A travel letter from Terje Magnussønn Watterdal, Country Director at Norwegian Afghanistan Committee in Kabul, Afghanistan
Gardez, the provincial capital of Paktia province, is just over 100 kilometers south of Kabul, but is still a completely different and mysterious world. The town is located in an alpine valley over 2300 meters above sea level and is surrounded by large snow-capped mountains. Gardez has a long and exciting history, and in the middle of the city you find the fortress of Bala Hesar, which was reportedly built by Alexander the Great – a fortress that has been destroyed and rebuilt many times by the powerful armies that marched across this beautiful land in the centuries that followed.
The long history of Gardez stretches even further back in time than Alexander’s conquests, but when I visited Gardez at the end of January this year it was not with a focus on the past, but in anticipation of a hopeful future. I witnessed sixty young women and men from Ghazni, Khost, Paktia and Paktia provinces celebrating their completion of over two years of studies in pharmacy and laboratory technology – a small army of health workers ready to serve their communities.
The Regional Institute of Health Sciences in Gardez, which was founded by the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (NAC) in cooperation with Afghan health authorities, has had a huge impact on these students’ lives. At the graduation, the deputy governor, representatives from provincial and district authorities, and a delegation from NAC in Kabul, were all present.
Journalists from local and national media filmed and interviewed the students, while proud parents, spouses and siblings took part in the solemn ceremony. Several of the parents came in rented cars, adorned with flowers as if for a wedding ceremony, to bring their daughters and sons home to proud communities.
Many of these young women and men were the first in their villages to have graduated and are now role models for the children and young people in their home villages. The nine female students received special attention, because they have become the first qualified pharmacists and bioengineers from this beautiful, but conservative and war-torn, part of Afghanistan.
Towards a more peaceful future
It is hard for us here in Norway, who see education as a basic human right, to fully understand how much this means to young women and men from the Afghan countryside. These are young people who have never known peace – they were born into war, grew up in war and live their lives in a country that is still characterized by conflict and war, but with a strong desire for peace and reconciliation.
Together with the Nansen Centre for Peace and Dialogue, the NAC has worked on dialogue and peacebuilding with the students at Gardez’s Regional Institute of Health Sciences. The students, in turn, foster this wisdom, among their families and communities, but also on social media, sharing their ideas and thoughts on solidarity and peace, and about how they can contribute to a better future for their country.
The road between Kabul and Gardez is unsafe, with daily clashes between government forces and the Taliban, so with humility and gratitude, I was able return to Kabul by a UN helicopter. The helicopter took one last turn over Gardez before heading towards Kabul. It flew over the mountainous areas between Paktia and Logar provinces, over the ancient copper mines of Aynak that stretch all the way back to the Bronze Age, and the ruins of the ancient Buddhist temples and educational institutions which the copper wealth helped create.
This view was a reminder that education is nothing new in this beautiful, but wild area of Afghanistan, and that it is not we in the West who have brought knowledge to Loya Paktia. Much of the knowledge, experiences and stories from this area travelled with Alexander and his soldiers back to Europe and helped shape the development of our part of the world.
The hunger for knowledge shown by the students at the Regional Institute of Health Sciences gives us hope that a new generation of Afghans will lead the way to a better and more peaceful future for Afghanistan, and for the world. In addition to pharmacists and bioengineers, the Institute also educates midwives, community health nurses and physiotherapists, and will have the next intake of students in late-March. Warm thanks to all of you who contribute your money, time, and other support to our work in Afghanistan – work that saves lives and contributes to peace and reconciliation.
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