. To remedy this situation, we are beginning a series of interviews with English speakers who reside in Afghanistan and can convey keen insights and greater knowledge about the situation in Afghanistan to those outside.
Most Americans and other English speakers do not have access to eyewitnesses who share their cultural perspective. They see primarily breaking news reports from large media organizations that mostly report bombings and violence. Hopefully this series will generate discussion and help reveal effective solutions in Afghanistan’s search for justice, freedom of expression, and human rights. By seeing the truth of daily life in Afghanistan, Americans can better judge the effectiveness of their military and aid efforts.
The first interview is with Rosemary Stasek.
Rosemary is a Californian who has lived most of the past six years in Kabul.
As founder and chair of the non-profit organization, A Little Help, Rosemary is passionately involved with improving conditions for women in Afghanistan through government and NGO project management, fund-raising, and consulting services for other organizations. Her projects channel hundreds of thousands of dollars to successful programs in women’s prisons, maternity hospitals, and girls’ education. Rosemary lives in a small house in downtown Kabul, and has a good feel for the pulse of life there. Her astute commentary on Afghan government agencies, the UN, and the American military and aid presence are compelling and compassionate, and reflect the thoughts of her many Afghan friends and colleagues.
This is the second in a four-part series of interviews with Rosemary. Her responses have been slightly edited.
Would you describe the quality of medical care you’ve seen?
Again it’s becoming a very tiered system in Kabul. There are the public clinics, the public hospitals which have very little equipment or resources. Generally if you’re at a public hospital, and if you need medicine, you’re sent out to the bazaar to buy your own. If you need an operation, you’re send out to the bazaar to buy the equipment- the IV and what ever you might need for your operation. So the public hospitals have almost nothing.
The other thing is that many doctors are paid so little, they just show up at the hospitals for a couple hours a day. They just show up to sign in, put themselves on the tab for their paycheck, and then go off to their private clinics. All over the city, everywhere you see private health clinics. Even with them there is a wide range of quality. There are a lot of Indian sponsored clinics with equipment brought in from India. The doctors come in, moonlighting blatantly in the middle of the day from their government medical posts. Given any financial feasibility it’s very common for Afghans to take their family members to Pakistan for medical care.
Out in the villages and rural areas, there’s just nothing. There was a story the other day that in Bamian people were being put on donkeys and taking days to get to a hospital. I was up at a clinic, the district hospital there, the only one in the whole province of Chagcharan. It was nothing. I was in the maternity ward, and a woman was brought in, and she had been in labor for three days. They finally threw her into a car at four in the afternoon and it took until four in the morning to get her there. At that point the baby had already died, and she was not doing so well either when I saw her.
There really is a severe lack of facilities and equipment in medicine, but the most severe shortage is in trained personnel. There are so few female doctors to begin with, and outside the city, there are none. So women also have a hard time getting medical attention if their families won’t allow them to see a male doctor, even if there happens to be one available. It just goes on and on, the barriers to healthcare, and again, its always worse for women.
What about higher education? Kabul University, for example.
I was just at the new women’s dormitory there, supported by USAID. It was opened last year by Laura Bush. It’s like a US dorm— laundry, computer room, clean. It’s beautiful. The university itself is nothing to write home about, but there are many, many women there. Not as many as the US, but good. You can’t pick your field. You are assigned to a course of study based on your test scores. The top scorers go to medicine, next level are engineers, then down from there.
I never see anyone with textbooks there. My assistant is in the Sharia faculty. She’s an Islamic law student, and she doesn’t have any books. They just photocopy pages of stuff and give it out. I can’t see that the quality of the education they’re getting is anything substantial. But then again, the University is open, operating, with lots of students, and plenty of young women.
The educational quality depends on the course of study. Far too many of the graduates from the medical school could barely pass a first aid course in the US. On the other hand my assistant works really, really hard; she really studies hard. I think also because culturally, there is a high importance placed on Sharia, the faculty is very motivated, because of the religious factors. So I don’t hear her talk about “my teacher didn’t show up,” that sort of thing. And not showing up is not just at the university. Teachers don’t show up, period, at any level.
What are the Internet and telephone like?
