A Candle on a Hill

Getting supplies there was the easy part.

The late October call from Pakistan to our hotel in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, brought horrible news. Most of the staff of a women’s health clinic in Kabul had been wiped out. Dr. Belquis, the pediatrician, Dr. Rahima, the internist, and one of nurses had been killed in their homes during the previous week of U.S. bombing of Kabul. The news got even worse: Four students in a vocational training center for boys were killed the same week when U.S. planes bombed Jalalabad.

Afghanistan was already a disaster zone before the first American bomb dropped. The country has suffered 23 years of war and three years of withering drought in the north. In October, the U.N. Development Program estimated that 70 percent of the Afghan population was undernourished.

For several years, the Mennonite Central Committee has sent aid to Afghanistan through Pakistan and, with the help of Iranian Red Crescent, through Iran. But when the U.S. bombing started, both countries sealed their borders with Afghanistan. MCC asked if I could help them locate an alternate route into Afghanistan during the bombing.

I learned that an Afghan-American organization called Help the Afghan Children Inc. was planning a mid-October delegation to Afghanistan, through Tajikistan in the north. Since many perceive this war to be a conflict between Islam and Christianity, I was particularly pleased when the Muslim director of the group invited me to join her in this trip and welcomed funds from MCC and other organizations for aid to Afghanistan. The delegation carried $130,000, which we used to purchase 239 tons of wheat, sugar, cooking oil, and blankets in Tajikistan and to hire 23 10-ton trucks to carry our material to 3,700 Afghan families in camps in northeastern Afghanistan.

IT WAS NOT an easy trip. There were Russian military lines to cross near the southern Tajik border. The only land crossing into Northern Alliance-controlled Afghanistan at the time of our delegation was a single pontoon ferry that crossed the mile-wide Amu Darya River. The ferry could handle only one truck at a time, and most of our trucks were delayed at the river for four days due to a conflict between Russian troops and Tajik customs officials. Our humanitarian-aid trucks were bumped for Russian military resupply of Northern Alliance troops, for a caravan of U.S. network television trucks, and for the celebration of a Russian holiday.

Then there were the corrupt officials. Everyone seemed to know that Americans with plenty of money were coming through and now was their time to get their share. It was especially hard to see so much corruption among the Northern Alliance officials, since we were there to help people in their territory. It reminded me of the Saigon government during the Vietnam War. The Northern Alliance took a 20 percent cut from every translator and every driver in the area where we worked. On the return trip from Khwaja Bohawudin, Afghanistan, to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, bribes were demanded of our driver in a dozen places.

Crossing the river into northeastern Afghanistan felt like stepping into the 12th century. There were no paved roads, no phone service, no water, no sewage or electrical service. The primary mode of transportation was the donkey. Alongside the impoverished civilian population living in a pre-industrial state were 1,300 international journalists with satellite phones and video feeds to New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, Madrid, and Berlin. They were interested not in the surrounding poverty but in the post-modern American war being waged a few miles away, where supersonic jets dropped laser-guided bombs directed to their targets by links to global positioning satellites. Our Afghan-American leader looked at the rising columns of smoke from the nearby explosion of 1,000-pound bombs and commented, "For the price of two B-52s, I could feed, clothe, and educate the entire population of Afghanistan for a year."

Even as the bombers wreaked havoc on already destroyed Afghan cities nearby, I was comforted by the knowledge that I was working with an Afghan Muslim woman distributing food bought by contributions of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Americans. Sometimes a candle placed on a hill is all that we can do to fight the surrounding darkness.

Doug Hostetter is chair of the Evanston Mennonite Peace Committee in Evanston, Illinois.

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