Afghanistan: “The Worst Place to Be Born”


I spent last week in Kabul, Afghanistan, visiting ChildFund’s programs. It was a visit I had looked forward to for a long time. We hear about the war in Afghanistan all the time in the news, but I was eager to learn what everyday life was like for Afghan children and families.

ChildFund has been working in Afghanistan since November 2001 and has assisted more than half a million children and family members during this last decade or so. I was there to see the programs for myself, discuss issues with staff and meet with government and U.N. officials.

We started out the week with a bang, literally. Just before dawn on Monday, gunmen armed with suicide vests attacked the headquarters of the Kabul traffic department, which happened to be located close to the ChildFund office. Fighting continued until mid-afternoon while the whole city stood still, unsure if there would be a second attack elsewhere. All of our plans were put on hold and we stayed in our hotel. By 2 p.m., our staff felt safe enough to meet me at the hotel and by 3 p.m., we were on the road to keep our last scheduled meeting of the day with the U.S. Ambassador. Although security (and electricity) is unpredictable in this city, it doesn’t stop everyday life from moving on.

I met a lot of impressive people during the week: our female Afghanistan National Director, Palwasha Hassan, a known advocate in her country for women and children’s rights; a Shura council member in one of our program areas who is a strong supporter of ChildFund’s educational programs; a U.N. worker who confided she was confronting some corruption head-on and was concerned about the consequences.

The bottom line from all of the people I talked with – Afghanistan is doing much better than it was a decade ago, but it still has a very long way to go. Many Afghans who left the country in the 1980s (during the 10-year war between the U.S.-backed Mujahideen forces and the Soviet-backed Afghan government) or from 1989 to 2001 (during the rise and fall of the extremist Taliban government) have come home during the last several years. I met only one staff member who had stayed throughout these 30 years of fighting. Everyone is unsure what will happen after the U.S. troops pull out next year, but that’s not stopping people from getting on with their lives.

The city of Kabul is teeming with 5 million residents (and their cars) – we hit traffic jams wherever we went. Small shops stocked with goods can be found all over the city. I noticed two large banquet halls advertising their specialty: weddings. One of our staff members just got engaged – his wife-to-be will soon return from Pakistan – another Afghan returning home.

Afghanistan has been declared by UNICEF as “the worst place to be born” due to the extreme forms of deprivation and exclusion experienced by Afghan infants and young children. My experience last week brought that point home.

Coming up: My visit with children in ChildFund’s programs in rural Afghanistan.

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