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
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
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.