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Dublin: 16 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Column: ‘Life for an Afghan is random, ruthless and unforgiving’

After living in Afghanistan, I got to see first-hand what the people of that country go through, writes Noel Scanlon, who says he wishes he could be more optimistic about the country’s future.

Noel Scanlon

IMAGINE FOR A moment what it feels like to be within a few hundred metres of bomb blast. I had this experience back in 28 July 2011, just one month after arriving at the Forward Operating Base at Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan, Afghanistan.

A group of insurgents attacked the government’s compound not far from the Main Gate to the Base at midday with lots of locals about. More than 20 people lost their lives that day, many of them innocent women and children, and a local BBC correspondent.

This was a moment that will forever stay with me from my time in Afghanistan, a normal hot July day, temperatures running over 50, still struggling to adjust to the new strange and alien environment I was now working in.

Bomb blasts

Suddenly a blast, which you instantly knew was not the “normal” controlled explosions that regularly happened on base, went off. This did not have a warning and had that shock factor about it, that puts fear in you. Here I was in the middle of this never-ending and nasty conflict – here we had Afghan killing Afghan.

I reflect on my time in the country from where I’m now based here in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, particularly when I heard about the formal handing-over of security control to the Afghan government and the recognition of the Taliban’s new office in Qatar, along with the announcement of imminent talks with both the US and the Afghan government.

The real impact of these past 12 years is on the country’s people, on their lifestyle, their expectations, their incomes and their families. These are a grizzled and tough people who have known nothing else only war, conflict and poverty for over 30 years. What will these latest developments mean for them?

Ismael – a hard worker with enthusiasm

Ismael is from Tarin Kowt and worked with us on the Base every day, he would arrive each morning around 8am after taking an hour to get through the regular and rigorous security checks and would immediately change out of his traditional dish-dash into jeans and a branded t-shirt that we had given him and then set about his daily chores with great enthusiasm.

His job was to clean the public areas, toilets, recreation room, showers and the office, and then would assist in the kitchen with preparing vegetables and assisting our Indian cook for lunch. His hard work and enthusiasm always impressed me and he would only stop to eat dinner and pray. His English was not so good but he always came with a broad smile every morning and would ask Abdul to communicate with me about how much he like working for us and the difference it was making for his family.

In the evenings he would collect the leftover cardboard and packaging waste that we had and would set off back home to his family with it which would be used for bedding and fuel.  I also recall returning once from leave and meeting him and being greeted with a warm smile, handshake and a hug, and he was bursting with excitement to tell me that he was getting married and was again thanking me that it was his work with us that allowed this to happen, as marriage here involves payment of a “dowry” to the family of the bride.

He arrived a little late one morning and was without his normal warm smile, I enquired through others later in the day who explained to me that an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) had been left in a trash can in the town and that Ismael’s uncle has been working close by when it exploded and killed him. This unfortunately is life for an Afghan, random, ruthless and unforgiving.

Abdul – fluent in six languages and a good businessman

Abdul is from Kabul, a father of ten, and also worked with me in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan. He was one of my primary suppliers and someone I had to build a working relationship with early on as getting building materials, fuel, transport to and from Kandahar and indeed food were absolutely crucial for us on camp.

Abdul is a qualified engineer having studied in Russia and spoke fluent Russian, Pashtu, English, Dari , Farsi and Urdu. He loved to visit regularly and always wanted to talk about his love of music and dancing (and indeed would often demonstrate his dancing abilities around the office). He worked hard under very stressful conditions and was always positive, he was a good businessman and understood our need to have materials on time and he loved nothing more than a good old haggle over some lunch in our camp kitchen.

He spoke proudly of his children, and even more proudly that he had five of his daughters going to university, this meant everything to him and was the reason why he came from Kabul in the north to work here in the hostile south, people like Abdul are the exception rather than the rule and he yearned for a time when Afghanistan’s youth could have sustainable education and where they could re-build the country.

Sadly, he was also pessimistic and had a view that regardless of what NATO and Karzai got up to, the real power in the country was with the local warlords who were now being legitimised and given uniforms and titles such as Chief of Police or Governor, and that ultimately these were power hungry local chiefs who lacked the vision and leadership to really make a difference in the country. A very impressive man that I still think about sometimes.

Over 30 years of conflict

Afghanistan is now over 30 years in a state of conflict of some kind or other – be it the Soviets, their own internal factions, the Taliban, or indeed the US/NATO/ISAF in more recent years.

So what will these new developments do for the Abduls and Ismaels of Afghanistan? In my opinion, very little and if anything, it’s even possible that their lives will become even more challenging. The Multi-National Base at Tarin Kowt is being demobilised as I write this and will be handed over to Afghan control along with most other Forward Operating Bases in the country. Gone with them will be the business opportunities for Abdul and Ismael’s employment and, some would say, also the security that was provided by NATO.

This is a harsh land where making a living is difficult at the very best of times and we now have a scenario where the Afghan government have to take control of security – a task that many say is either many years off or even beyond their capabilities entirely.

I know that this outlook is somewhat pessimistic, and I genuinely feel that the people of the country deserve much more than this and have been let down by so many people in the past, however it’s a honest personal view from my experience of being there, and I can only wish the very best for my colleagues Abdul and Ismael.

Noel Scanlon worked in Afghanistan in 2011/2012, he’s a father, Design Manager and blogger, from Sixmilebridge, Co. Clare in the West of Ireland. He took up an appointment in Afghanistan in July 2011 as a result of his business collapsing and the challenging economic conditions at home and later moved on to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where he now works, he tells his story in his regular blog.

Read: Afghanistan suspends talks with US over name of new Taliban office>

Read: Seven Taliban leaders killed after assault on NATO airport base>

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