Sharings by MSF returned volunteers

MSF's complete withdrawal from Afghanistan

While working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) you travel to the most extraordinary places. You learn there are some places you simply don't like, and that there are many more places you simply love. Some places get under your skin; it's like coming home the moment you arrive. I loved every second of the two years I worked in Afghanistan and these two years have changed me forever.

Going to Afghanistan was like travelling in a time-machine. Departing from my own materialistic modern life I found myself in a country without neon-lights, time pressure or pollution. In January 1997 Afghanistan was already blown to pieces by almost twenty years of conflict. When I arrived in the country, more than half of the territory was controlled by the fundamentalist Taliban regime and the war caused great suffering of the civilian population. The women had become almost invisible and were often ordered to stay indoors. I remember the shelling, the checkpoints with heavily armed Taliban fighters, the rambling Russian helicopters that brought the wounded to our hospital, but most of all I remember the amazing landscape and the beautiful people.

They were called Mohammed, Bashir, Fatima, Layla and so many other names from the holy Koran. They always smiled, they always welcomed me and they always looked forward. They told me how they lost their family members, relatives, friends and neighbours. One of our local colleagues, Dr. Salim, once showed me the video of his wedding party in Kabul in the late 1970's, just before the war started. Happy, smiling faces and people dancing in an orchard. Dr. Salim pointed his finger at the screen and singled them out, one by one: "He died and he died too, she lost two sons, he left for Europe and he died as well". Dr. Salim smiled through his sadness and continued his work. What else was there to do?

MSF has worked 24 years in Afghanistan and I feel very bitter that we are forced to withdraw. I understand and respect the decision, but I also struggle with a great feeling of failure. The Afghan people never abandoned me. During my two years in Afghanistan they protected me and cared for me. They were always with me, even when I left the country. Now we abandon them.

I will mourn the day when the last MSF volunteer leaves the country, like the days I mourned the killing of our colleagues which lead to our withdrawal. A part of Afghanistan will always be with me and I can only hope that it will be possible for MSF to return soon and to make sure that the world does not forget about Mohammed, Bashir, Fatima, Layla and all others.

Dick van der Tak - Executive Director, MSF Hong Kong Head of Mission MSFH Afghanistan Jan 1997 - Dec 1998

Working in Afghanistan is one of my unique experiences in the humanitarian work. I started to know this country during the time I was working with a group of Afghan colleagues. I got to know the poignant history, the richness of the Islamic culture and the indomitable courage the Afghans have to withstand the tribulations in their country and their lifetime. The unstable political context and the collapse of the medical system in the past three decades took numberless people's lives. I worked in Herat, west Afghanistan from September 2002 to March 2003. Our work focused on primary health care, maternal and child health care and the treatment of chronic diseases. The day to day medical work made us to aware that the basic needs of people had been neglected for so long. We chose to work closely and directly with the beneficiaries. This has never been changed in the past two decades since MSF started to work in the country.

Our withdrawal from this country is never a matter of lightness for every one of us who have worked in Afghanistan. There is still far more we can do to provide better health care to those who are in need. The astonishment and the sadness of losing five colleagues are still covering up the whole MSF. The threats are always with us who have taken the unpredictable risks in the proximity to the population. The lesson we have taken in Afghanistan made us to understand the real threat we are having to provide humanitarian assistance. The kind of threat is not going to be changed in a short time under the present political context. With all my remembrance and wishes, I give my best regard to the people I have met in Afghanistan.

Elaine Lau - Board Member, MSF Hong Kong
Medical Team Leader MSF Afghanistan September 2002 - April 2003

I was so shocked and sad to hear that five of our workers were shot dead on their way back from work in Badghis Province of Afghanistan. I was also working in Faryab Province of northern Afghanistan last year this time as a nutritional logistician. In my memory, Afghans are very friendly and gentle people. They are very grateful to what MSF have done for them. They know that we are neutral and have never attempted to take side or work for any government. We are only there to help and share their pain.

We may not be able to help everyone there. But each time when I saw those poor people coming out from our centre with joy in their eyes after receiving our medical treatment or food, I felt it was worth it no matter it was how difficult and painful for us to get to the centers. I remember one incident that an old lady who brought her grandson to our TFC (Therapeutic Feeding Centre) /SFC (Supplimentary Feeding Centre) and begged to see our doctor because they could not afford to find a doctor close by. They had to walk at least one day or rode with a donkey for eight hours to a clinic. We gave the boy medicine at the end. The grandmother was so happy and she held my hands and said that she was grateful and she understood that we volunteers had to leave our homeland to help them, we must have felt homesick and missed our parents. She even comforted me with her own body language. I was so touched that I could not speak even a word.

MSF now is pulling out from Afghanistan completely because of the security reason. I feel very sad towards those innocent and helpless people. Let's hope that the people in this world will stop fighting and killing, just forgive and forget about the wrong things, and respect other people's lives.

Alice Chow - Returned Volunteer, MSF Hong Kong
Logistician MSF Afghanistan Jan 2003 - July 2003