Muslim Peace Fellowship
Press Room Report


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - --

Doug Hostetter can be reached at DougHostetter .
Report to the Muslim Peace Fellowship
on the joint Help the Afghan Children delegation to Afghanistan

Oct. 22 to Nov. 11, 2001,
by Doug Hostetter

The trip was exceedingly successful, given the fact that we had only three weeks to travel and arrange for the purchase of 239 tons of food and 1000 blankets as well as their delivery in Takhar Province in Northeastern Afghanistan. I cannot praise too much Suraya Sadeed, director of Help the Afghan Children, Inc. and the leader of this delegation. Our mission could never have been completed without the personal competence, the language and cultural skills, and the reputation and contacts that Suraya and her organization have built up over her nine years of humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

The other organization that greatly facilitated our efforts, and saved many days1 work in Afghanistan, was the French development agency ACTED Agence d1Aide a la Cooperation Technique Et au Developpment, or Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development. We first met Frederic Roussel, Program Coordinator of ACTED, in Dushanbe. He remembered Suraya from her work in Afghanistan during the earthquake disaster relief effort in 1998. He offered us housing at the ACTED hostel in Kahwaja Bahawudin and an
introduction to Cyril du Pri de Saint Maur, ACTED1s Northeast Afghanistan Coordinator, and his wonderful Afghan Deputy Coordinator, Mohammad Mahir Yaqobi, both stationed in Kahwaja Bahawudin. We accepted the hospitality of the ACTED hostel, occasionally used their vehicles, and continually availed ourselves of their expertise and contacts to successfully carry out our work. ACTED was the only NGO with expatriate staff to remain in the North.

They have been almost solely responsible for keeping the displaced persons in that area alive after the UN and all of the larger relief organizations pulled out several years ago upon pressure from the Taliban.

Our relief delegation was composed of Suraya Sadeed and myself. We were also accompanied by two filmmakers doing a documentary film on Help the Afghan Children, Inc Randall Scerbo, producer, and Bill Gentile, filmmaker and professor at Kent State. We were also accompanied by a writer for Vanity Fair, Michael Learner, and his photographer, Chris Anderson. Initially the group had also included Dr. James King, recommended to us by a Florida congressional representative. He purported to be the Dean of the Medical
School in the Seychelles Islands.

During our week in Dushanbe we discovered that the Seychelles Medical School has only two faculty and is not recognized by any accrediting association, while Dr. James King was neither a medical doctor nor had he written the two medical textbooks he claimed to have authored. When Dr. King was unable to get us a copy of his medical license, we severed our relationship with him and he returned to the US before we left for Afghanistan.

Having two persons in the relief portion and four persons in the media
portion of our group was not a good balance. Suraya and I had to struggle to assert that the primary purpose of the delegation was the relief effort, not the media, which were there to publicize our work. The differences in values and goals between the two parts of our group caused considerable tension at several points during the trip.

We arrived in Dushanbe on the morning of Nov. 24th on the Air Tajikistan flight from Munich. In Tajikistan we set out to find a supplier who could reasonably assist us in the purchase and transport of a large shipment of wheat, sugar, and cooking oil. After exploring several options, we signed a contract with Qader Bakhshi Co. Ltd on Nov. 27th to buy, and deliver in Afghanistan, 175 tons of wheat, 36 tons of sugar, and 28 tons of cooking oil for the distribution of 3,600 family packets consisting of 50 kg of wheat, 10 kg of sugar, and 8 kg of cooking oil. This was purchased for $116,000, half of which was given at the time of order, and the other half to be collected at the time of delivery in Afghanistan. Abdul Qader Bakhshi is an Afghan businessman who works in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, and is someone with whom Help the Afghan Children, Inc. had worked on previous occasions. The supplies were purchased in Uzbekistan and shipped in 23 large trucks through Tajikistan to Afghanistan. There was a separate purchase through the same distributor in Dushanbe of 1,000 blankets at $11 each.

These were also shipped on one of the trucks.

I also visited the Estiqlal (Independent) High School (off 36 Pushkin St.), the only Afghan school in Dushanbe. It serves 220 Afghan refugee students, less than one-third of the students who would like to attend. Mohammed Bobur, an Afghan medical student refugee from Mazar-e Sharif, runs it.

