Argo Relief: Debrief and Planning

Kids

We’ve just sat down with Marnie, PARSA’s executive director, for our post-Badakhshan debrief. Needless to say we were each deeply saddened by the degree of human suffering that we encountered in Argo, and we were eager to begin discussing what our plan of action would be. We have come to realize that the situation we are dealing with in Argo is a very multifaceted, complex issue, and we are aware that we need to be very careful in how we proceed. Badakhshan is an extremely impoverished part of the world and the people of the province have long been in dire need of aid. Now, with the help of the international media, the world has taken notice and is showering the provincial government with more support than they have seen in 30 years. However, this does NOT mean the problems are solved. Far from it.

The funding that is being received needs to be used very carefully and be distributed in the most effective way possible – both locally in Argo and provincially in other needy districts. It is far too often the case that when large amounts of donations flood to an emergency relief cause the victims are provided for on a short term basis, but the assistance inevitably runs out in the long run (i.e. before any lasting changes can be made). The people of Argo will be given food, temporary shelter, maybe new land and a house – however this is not enough to get a family back on their feet. This is why PARSA has decided to gear our commitment to Argo and Badakhshan to the long run.

PARSA’s Healthy Afghan Community Programs

Village lostPARSA’s motto is Building Healthy Afghan Communities. All of our programs are centered on this concept under our Healthy Afghan Community Program. When we enter a new community we identify what would be required to help that community become healthy, successful, and self-sufficient, and we work with its members to define and work towards their goals. We treat each community as unique and work with them on a case-by-case basis so that no two programs are alike; each one is designed to target the specific needs of a specific community.

In Argo we have determined that due to the turmoil that the community finds itself in, we need to take our approach one step farther and tailor our programs on a family-by-family basis, or even on an individual basis. In a disaster situation the economic and psychological states of those affected are far too varied to apply a one-program-fits-all approach.

Thus, with adequate funding, PARSA plans to establish a regional office in Faizabad and launch our Healthy Afghan Community Program in Badakhshan, with Argo being the first community we focus on. We will invite families or individuals to apply to work with us on a long-term basis of 2-5 years. Our donors will be invited to sponsor an individual or a family as they start on a path to a healthier future. Our goals are to ensure that adequate psychosocial support is provided, children are able to attend schools, and there are reliable economic opportunities. This is in addition to filling the basic needs of food and shelter that the government and larger organizations have promised.

The clearest deduction that we made while in Badakhshan was that meaningful support for the victims of the Argo landslide, as well as all the other vulnerable citizens of Badakhshan, will not be a short-term commitment. If we want to help build healthy Afghan communities and individuals, we need to be committed for the long-term.

Please consider donating to help us fund our Healthy Afghan Community Program in Badakhshan.

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Below is a slideshow compiled by Reese showing the key moments of our Argo Trip:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Full 360* view of the Argo Landslide

Argo Relief, Day 5: Khosh & Others

Beauty

WorkingOn our last day in Badakhshan we decided to take a trip to surrounding villages to survey the state of affairs in districts besides Argo’s. The previous day we had already seen that the situation for orphaned children in Faizabad city was appalling, and that PARSA will definitely have to intervene once again in the National Orphanage there, if not elsewhere. We also have not forgotten what we saw on the road into Faizabad – a national highway – which had been blocked in many places by landslides and avalanches that were also terribly devastating. They had not caused the same level of localized destruction as what had happened at Argo, but for the people living in those villages each slide would have been equally traumatic. And clearly nothing had been done about it. The villagers had dug small tracks through the rubble so that cars could just barely get through, but the government wasn’t doing much, if anything, in these unpublicized cases.

On the trip to the village of Khosh we passed breathtakingly beautiful scenery – tiny green villages etched out on the side of riverbeds with massively steep, rocky mountains as a backdrop. But the beauty is misleading: life here is hard. Extremely hard. Wikipedia describes the situation quite clearly:

Despite massive mineral reserves, Badakhshan is one of the most destitute areas in the world. Opium poppy growing is the only real source of income in the province and Badakhshan has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, due to the complete lack of health infrastructure, inaccessible locations, and bitter winters of the province.

