A visit to Afghanistan

Friday, October 24, 2003

By Alan Terry

I recently traveled to Afghanistan with Ken Isaacs, international director of projects for Samaritan's Purse, a Christian organization that provides relief services to needy people in over 100 countries. It is based in Boone, N.C., and is headed by Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son.

When I told family and friends I was going to Afghanistan, most of them strongly discouraged me from making the trip. Without question, the prevailing opinion of the vast majority of Americans is that Afghanistan is highly unstable and is a very dangerous place for Americans to visit. In fact, shortly before I left, I saw several reports on television and in newspapers about the Taliban and how it is in the process of regrouping and is working to destabilize the current government. There were even a few attacks on our troops in the days preceding the trip. However, Ken is an extremely experienced traveler and he assured me that we wouldn't have any problems while we were there.

Ken and I met in Uzbekistan, which is just north of Afghanistan and is one of the former Soviet republics. I flew into Tashkent, a city of 2 million people which is the capital. Ken had arranged for an Uzbek acquaintance of his (a young man named Shukrat) to pick me up at the airport and escort me around Tashkent.

Pen pals unite families

My 14-year-old daughter, Katie, had developed a pen pal relationship with a young girl in Tashkent through one of the ministries which Samaritan's Purse sponsors. Every Christmas season, millions of families in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Australia send shoe boxes full of gifts to Samaritan's Purse, which distributes these boxes to needy children in Third World countries. This ministry is called Operation Christmas Child. My family has participated in the program the past few years. My children typically include their address and a picture of themselves in the boxes they pack.

We sent a couple of shoe boxes to Samaritan's Purse during the Christmas season in 2001. In March 2002, Katie received a letter from a 12-year-old girl named Yulya who lives in Tashkent.

Katie wrote her back. The return address was in Russian, and we didn't think there was much chance her letter would reach Yulya. A few weeks later, however, Yulya wrote Katie again. They have continued to correspond.

When I realized I would have a full day in Tashkent, I e-mailed Shukrat to ask him to try to find Yulya so I could meet her and her family. I e-mailed Yulya's address to him so he could locate her. The following day, I received a reply from Shukrat stating that Yulya's father is one of his best friends and he had already organized a meeting with the entire family. We had lunch together the day I was there and I spent a few wonderful hours with them. I was the first "foreigner" they had ever hosted at their house.

Who would have ever thought that I could enjoy an afternoon with a family in Tashkent as a result of my daughter sending a shoe box to Samaritan's Purse?

Later that night, Ken arrived. We flew to Afghanistan the next day. We spent roughly one week traveling throughout the country. The purpose of the trip was to evaluate the progress of the work that the Samaritan's Purse staff is doing in Afghanistan. Their work is based in a city of 80,000 in northern Afghanistan called Kholm.

Life in Kholm makes you feel like you have gone back in time hundreds of years. There are mud dome houses, water-powered grinding mills, donkey-pulled carts and camels loaded down with people's possessions. There are no vehicles other than those owned by Samaritan's Purse.

It was so hot inside the buildings where we stayed that we slept on the roof in order to get a breeze. I was greatly impressed by the staff and the quality of their work. There were 12 to 15 staff members from several western countries living and working in Kholm. They have renovated, refurbished and are now running a 50-bed hospital.

In addition to the Afghan staff, there were also medical personnel from Australia, the Netherlands and the United States. The staff has also built schools, started kindergartens, begun educational classes for women, built and staffed an outpatient clinic and built homes and shelters for the many Afghan refugees returning to the country.

They have established wonderful relationships with the Afghan people in the area. Although the Afghan population is Muslim and the Samaritan's Purse staff are all Christians, it is obvious that there is a great deal of mutual respect and friendship between both groups.

Ken and I also traveled to Mazar-E-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan. This city is best known to most Americans as the place where the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, was captured. Two years ago, it was a war-torn city with little activity beyond the war. Today, it is a bustling city with a growing economy and lots of activity.

We also met with one of the generals of the Northern Alliance while we were there. General Wahseek is a 38-year-old man who is an experienced fighter in Afghanistan's wars of the past 25 years. He has been a great ally of the United States throughout the campaign against the Taliban. It is his view that the change Afghanistan has experienced in the last two years is nothing short of miraculous.

We also spent three days in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. Kabul is a city of 3.5 million people. It is a city on the mend. During the Taliban era, roughly one-third of the population fled the country because of the extreme brutality of the Taliban.

We saw the former glory of Afghanistan when we visited the palace of their former king. It sits on a beautiful hillside overlooking Kabul. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, several warlords fought among themselves for control of the country. Over the next few years, competing warlords controlled the palace at different times. The palace was shelled during this civil war. Today it sits in ruins, completely abandoned and useless on that beautiful hillside. The Taliban came to power as a result of that civil war.

While we were in Kabul, we were approached by many Afghans in restaurants, in hotels, on elevators and on the streets who told us horror stories of life under the Taliban. The level of intimidation they experienced and the difficulty of their lives during that time are unimaginable to us. All of these people expressed their gratitude to the United States for overthrowing the Taliban and expressed their concern that our troops would leave too soon, before the country is stabilized.

Soldiers from home

We ran across four soldiers who are stationed at Fort Bragg while we were in Kabul. We were browsing through one of the main shopping districts and these four guys were also doing some shopping in the surprisingly vibrant marketplace. There were as many consumer goods in these small shops as one could back home in Pinehurst, N.C. All of these soldiers live with their families in the Sandhills, N.C., area. It shows what a small world we live in when one can travel to the other side of the world and meet some neighbors.

It became apparent to me during the trip that the great majority of Afghans are delighted that we helped them overthrow the Taliban and that, for the most part, they view the United States very favorably.

That is not the impression one gets from most American media outlets. Most reports we see focus on isolated attacks while ignoring the tremendous progress being made on a daily basis.

Afghanistan has been a country in turmoil for many years. Today, thanks to brave individuals like those four soldiers and the Samaritan's Purse staff, the Afghan people are experiencing more freedom and have more hope than they have had for a very long time.

Now that these long-suffering people have tasted freedom, I hope and pray that there will be no going back to the tyranny they have recently experienced.

Alan Terry of Pinehurst, N.C., is the son of Bill and Eloise Terry of Cape Girardeau. His wife, Penny, is the daughter of Gary and Wendy Rust of Cape Girardeau. The Terrys have two children, Alex and Katie.

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