Afghan refugee students are in a very difficult situation in Tajikistan since the Russians, when they colonized Tajikistan 70 years ago, changed written Tajik from Arabic to Cyrillic script. Afghan refugees can communicate with Tajiks verbally, since both languages are essentially Persian, but Afghans are completely lost in the Tajik educational system, since it requires reading and writing in Cyrillic letters.

The paperwork for overland travel to Afghanistan was significant. The Tajik visas issued by the Soviet Embassy, for which we had paid $300 in Washington, were declared invalid when we arrived in Dushanbe, but could be replaced by valid visas issued in Dushanbe for another $100/visa. (Visas issued by the Tajik Embassy in Munich were accepted.) The Tajik border with Afghanistan is controlled by Russian military with at least four checkpoints over the last 10 km of road to the border.

To travel overland to Afghanistan, one needs not only the Afghan visa issued by the Northern Alliance Foreign Ministry in Dushanbe, but more importantly, a hand-written letter from the Tajik Foreign Ministry with the names of all. The names on that letter were sent in advance to the Russians so that they would be pre-alerted to our arrival.

We left for Afghanistan on Wedneseday, Oct. 31st. The trip to the border took significantly longer than we had anticipated. tThe Tajik Foreign Ministry had arranged for us to ren a vehicle for $300. We set off around 4:00 pm for the border. After many stops to adjust the motor for changing altitude while crossing the mountains, we arrived at Farchor, about an hour from the river border, at around 9:30 pm. We stayed for the night in a 3hotel2 in Farchor with no indoor plumbing and no lights, since we had arrived after the electricity in the town had been turned off for the evening.

After going through the four Russian checkpoints, crossing the border at the Amu Darya River on the pontoon boat on the morning of Nov. 1st was not that difficult. At that time, that one pontoon boat was the only land crossing from the north into the Northern Alliance-controlled territory of Afghanistan. All supplies arriving overland had to cross that
tractor-powered, cable-pull, pontoon boat. (Things have changed significantly in the last week.) The river crossing, at that time, was only a couple of kilometers from the Taliban front lines, and massive US bombing was taking place on a ridge a few miles from the river at the time of our crossing. The river at that point is about a mile wide, and the pontoon boat is capable of carrying only one 10-15 ton truck, or two smaller vehicles, at a time, plus a handful of passengers. Our supplier was already at the border and offered a vehicle. ACTED sent a second vehicle to take us from the river to the ACTED hostel in Kahwaja Bahawudin, a one-hour drive to the west.

ACTED was a great host, and offered us what space they had available, but they were already overrun by 31 international journalists for whom they had also offered shelter. We were offered one 9 x 12 foot room with two single beds as our space, which meant that most of us were sleeping in sleeping bags on the floors of various hallways in their compound. Most of the journalists were in tents in the courtyard, and all of us shared the several outdoor toilets and the one "shower room" with the wood-heated bucket of well water for bathing.

ACTED was a tremendous source of information on the concentrations of displaced persons in the area who were in need of food. They had surveyed all the local DP communities and were pleased that we were willing to use our food in the area of most need. They also had complete lists of family units in each community, and were willing to loan us their lists as well as some of their local staff to assist in the distribution. We met with Cyril du Pri de Saint Maur, ACTED1s Northeast Afghanistan Coordinator, and agreed to distribute in the following villages and camps: Baghi Bayan (689 families) in Dashte Qala North; Qum Qishlaq (1,222 families), Lolaguzar Camp (875 families), and Lolaguzar village (689 families) in Khwaja Bahawdin; and Kafter Ali/Ariq Qishlaq (284 families) in Yangi Qala.

This is a total of 3,759 families, only slightly over our projected total 3,600 families. In discussion with Cyril we learned that ACTED used a six-person family as their standard. The distribution standard they used in northeast Afghanistan for one month1s supply of food for a family was 50 kg of wheat, 5 kg of sugar, and 6 liters of cooking oil. We agreed to use the ACTED standards and traded our excess cooking oil and sugar to ACTED in exchange for additional wheat.