AgeThere is little to no access to education, healthcare, or economic opportunity. One in two children here die before the age of five – the highest child mortality rate in the world. Speaking with locals revealed how desperate they are for some form of assistance – older residents who clearly had serious health problems begged for any form of painkiller, and everyone said they would welcome even the most basic economic program with open arms. In the more remote corners of Badakhshan Province – such as the hard-to-reach Wakhan Corridor where it can take days by donkey to reach the nearest basic medical facility or school – the situation is even more desperate.

Today’s trip made it clear to us that although the situation for the villagers of Ab Baarik is dire, their lives before the landslide, along with the lives of most other residents of Badakhshan Province, were already in a desperate enough state to garner international support. Our PARSA team is now heading back to Kabul to debrief on what we have learned, and to determine the next steps on how we can best assist not only the people of Argo, but in the entire province of Badakhshan.

Learn more about our relief efforts in Argo here.

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Argo Relief, Day 4: Badakhshan Orphanage

We came to Badakhshan with the mandate of helping the children orphaned and displaced by the Argo landslide. After several days of visiting the site and meeting with representatives from other organizations who are on the ground working directly with the relief effort, we headed to the Badakhshan National Orphanage to assess the situation there. PARSA has been involved with Afghanistan’s government-run orphanages for 10 years now, and for the past 5 years have had a presence in Badakhshan’s. We have worked with the government to ensure that official funds from Kabul are reaching the children, and made significant progress in ensuring transparency in the funding chain and improvement in living conditions. We have also set up a Scout Troop there, which we are happy to see is still going strong.

The kids in the orphanage, all boys, were very happy to see us visitors. They loved pictures and seeing themselves on camera, asked us a lot of questions, practiced English, laughed a lot, and showed us around their grounds. They even put on a short skit for us about bullying in school and the Afghan Scouts saving the day. At first glance the orphanage seemed in better condition than many other orphanages in the country – the ground were green with tall trees and mountain views. However scratching the surface it became quite clear that things were not as good as they seemed.

The orphanage is packed, and despite the vast need cannot afford to take in any more children. The bedrooms are small and quite dirty, with the younger children sleeping 17 in a small room on a damp carpet with dirty walls, and the older children sharing bunk-beds which allow up to 28 boys to sleep in a room. They are using the same mattresses and blankets that PARSA provided three years ago, despite government money having been allocated to replacing them yearly. Some of the kids had finger nails that had not been trimmed in months, and the guardians of the orphanage said that although money was supposedly allocated for “mothers” to come to work with and care for the boys, rarely was it that they showed up.

It is clear that a lot still needs to be done for these provincial orphanages. There is still major disconnect between the government in Kabul and what goes on out here. The guardians of the orphanage cannot be blamed – they themselves were orphans too, and do not know any better or how to demand what they are entitled to. We were happy to see our Afghan Scouts program doing well, and the boys were full of life, however there is a lot that needs to be done to improve conditions. Government support needs to reach the people it was designated for.

Unfortunately for our current mission the orphanage is too full and not able to take in any more kids, so PARSA will work to ensure that those from Argo find other arrangements. If needed we have arranged to have them transported to Kabul and placed in Shamsa Village Orphanage, however as far as our initial assessment has gone it looks like with the right support Argo’s orphans will be able to live permanently in the Argo region with relatives or members of their village. Taking kids out of the beauty of Badakhshan to relocate them to a big city orphanage would not be the ideal situation and it is proven that it is in the kids best interest to support neighbors or relatives to care for orphaned children than to bring them elsewhere.

Our Argo work and planning is ongoing, however the most significant issue we learned of today is the upsetting state of the Badakhshan National Orphanage and the fact that it is so full they cannot find a place for children that are in dire need of help. The orphans of Argo are not the only ones in Badakhshan who need our help. PARSA will need to intervene, once again.

Learn more about our relief efforts in Argo here.