The Internet is available to a very small portion of the Afghan population. In Kabul, there are Internet cafes, and most internationals have Internet. The international restaurants have wi-fi. But from the Afghan perspective other than Internet cafes, which, again girls don’t have much access to, there’s just not much available.
Internationals have really good internet. There’s no shortage, but it’s really expensive. I get 128 down and 64 up for $500 a month. It’s astounding how much it costs, but you can’t live without it as an international.
Wired telephones are pretty rare. The majority of them are in government offices. There’s also digital service, and many houses in the center of the city where upper-middle class Afghans live. But cellular is everywhere. Up to last year, there were a few places with no coverage, but I don’t know of any without coverage now. There is the issue of the Talibs blowing up cell towers, but I haven’t heard of any in the past few weeks. The phones go down all the time; it’s just something you learn to live with. Electricity is very unreliable, and that holds back business that depends on computers and Internet. I get electricity 3-4 hours a day, 3-4 days a week. When it’s out, I lose the Internet, except if I use my little generator, but it makes a lot of noise.
How is the security situation? Are you ever afraid?
I’m not afraid of the security situation from random crime or violence standpoint. I just go about and do my business. Frankly Kabul is probably the safest city of 4 million people in the world, bottom line.
The international community was really, really rattled after the Serena Hotel attack. And everyone went on lock down and everything just sort of clamped up. But that was the international community. The average Afghan has to go to work. They gotta go do what they gotta do. They can’t go into lock down, they have families to feed. And so, you just don’t see people in Kabul just going into lock-down mode.
I also think that people who have been here have a different perspective on what violence really is . I spoke to a woman the other day who had lived through it all, through the mujahedeen, the Taliban. I love talking to them because you get these incredible stories. During the mujahedeen, you’d send the kids to school, and you’d go to work, and you wouldn’t know, you really wouldn’t know whether or not you were going to see your children again, or whether you were going to get home from work. And that was how it was every day.
That is definitely not the feeling of Kabul now. There is frustration, with the criminal element. The criminal element is absolutely targeting Afghans much more than internationals. And they’re targeting who they perceive to be successful Afghan businessmen. My next door neighbor was kidnapped and held for a million dollars ransom. And so the security situation has nothing to do with the Taliban or insurgents.
There is almost no random crime in Kabul or Afghanistan. Every criminal incident, every incident of violence, you can really trace it back, it’s either a family dispute, a tribal dispute, insurgents targeting officials. There’s no random to it. No “I just shot you for your wallet” kind of thing. So it’s a very different set of security issues here.
One of the issues in Kabul is the movement of international convoys, whether American military convoy, ISAF convoy, the black-windowed-no- license-plate-whoever-the-hell-they-are-from-US embassy convoy. They’re bullet magnets. They’re IED magnets. They’re actively being targeted. And the danger to Afghans and the danger to me, because I move around the same as everybody else, is collateral damage. The danger is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They aren’t after the average Afghan. They aren’t after me and my Corolla. But the problem is that I’m on Jalalbad road going wherever, and one of these black-windowed convoys goes past me, and somebody presses the button, and there I go. So from a security perspective, the biggest danger is if we’re in the same space as the targets. I try to avoid them, even if I have to drive way around on side streets to get where I’m going.
What about the HESCO barriers (temporary anti-blast walls) popping up across Kabul?
It’s absolutely ridiculous. In the last few weeks, there are more and more streets you can’t go down, and why not? Because someone just put up a barrier. There’s absolutely no control over who’s blocking the street, who’s putting up HESCOs. You know after the Serena, all these international organizations started putting up these HESCOs that took up half the street. They just went out into the street and threw up a HESCO in front of their house.
And why? Because some goon in coveralls with letters of some security company tell me the street is now blocked off. And why is that? Because his boss who lives on the street said so. It infuriates me, and I’m a foreigner, who can get around in their own car, and isn’t afraid of driving past roadblocks.
A member of parliament wants to pass legislation that says you can’t block off a street, and you’re not allowed to put up HESCOs. I want to go work in his office and help him. Because I have to drive in Kabul too. And yes, I’m a foreigner, but that doesn’t mean I have to live my life hiding behind blast walls and inconvenience half the city.