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Photo : Video : Storytelling

A blog by Paul Bettings

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  • Writer's picturePaul Bettings

Back to Life

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

For my two nights in Kabul back in 2012, I remember stacking chairs and small desks in front of my hotel room door before I fell asleep in case of an attack or breach of some sort. I carefully balanced a glass on the L-shaped doorknob so if someone turned it from outside the glass would fall and, hopefully, smash and wake me up. My security training taught me to have a run bag beside my bed at all times and to know my exits, so I took a moment to assess my chances of survival if I needed to jump out my hotel room window. I decided it would be a bad idea and planned a route to climb down a thick electrical wire – also not a good option but maybe slightly better? Who knows. Luckily the glass never broke, the run bag never had to be used and the wire never had to be climbed down.

We travelled from Kabul to Herat on a small plane and while in Herat we would stay in a former UN compound, the walls were not as high as the walls at the hotel in Kabul but they were still high and there were two of them. One inside wall and one outside wall. The outside wall was about 6-feet thick and made of rock, chain link and concrete, materials that I assume, or hoped, could withstand any blast or attack that we may encounter. The inside wall was thick concrete. To enter the compound, two guards would open two large steel doors. You then drive in through these doors and stop in front of a second set of steel doors that eventually open into the actual compound through the interior wall. The steel doors close behind you and as you sit in this space that lies between the two walls and steel doors, the guards search the car for anything that may be amiss – bombs, ammunition, guns. Once they are satisfied, they open the second set of steel doors that enter to the compound. Despite all this security, or maybe because of it, the city of Herat was considered fairly safe at the time. It is a city in the province of the same name in the northwest part of Afghanistan near the border of Iran.

While driving through the city we encountered signs of Afghan civilizations from centuries past. The Musalla Minarets, built in the 15th century, were part of a large Islamic complex. The minarets stand about 180 feet tall and now lean in slightly different directions after years of war and natural disaster. The great Mosque of Herat, built originally in the 13th century and now an incredible structure with detailed blue mosaic decor, was in the middle of town and everyone who I spoke to proudly asked if I had been to visit yet. I got the sense that the locals were very proud of these monuments and the history that surrounded them, it seemed they were all cautiously eyeing the hope of great monuments and ideas of legacy for their own future.

Most days we were in Herat we would drive out of town to visit project areas. The landscape was dry with villages that slowly crept up the sides of tall mountain ranges. We would sit in clay brick homes as men in lungee’s (turbans) and traditional loose clothing offered us tea which was usually brought to us by women in burkas. On several occasions, we were given special permission by local authorities to visit village health centres which were run by women and focused much of their care on the female population in the area. Covered women sat on benches waiting in line, the only women uncovered were nurses and young girls. We also visited schools, girls and boys were kept separated, but their obvious excitement to learn in a safe place was noticeable. Maybe the future was looking slightly brighter, even just a bit? I think the smiling faces of these children gave everyone hope.

We were in a local hospital in town when I heard the doctor say the words, “that baby just died.” It was a newborn, brought into this world literally in the hour or so that we had been in the facility. We were talking to the doctor, asking him about the hospital, the patients, what sort of sicknesses they deal with and how they deal with them. But we could see his attention was being taken away from us, he started to look over our shoulders and pause longer on his words. I asked if everything was ok and that’s when he spoke those words. As I looked behind me, I saw a nurse working to bring the baby back to life. She was using a manual oxygen pump, the baby was under warm lights and there was very little noise, maybe it was me, maybe it was that everyone in the room was holding their breath, hoping for a life to re-enter the room. She fiddled with some medical items and after what seemed forever, she put the pump to the side, adjusted some knobs and smiled. She had brought the baby back, I am not sure how, or what the problem was. But, here we were, witnessing a life saved. “But, now it is ok”, the doctor said.

This all took place in 2012, that is a long time ago. Much has happened since then. Often when I think about countries I have photographed in I wonder how the people are, the people I met. And, Afghanistan is no different, how is that baby, how is that doctor, how is that nurse? How are the women, men and girls that served me tea and gave me permission to take their photos in the health centre, are they ok? Are the kids still in school? There is no way for me to know. But, for my short moment in Afghanistan all those years ago, I felt a touch of hopefulness – just a slight hint. Now? who knows. If I read the news and see the images coming out of Kabul seems Afghanistan just died, but I hold on to some hope that I will one day hear the words “but, now it is ok.


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