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Argo Relief, Day 3: Stories

Ab Bareen village refugees - 1616

Today after a morning coordination meeting with the vice-governor, various government agencies and other “major players” (in which little more was accomplished than circular bickering over how many people were killed) Norm and Reese joined representatives of Concern International on another trip to Ab Baarik. This time their goal was to visit the section of the camp that Concern is responsible for, as well as to build more connections with the villagers and interview those affected.  Below is a brief quote from Reese’s experience, as well as several harrowing stories of the survivors and their families.

Reese:

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“Today Norm and I returned to Ab Baarik for a more in depth survey of the situation. We saw a lot that concerned us. First we saw a man from Pakistan handing out money to what quickly turned into a desperate mob. The police had to fire a few warning shots into the air to calm the situation and disperse the crowd. It has been a week and a half since the slide, and the smell has gotten pretty bad. We saw many people praying for their lost ones. Those affected directly, plus many people from surrounding villages are flocking to get any aid or assistance they can get their hands on. It has been bad for all these people for some time, and it is difficult to tell who is worst off. I met a 5-year old boy and his older sister who had severe trauma from watching their father and family members die in front of them. Your heart aches for these children, and you will do anything to make them smile.”

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Stories:

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Khawa Gul: She is an older lady with 5 children to take care of ranging from a little baby boy up to a 15-year old girl. She lost her husband, her house, and all her family in the landslide, and Concern has not been able to identify any other family related to her. After observing her during the course of his visit, Norm identified her as being the most obviously disturbed woman he saw. Upon hearing bodies had been found at the site she took off running down the hill. She was frantic and others said she often cried and was unable to sleep.

20140511_115830Agha Mohammad: He was one of the first ones to tell us his story. He had tears in his eyes as he told of the 15 family members he had lost, and pointed out the section of mud where his brother’s house had once been. He was lucky enough that his own house and family had been located in an unaffected part of the village, however his brother and his wife and entire family were killed, along with cousins and members of his wife’s family.

20140511_113609Ahmad: We did not speak directly with this teenage boy as he was in a state of deep mourning when we saw him and then he disappeared afterwards, but villagers explained a little of his story. When we saw him he was crouched over a deep hole he had dug into the mud where his house had once been. He had made it to about 6m deep and had reached the roof beams of his former house. His mother and all his brothers and sisters had been inside.

Jamila: The most “profoundly disturbed youth” that Norm encountered. She had lost her mother, father and most of her family. Her behavior was very inappropriate – smiling and giggling without cause. Her thinking was disorganized, and she had become voluntarily mute. Norm was told that at night she cried out “where is my mother!” and “my mother is under the ground!”. These are the types of cases Dr. Norm is most concerned about and is trying to ensure they receive adequate support.

These stories are obviously just the tip of the iceberg, and many other horrible ones have been discussed in the news. The situation is tough, and serious long term planning is going to be necessary. Our PARSA team is doing everything we can to come up with the best possible plan of action to assist those affected in rebuilding their lives.

Learn more about our relief efforts in Argo here.

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Argo Relief, Day 2: Visiting Ab Baarik

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A picture can not adequately capture the massive scale of destruction.

Today we woke up bright and early knowing our day would be an intense one. After breakfast and a visit to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MOLSA), where Dr. Norm and Yasin picked up two officials who would accompany us to the site, we took off from Faizabad for the one hour drive to Argo District. The drive was beautiful – green rolling foothills with the occasional farmer or herder on the road. We arrived to the district capital and passing the town bazaar saw our first signs of the landslide in the form of trucks carrying relief supplies. We exited the town, drove through a river, and continued the last seven kilometers to the village of Ab Baarik, where the landslide hit.

When the village came into sight so did the apparent ongoing chaos – 4WDs parked everywhere, tents with all sorts of relief organizations’ and political parties’ logos emblazoned on them, and a swarm of men hanging out around the entrance waiting for the next distribution time. The women and children could be spotted sitting in or outside the tents. We parked and Yasin went to speak with officials and connect to the people we had previously contacted. Our goal in coming was to asses the situation and try to find out reliable information as to the state of the children, particularly those who had lost their families in the landslide.

Tabish

Tabish’s Child Friendly Spaces. The landslide is visible in the background.

