“It’s a still life water color, of a now late afternoon, as the sun shines through the curtain lace, and shadows wash the room,” the song softly begins, dialing up a faded memory.
With each phrase, vivid images of a still life in a small sunlit hospital room in Afghanistan come into sharper focus. Wintry sunlight filtering through thin curtains paints shadows in the room and settles on a young woman’s face. Framed by a black lace veil, a few straggly wisps of dark hair peeking out, her face is careworn even as it is lovely. Flushed unblemished skin and almond-shaped eyes under long eyelashes speak of timeless beauty, but hardened lines around the edges of her mouth attest to prior griefs. Deep worry furrows her forehead. She is keeping a lonely vigil by a sick child’s bedside. Widowed, it is her only child.
The room is quiet; so quiet, I can imagine hearing drops in one second intervals falling into the drip chamber of the IV, before coursing through the tubing to the girl’s left hand. The girl, her cheeks flushed a deep red by high fever, has not moved for hours.
With her work-worn left hand resting consolingly on the girl’s head, and her other hand on her own cheek in disbelief, the girl’s mother wonders, how did it all go so terribly wrong?
It had been a sweet life for Nasreen and her daughter until that terrible day nearly three years ago when grenades and bullets rocked her home and her world. Before their shattered wattle and daub dwelling could be repaired, hordes of Pashtun soldiers erupted from the back of Kamaz lorries and from pick-up trucks with big guns mounted in the back. Some even rode into town on horseback. They were the dreaded Taliban, notorious for brutality, especially against Tajik women. Their reign of terror was spreading north. Kunduz, Nasreen’s hometown, became their latest conquest.
When her husband joined the Northern Alliance’s Mujahedeen to fight against the Taliban, she worried about his safety. But she consoled herself, men always go off to war, it is part of their life. More viscerally, she feared for her and her daughter’s well-being. Little Tahmina was her life. For the predominantly Tajik population of women and children remaining in Kunduz, a town of a quarter million people, beatings, theft, rape, and murder at the hands of the Taliban soldiers were constant fears. Prisoners in their own compounds, many, including Nasreen, decided to flee.
Leaving her damaged home, Nasreen on foot and Tahmina riding with grandmother Bibi on the family’s donkey, set out on the one hundred mile journey to relatives in Rustaq. Skirting mountains on narrow dirt trails, they arrived three days later.
Life as a refugee in the primitive small town without electricity or safe drinking water, was not as comfortable as in Kunduz. But it was much better than the squalid conditions of the two refugee camps just outside of town. And it was safe.
Then disaster struck again. Tahmina, happily enrolled in a Madrasah school for girls, became ill with a high fever. Within hours she was comatose. Now, lying in the sunny room of the small hospital, Tahmina was near death. Nasreen was told it was due to malaria which had spread to her brain. Hour upon hour Nasreen watched the fluid and the medicine drip through the tubing into her daughter’s unmoving hand. The local husband and wife physician team, kind and gentle Pashtuns unlike those she had encountered in Kunduz, checked on Tahmina frequently, as did my colleague Dr. Mike Pendleton and I.
* * * * *
In a home not far from the hospital, another sick child lay dying. Cared for by an Afghani physician working for the Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes, the child had become much sicker overnight. Mike and I are asked to evaluate the almost one year-old.
As we enter the room and are introduced by the interpreter, the child’s mother, fully covered in a Burqa, accustomed to life in the shadows, slinks to a corner, crouches there, and tries to make herself very small. Attempting to learn more about the child conversation flows haltingly, whispered sentences dangle in the air, and connections fail, even with the ever-present grandparents. Lyrics of a song flow through my mind,
“Like a poem poorly written, we are verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme, in syncopated time.”
Examining the child we find a 106 degree fever, a bulging fontanel, a stiff neck, and an occasional shrill cry. With a positive malaria test, Mike and I need to treat the baby boy for meningitis and also malaria. Our four massive medicine duffels contain no intravenous antibiotics, so we set out for a small local pharmacy I spotted on a walk through town. On its dusty shelves, lined with wrinkled, yellowing boxes, we miraculously find what we need. Just as miraculously, all the medicines are still within the usable dating. The final miracle came when the total cost came to just over $12, well within our in-pocket funds. The same drugs in the US total over $800.
We start the medicines knowing the rest is in the hands of the God we call Father. I also know one more miracle is needed, and I pray for it. But it is not to be; early the next morning the little boy takes his final breath. The mother’s grief is heart rending. As a new grandfather I particularly ache for the quietly sobbing grandfather. His unashamed heartfelt grief in a country where men are not known for sensitivity is particularly touching for Mike and me.
* * * * *
Because clinics end at noon during Ramadan, we have the next afternoon off. Fasting from sunrise to sunset, even in the short days of December, leaves men too weak for a full day of work, one of the administrators solemnly informs me, as he calls it a day shortly before twelve. With the extra time, Erda, Mike, and I accompany Dag our Norwegian missionary host, manager, translator, and cultural guru, to a village in the mountains.
We pass a small caravan of cows, donkeys, and camels, herded along by boys who would be in primary school in other parts of the world. Abdul, our driver, remarks camels always appear to be smiling. He adds, Muslim legend has it the camel smiles because he knows the one hundredth name of God. I ask him,
“What is the one hundredth name of God?”
“We don’t know,” he answers. “Camels don’t talk.” Intriguing, but logical.
Without missing a beat, Dag offers,
“We know the one hundredth name of God. It is Father.”
Abdul ponders that for a while, keeping further thoughts close to his vest. Intermittently he will engage with us about our faith. He has no problem with the God of Abraham; Jesus represents the continental divide for him, as he does for most Muslims.
Our destination, the village of Ghrange, is spectacularly set at the base of snow-capped mountains. It is also spectacularly poor. An 8.5 magnitude earthquake two years earlier rattled flimsy homes, fissured fields, and claimed countless lives. Clothing, shoes, and grain are in critically short supply. Three years of drought have not helped.
In a hut with a panoramic view of the village, we negotiate with the mayor and the elders of Ghrange about upcoming distributions of shoes and warm clothing. It is vital no one is left out, or afflicted with shoes too small. Frustrations don’t play well in this country. Neither do negotiations when freebies are involved. The sun is already dipping behind the mountains when we finally finish.
As we leave, I take a last look at the towering Hindu Kush Mountains keeping their brooding watch over the village of flat-roofed mud huts, barefoot children, and wide earthquake fissures. One fissure swallowed a school with 125 students. Life is difficult here.
On our return, we pass Northern Alliance soldiers on the long walk home. No more than boys, each carries an AK-47 rifle or a Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher, twentieth century weapons in a country stuck in the fifteenth century in most other ways. Returning from Kunduz, they proudly inform us they successfully routed the Taliban. I think of Nasreen and Tahmina, wondering if they will now return to Kunduz.
Stopping at the hospital, Nasreen and Tahmina are gone. The girl passed away hours before. I grieve for Nasreen, her losses, and the harsh life which is the lot of girls and women in this culture. With a heavy heart I entrust her and the grieving mother in the Burqa to the God whose one-hundredth name is Father.
Lyrics from: Dangling Conversation, Paul Simon, 1966