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Rapt in Afghanistan
by Godfrey Van de Leur

When I left Canada to work for the military in Afghanistan, I knew I was in for the experience of a lifetime. I was briefed on the challenges and the security situation but could never have been fully prepared for what lay ahead. I was both excited and downright frightened. The adventure was on.

I was never more nervous in all my life as we flew into Afghanistan on board a Canadian Hercules (Herc) airplane. We were warned that the plane would do a tactical landing, which is very similar to an extreme roller coaster ride. We were also told about the plane's missile defence system. I could not believe that an incoming missile was something I had to worry about. This was clearly no pleasure trip.

After our acrobatic landing, Canadian soldiers dressed in full armour and confidently clutching machine guns welcomed us to our home for the next six months. The Afghan landscape is like nothing I have ever seen before. Mountains surround the country like a crown of thorns. It is dry, dusty, and smells of a mixture of garbage and urine. It is a smell like no other. It is the smell of Kabul.

We were informed that landmines surrounded the airport and we should not wander off. Shortly afterward, we were escorted into an armoured vehicle called a Bison. The deadly suicide attack on the Germans that occurred the month before was in the back of all our minds as we rumbled toward the base. I was definitely not in Canada anymore.

Aside from a rocket exploding at the far edge of our camp on September11th, life was actually pretty comfortable in Kabul for the first couple of months. However, while I was attending a church service in early October, the Padre described the atrocious situation facing the citizens of Kabul. It was a moment that would come to define my tenure in Afghanistan.

The Padre described the harsh conditions of the local jails where women are imprisoned for reasons like being raped or for openly voicing a point of view. The cells are small, she said, and often house six or more prisoners. Each women shares a bed with her children, so there could be anywhere from six to 18 people in the same prison cell. The children are kept in the prison because if they were not with their mothers, they would be on the street.

The Padre informed us of the thousands of orphans in Kabul. She told us that they have nothing. No clothing, no food, no family and very little hope. This is a direct result of civil war, the war on terror and the Taliban regime. I was left speechless but motivated to help.

I took it upon myself to arrange a meeting between the Canadian Military and the charity organization Samaritan's Purse. A spokesman for the charity happened to be in Afghanistan shortly after the Padre's talk. After this meeting Samaritan's Purse committed to coming to Afghanistan to work with the Canadian Military for the first time.

The biggest challenge we faced in getting aid to the refugees of Kabul was transporting the donated goods between Canada and Afghanistan. Getting anything in or out of the country is not easy. There is no safe highway or rail route. Also, there is no seaport. Airplane is the only option. However, neither the Canadian Military nor the large Canadian retailer involved in collecting the donations was stepping up to provide air transport. Rather than letting the project fail, Samaritan's Purse arranged for the transportation themselves.

After several tense weeks of wondering, I was overjoyed when I heard the transportation issue was overcome and the project would go ahead. I was informed by Samaritan's Purse of the distribution day and was excited, but still didn't fully realize what I was in for.

We started December 17th driving in the hills surrounding Kabul on a path you could hardly call a road. Along the way we were greeted by hundreds of smiling, waving children giving us the thumbs up and shouting, "How are you?" and "Yeah Canada!" Despite the warm welcome, I was a bit nervous because the surrounding area of Kabul is littered with hundreds of thousands of landmines.

We cautiously drove over a small hill and descended into a valley. In the valley was a makeshift refugee camp. Many of its residents had fled Afghanistan for various reasons over the past decade. Some fled from the Russians, some fled during the civil war. Others fled to escape the Taliban's reign of horror or the subsequent war on terror. Now that there is some stability in Kabul, many of these refugees are returning to their city only to find their homes destroyed.

There are 8000 citizens in this camp living without power, heat, or running water and very little food. The temperature can get down to -20 C at night and their houses are made of plastic tarps or, if they're lucky, a recently constructed mud hut.

We stood on top of a two-tonne pick-up truck. The back of the truck held over 1000 gift boxes donated by the people of Canada. The boxes were marked either boy or girl and were filled with clothing, toys and stationary. The truck was surrounded by both children and adults yelling, crying, pushing and occasionally getting into shoving matches. The media described it as a mob scene. I saw it as more of a scene of desperation. There was no time to be polite. You couldn't wait your turn. You had to seize the moment if you didn't want to leave empty handed.

When we were close to the end of the box distribution and had only about 50 or so boxes left, we noticed that there were many young boys trying to hand us pink tickets. The pink tickets were handed out to females only. At first we didn't mind. We simply handed the boys their boxes. A few moments later a soldier told us to stop. The boys were actually stealing the tickets from the girls. This almost broke our hearts.

Shortly afterward a photographer wanted to get a picture of the event for a poster. We looked around the camp for a beautiful little girl we had seen earlier. We searched and searched and then saw her in the distance. She was standing up a hill about 100 meters away. She wore bright colours and held her box of treasures joyously over her head. We ran up to her and I sat beside her. She was confused and held the box tightly. There was a large crowd of people around her trying to make her smile but she would only smile for a moment or two as we captured 20 or so photos. The attention and the 30 people crowding her is something that I am sure she'd never experienced. Her innocent, confused stare is burned into my mind forever. I hope that she makes it.

I could see the desperation in all the people's eyes as they begged for a donation and pleaded for our help. I will never get used to the sight of Afghan women, dressed head-to-toe in blue burqas, pleading for our assistance. At one point, I looked over at my friend Mookie and I saw the sympathy in his eyes as well. We were silent and in awe, completely overwhelmed. I thought we were prepared but we could never have expected to see what we did and it was hard to digest.

The day reinforced my belief that every citizen in Canada won the lottery when we were born. These Afghan people live in a virtually indescribable condition. They have nothing, yet they persevere. The children are beautiful. Despite the atrocities occurring around them, they maintain the innocence of youth. They run around smiling and playing, not realizing that there is anything more to the world than what they have. They give Afghanistan hope. They give me hope.

Godfrey Van de Leur is forever changed.



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