In the course of our visit we were able to talk to quite a few people who gave us an idea of the situation – both those who had lost family and their homes, and those who had come to help. Our initial impression is that at this point most children are being adequately cared for –  many organizations have brought supplies, and certain communities from around Afghanistan have collected supplies and delivered them with signs saying things like “Donated by the People of Ghazni” – a heartwarming gesture indeed. Specific to our mandate to work with the orphanage and ensure the kids are being cared for, we met with Tabish who also works with child psychosocial concerns. They have set up “child friendly spaces” for all children in the area and it appeared that although there are many children who have lost their families, at this point distant relatives or at least neighbors have taken them in. This is of course not a long term solution but it takes the children out of immediate danger.

Slowly rising flood

The floods are deepening as the streams cannot be redirected.

We were also able to see the intensity of the destruction. Although the numbers of those dead likely not reach 3000 as previously reported, the destruction is still horrific. Looking at the landslide’s path one cannot get an adequate impression of the massive amount of mud that came down from the hill, but walking to the other side of the slide, seeing just how deep that valley had been, and realizing the depth that has been completely filled with mud, is a shock indeed. Villagers estimate that around 70 houses were completely buried and it is obvious that many more were damaged, plus there are even more that have had to be abandoned due to the risk of further slides. Another very problematic factor is that houses are still being destroyed since the mudslide dammed off two small streams that were running down the two forks of the valley that met in Ab Baarik. This mud dam is causing two small lakes to form that are slowly flooding the remaining houses – and the mud is far, far too deep to dig out a path for the deepening water. As it rises more houses will be destroyed and there is also a risk that the excess water will loosen more mud for another slide. It is a situation that will get worse before it gets better. Relocating the entire village may be the only safe option.

OrphanAlthough we still have more meetings to attend and other officials to speak with, not to mention awaiting the situation report from MOLSA and the government decision on where the families will be given land to relocate to, it was immediately clear that what we need to be thinking about are long term solutions. Right now adequate food and supplies are being brought in to keep those affected alive, however the long term doesn’t appear to be in anyone’s agenda at the moment. Tomorrow our PARSA team has been invited to attend a relief coordination meeting, and then we will travel back to Ab Baraak with the team from Concern Worldwide, one of the main organizations working on all aspects of the relief effort. They have asked us to assist with the part of their efforts that focusses on children. More updates tomorrow.

Learn more about our relief efforts in Argo here.

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Video showing a 360 view of the buried village of Ab Baarik.


Argo Relief, Day 1: Roadtrip

Norm, Yasin and Reese taking a break somewhere on the northern edge of the Hindu Kush.

This morning our Badakhshan-bound PARSA team headed out of Kabul at 530 a.m. to take on the 12 hour drive to Faizabad. Yasin, Norm, Reese, Habib and myself were in good spirits and the ride passed without a glitch – even Salang Tunnel didn’t give us any traffic problems. We passed beautiful mountains, farm lands, Kuchi herders and all sort of villages and open land – Afghanistan really is a beautiful country. We stopped where we could to give a helping hand – Habib, Reese and Yassin jumped out of the van to help pull a stuck car out from a ditch, and another time we stopped to give a woman and her brother a ride to a hospital. Kept the trip interesting, and as Yasin said, “It was our Scouting deeds for the day!”

Despite the good mood and beauty of the trip, we didn’t forget our purpose. On the way here we have already seen evidence of the excessive rainfall that fell this spring in the region – there were many places along our route where the road had been washed away in the past few months by landslides or flooding. Luckily for us villagers had repaired the road to passable state, so we were able to arrive in Faizabad safely. Tomorrow we will be up bright and early to meet with officials at the Badakhshan National Orphanage and begin our assessment of the situation. We aren’t sure what to expect, but we know it wont be pleasant.

Please take a look at the following gallery of pictures taken today during our trip. Although we traveled here for a difficult task, and tomorrow is going to be the first of several difficult days, it is important to remember how beautiful of a country Afghanistan really is.

Leaving!

Learn more about our relief efforts in Argo here.

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