Notes from the Field: Community Conversations in Takhar Province
Community Conversations in Kochcha IDP Camp, Takhar province, Afghanistan.
In January 2018, WRN conducted field research in Takhar province, Afghanistan for WRN’s Community Conversations - a research technique used by the WRN to conduct real and honest conversations with women in the most remote and dangerous parts of the region. Fatema Kohestani, the Country Coordinator in Afghanistan, recounts the journey in her own words. She was accompanied by Barin Haymon Sultani, a renowned Researcher and Analyst specializing in Refugees, Conflict, Security and Development. This narrative demonstrates extraordinary bravery, unyielding commitment to amplifying the voices of marginalized women, and evidence of what can be accomplished by women, for women, with the support of sisters-in-peace across the region.
Gathering information about and from IDP (internally displaced people) women living in conflict areas is always a monumental challenge. After experiencing many setbacks and roadblocks, WRN managed to complete field work for our 2018 Community Conversations in Afghanistan focusing on IDP women displaced from Kunduz, one of the most insecure areas of the country that has suffered under Taliban control. This endeavor would not have been possible without the support of WRN Core Members Najla Ayoubi and Zarqa Yaftali, and Women Rights Activists at different levels of society including Maryam Rahmani, Humaria Saqib and Freshta Karimi. Due to their assistance, coordination, and encouragement, we successfully collected data from IDP women who have fled their homes due to war and conflict.
Based on our strategic plan and research design, Barin Haymon Sultani, who is an Afghan national based in the UK, was responsible for collecting information to develop a research report in coordination with me. The plan was designed based on a set of assumptions, one being that we would not face heavy travel delays. However, Afghanistan is a country where no one can predict even an hour into the future. As soon as Ms. Haymon arrived, there was a deadly terror attack on a hotel located in the heart of the Kabul which caused havoc in the city. There were road blockages that slowed us down and almost immediately set us behind schedule. We had a tight timetable to finish the assignment within 10 days, so we did our best to meet stakeholders with whom we had already confirmed appointments. First on the list was the Ministry of Refugees and Returnees (MORR) in Kabul.
Most of the offices were closed due to the hotel bombing and we didn’t have a vehicle. We thought traveling by taxi gave us the best chance of staying on schedule and fulfilling our engagements. Our commitment to meet our goals pushed us to carry on, but it wasn’t easy. The roads were completely blocked with a traffic jam that wasn’t moving. Reaching our destination on time felt impossible due to traffic so thick that hadn’t let us move an inch in hours. Taking matters into our own hands, we got out the taxi and carried on walking through Kabul for more than one hour to reach a place where we could take another public vehicle to drive us to MoRR. And all of this on the very first day!
It was noon when we finally arrived. We were both starving, but with a cup of tea the meeting started. Afterwards, we returned to the WRN office to drop off some papers and then prepared for the next day of meetings. We revised our plan since we couldn’t keep some of our appointments, due to our flight to Badakhshan province being canceled.
We were scheduled to fly to Badakhsah and travel by road to Takhar province to collect data from women living in four IDP camps. Thousands of families have fled to Takhar to escape the conflict and extreme violence in Taliban-controlled Kunduz. Takhar province is in the north of Afghanistan and shares a border with Badakhshan province, Kunduz province and Tajikastan. Getting there from Kabul by road is not only time consuming, but also dangerous. We had to find another way.
Community Conversations in Kabul IDP Camp.
Nine key airline staff from the only airline flying to Badakhshan were killed in the hotel bombing terror attack, leaving them unable to operate the flight. We found out that there was one other flight to Badakhshan operated by the United Nations (UN), but they only serviced NGO’s who had pre-registered with them. Unfortunately, we had not registered with the UN to book flight for us. Fortunately, by reaching out to our networks we managed to secure two tickets in the UN flight ticket to Badakhshan. Finally, a victory amid all the setbacks!
We thought it best to not waste the unexpected extra day in Kabul and went to visit the IDP camps to talk to IDP women living right in the country capitol. Families living here were displaced from Nangarhar province where ISIS currently operates, and Ghurband valley of Parwan province and Tagab district of Kapisa province that are controlled by the Taliban. The next day we flew to Badakhshan with the UN, then drove from Badakhsan to Takhar which are in the desert of Afghanistan. We rarely saw any houses and in three hours of driving only three cars passed us. We were gripped with mixed feelings of fear and excitement.
The area was unfamiliar to Barin and I, and it was difficult to trust even the driver whom we had just met for the first time. With these feelings filling us, we finally reached Takhar province and directly went to visit with women in the IDP camp in Talaqan, the capital of Takher. The next day we visited two more camps.
Community Conversations in Baharak IDP Camp.
The first was Baharak Camp, where many families had been displaced due to the presence of the Taliban. They said at night the Taliban even comes into Baharak. “Nowhere is completely safe, but security is relatively better than in our village,” they reported. Next, we went to Kokcha Camp located near the Kokcha River. We were terrified on the way there, so scared our bodies were shaking, since our vehicle was the only one on the road and we feared being discovered by the Taliban or others that would do us harm. Luckily, we got there safely, collected the data and promptly returned to the city. The next day we left Takhar and on our way to Badkahshan’s airport we met with the World Food Program (WFP) to collect more information on the services WFP provides to the IDPs and discuss challenges IDPs women are facing at the camps.
We thought at this point that our work was complete, and we would now easily return to Kabul. But, as I said before, nothing in Afghanistan is predictable and the journey back to Kabul was riddled with headaches and roadblocks. Our flight was canceled due to bad weather in Badakhshan and the next flight was after a few days, but no exact date could be given. We would have been left wondering “is today the day we would leave?”, which we could not do.
After a long discussion we decided to travel by road. Badakhshan to Takhar was safe, but Takhar to Kunduz and Kunduz to Baghlan were both dangerous. The drivers warned us of the danger, the presence of Taliban on the roads and what could happen at their hands, but we didn’t see another option. The other headache was Salang Pass, which is located between Baghlan and Parwan provinces. I remind you that this all took place in January and Afghanistan is cold and mountainous. The Pass could be blocked by snow and there was no way of ascertaining conditions before we made the journey. We didn’t have the luxury of time and had to make a decision as quick as possible.
Understanding the mountain of risks facing us, we decided to travel by road. When we arrived to Takhar we purchased some local clothes and a burqa to cover our faces, so we would blend in with the local residence. On our way leaving Takhar, we saw the Flag of the Taliban on the side of the road and on the other side was an Afghanistan’s Military Base. There are no words to describe our feelings that sight inspired, compounded with everything we had already experienced. Somehow, our determination outweighed our fears.
It was about 2pm we arrived finally in Kunduz and we could finally breathe easily again. Once in Kunduz, we all agreed to stay in Kunduz that night at a relative’s house. The next morning, we met some women’s rights activists, gathered some information about their work and struggles, and continued our journey back to Kabul by 10am.
The road between Kunduz and Baghlan is a very dangerous area - many people have been abducted by the Taliban on this road. On the way we saw some Afghan National Army check points that given us some strength and sense of security. We finally passed Baghlan, Salang Pass and reached Kabul at 7pm. This was one point of good fortune – the next day Salang pass was blocked for a few days due to heavy snow.
I believe that when women support each other, they can achieve incredible things. We believe that there is no force more powerful than a women determination and commitment; we believed on our “women’s spirit” gives us the ability to achieve even the most difficult tasks and goals. We faced challenges and met them head on and we did for what we committed to. We did it to amplify the voices of women.