If Afghanistan is ever mentioned during conversation here in England, it is almost invariably discussed in relation to the series of tragic wars that have blighted the country now for many years. Generally regarded as a failed state, one of those countries to which travel is most definitely not advised by the British Foreign Office (and the equivalent in many other countries), and a place where equality of opportunities appears very low on the national agenda.
Never having visited Afghanistan I am not qualified to comment in any informed manner on the country, other than to make observations on what I have read or gained second hand from those who have been there. One of my brothers in law spent some time there with the British army and spoke with great affection for the people he met and the hospitality that he received from many of the local inhabitants. Similarly, a colleague recalls passing through Afghanistan on his way to a region of the Himalayas in the late 1960’s and was also treated with kindness and courtesy wherever he went. How sad then that it is now a country regarded in such negative terms.
An article in the Guardian newspaper colour supplement this weekend, written by Emma Graham-Harrison, reported how a number of foreign nationals have settled in Afghanistan and have come to regard it as their home. Despite the ravages of war and the inequalities that clearly create difficult living conditions in much of the country, these stoical individuals feel a commitment to Afghanistan, and more particularly to its people.
One of these interesting and determined individuals is an Italian physiotherapist named Alberto Cairo, who first arrived in Kabul in 1990 to work on the rehabilitation of war casualties. He says that:-
“To see all these patients coming with terrible wounds, it was quite tough, but strangely, I have felt since the beginning that I am in the right place. I realised that I was really useful.”
Having initially worked exclusively with the casualties of war, Alberto Cairo now provides support to anyone who comes to his clinic. His current clients still number amongst them the victims of conflict, but are equally likely to be those who have been injured in car or industrial accidents or as a result of genetic disorders or difficult home births. He works incredibly long hours and often with minimal resources, yet he is totally committed and positive about his work.
Within the Guardian article one particular paragraph stood out for me. Alberto Cairo states that within Afghanistan life for disabled people is made harder because, whilst they are not rejected, they are subject to pity, rather than seen as having rights. This assertion, more than any other in the article made me think about the situation for disabled individuals in countries that have been so brutally used by warring factions for so long. Pity is usually reserved for the helpless, those whose situations are beyond hope. Fortunately Alberto does not see the condition of these individuals in this way.
With much of the country’s infrastructure destroyed, the national economy in melt-down and many of the population still living in terror, how does the government of Afghanistan determine its priorities? In Alberto Cairo the country has an individual who has established wheelchair basketball, introduced therapeutic programmes and dedicated his life to the improvement of others. Increasingly in poorer communities around the globe these kinds of initiatives are dependent upon the work and determination of individuals such as these. Whilst governments are so focused upon increasing the economic stability of their countries, there is always a danger that the most vulnerable members get left behind.
It is to be hoped that the people of Afghanistan experience a time of peace that has eluded them for so long, and that they will be able to make progress towards achieving a more stable and secure society. History appears to be against them, but there are many talented people in the country who given the chance can certainly make a difference. Sadly, the people with whom Alberto Cairo works are likely to remain very low on the list of national priorities until other issues are confronted and resolved. Thank goodness I say, for the professional dedication and compassionate example of people like Alberto Cairo and the countless others who are prepared to live in such difficult circumstances and put the needs of others before their own.