The first four of our 10-ton trucks crossed the Amu Darya River on Saturday, November 3rd. We visited the crossing on the 4th to take pictures and inquire about the remaining trucks. It seems that a conflict between the Russian border guards and the Tajik customs officials caused the Russians to end all crossing on Sunday, Nov. 4th. We agreed with our suppliers that they would go ahead and send the four trucks of cooking oil and sugar from the border to the ACTED warehouse in Lolaguzar village. The Russians took all day Monday the 5th for military supplies, and we were told on Tuesday that the US TV networks had bribed the Tajiks, the Russians, or both to get vehicles with their supplies across the river in advance of our trucks.

Only on Wednesday, Nov. 7th did our remaining 19 truckloads of wheat finally cross the river into Afghanistan.

There is only one flight a week from Dushanbe to Munich, so those of us who had agreed on a three-week trip were approaching our limit in time. Once again, ACTED staff came to our rescue. They agreed to loan us ACTED wheat from their warehouse so that we could start our distribution in our few remaining days in Afghanistan. We decided to distribute first to the 689 families in the Lolaguzar village. These are all displaced persons whose homes were destroyed in western Takhar Province about a year ago in the fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban.

The distribution was very orderly and took place on November 5th and 6th. A distribution area was roped off and the bags of wheat, boxes of vegetable oil, and bags of sugar were placed on the ground. The wheat came in 50 kg bags, the vegetable came in two-liter cans, and the sugar was dumped on a tarp and a five kg measuring can was available for the distribution to each family. A table was set up with a local ACTED staffer reading the names of the head of household for each family from his list. One of the village elders then called out the name and one or two members of the family came into the roped-off area to collect their portion. The entire village was there to watch, and when one or two impostors tried to collect for a family of which they were not a part, they were quickly ejected. I could never figure out how the elders knew that one woman, fully covered in a burka, was not the rightful woman to collect that family1s portion, but everyone approved as impostors were discovered and ejected empty-handed.

On two occasions I was also able to visit the Lolaguzar grade school, which was built by ACTED with funds from the Turkish government. There were only four classrooms, perhaps 150 students, but tremendous enthusiasm from the children able to attend. The school was for boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon. I shared drawings from schools in Evanston, Illinois and Chestnut Ridge, New York, and the students of Lolaguzar gladly completed drawings to return to children in the US.

Suraya assured me that she could adequately handle the remaining distributions without the rest of us, so the filmmakers and I returned to Tajikistan on Wednesday, Nov. 7th (the Vanity Fair writer and photographer had actually left on Tuesday.) ACTED agreed to work with Suraya to complete the distributions. We saw the remaining truck of wheat crossing the river into Afghanistan on Wednesday as we were crossing into Tajikistan.

I counted six times that our driver needed to bribe Northern Alliance or
Tajik officials in order to get through checkpoints between Khwaja Bahawdin, Afghanistan and Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

In Dushanbe I visited Frederic Roussel, the ACTED Program Coordinator in his office to discuss possible future relationships between ACTED and the organizations represented in this delegation. He was very open and encouraging and willing to offer his support for future formal or informal relationships. (ACTED works broadly in areas of housing, education, agriculture, health and emergency aid.)

During this trip it was a particular honor to represent the Muslim Peace
Fellowship. MPF put me in touch with Help the Afghan Children, Inc. thus making possible the whole multi-organization delegation to Afghanistan from October 22 to November 11, 2001. I feel privileged to have played a small role in working with Suraya Sadeed to transform thousands of dollars of money from many sources into the urgently need food and blankets, which, with the help of ACTED, we were able to deliver to persons displaced by the war in Takhar Province of Afghanistan.

Please convey to your members the profound gratitude of the thousands of Afghan recipients whose lives have been made a little more comfortable through the generosity of their contributions.

-- Doug Hostetter

Return to MPF's The World after 9/11
Return to MPF's Press Room
Return to MPF's Home


Copyright ©2001 Muslim Peace Fellowship. All rights reserved.
Muslim Peace Fellowship
Rabia Harris, Coordinator,
The Muslim Peace Fellowship is part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation network