Faith

“There is no safe place in Afghanistan.” She went anyway

by Juleen Shaw // October 5, 2018, 6:43 pm

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A Unicef photo of Afghan children displaced by war.

Afghanistan 2018

January 24:  “The car bombing and gun attack took place at the office of international charity Save the Children.”

January 27:  “An ambulance rigged with explosives killed at least 103 people in Kabul, most of them civilians.”

March 19:  “A motorcycle bomb exploded near a political rally at a football stadium.”

May 31:  “Today’s bombing in a crowded area of central Kabul was yet another reminder of how deadly the war has become for ordinary Afghan civilians.”

August 15:  “The explosion was in a Shia neighbourhood which prepares students for university exams.”

3. 103. 4. 15. 34.

Dead.

Dead.

Dead.

“Pain deepens for Afghanistan.”

“No one should see such a day.”

“There is no safe place in Afghanistan.”

Singapore 2018

“Hello? Hello?”

A girl’s soft voice comes over the crackling line.

“Can you hear me?” I am almost shouting into my phone.

“Hang on,” she says. “I’m trying to get a good signal. Let me make my way to the roof. Maybe the reception is better there.”

Footsteps on stone. Pap, pap, pap. A sudden sense of open air.

“Can you hear me?” she says, her voice unexpectedly clear now.

We were supposed to skype – the alchemy of the internet allowing two women 5,144km apart to talk “face to face” – me in Singapore, R* in Afghanistan.

But the electricity went off an hour ago, R apologises, and her computer is dead. Can we just talk on the phone?

I picture R on a flat Afghan rooftop overlooking an organic warren of brown-bricked homes, the sounds of market nearby, the Hindu Kush mountains soaring in the misty distance, her chador headscarf blowing in an arid breeze as she holds up her phone to “catch” the reception.

What could possess a Singapore girl to live in a place so far removed from home – where young children are familiar with the smell of bomb smoke, armed security posts block your way to work, and women exist under cultural conditions so extreme that the place has been repeatedly named “the most dangerous country for women” by gender-issue experts? 

For R, there is only one answer: God.

From NUS to NGO

R became a believer at age 14.

“Early in my faith, during secondary school, I was going to Thailand with my church and I felt something click,” says R, now 31. “Singapore is the Antioch of Asia and I wanted to be a part of Singapore’s prophecy.”

“I thought they were crazy! I didn’t even know of any Singaporean in Afghanistan!”

In university, R was active in a Christian varsity group.

“We shared the love of God with the students, staff and cleaners on campus and they came to the faith. Looking back, God was preparing me to serve Him in the nations.”

The varsity group organised summer trips to Central Asia and R found herself on a short trip to Kyrgyzstan, where she stayed with a local family.

Sharing that they felt strongly called to Afghanistan, the couple invited R to go with them to babysit their three boys, who at the time were just five, three and less than a year old.

“When they asked me, I thought they were crazy!” recalls R. “This was 2009 – I didn’t even know of any Singaporean in Afghanistan!”

But God had a plan.

The road to Afghanistan

Riots broke out in the south of Kyrgyzstan and R and her team were asked to leave immediately before the airports were shut down.

“We took the first available flight out of Bishkek (the capital of Kyrgyzstan) and it was going to Istanbul,” recalls R. “On that flight, I happened to sit next to an Afghan man.

“This was the first Afghan face I would see in my life. To my surprise, he was very interested when I shared my faith.

“When we parted, he left me a note in his Persian language that said: Afghanistan is a beautiful country. Please come to Afghanistan.

“I was shocked. This was like a call from within. I felt God speak to my heart and I asked Him for confirmation.”

“I told God, ‘How can I go to the other side of the world if my own family does not know You?’”

In His grace, God provided a series of clear signs. The one R treasured most had to do with her family.

“I was the first believer in my family and I had told God, ‘How can I go to the other side of the world if my own family does not know You?’

“Just before I was to leave for Kabul, my dad came to me and told me he wanted to get baptised.

“I thought he was going senile,” she says with a laugh. “I had been sharing the Good News with my parents for 14 years before this! I put my parents in Alpha class and they encountered God very powerfully. My mum had a dramatic transformation in her life.”

A vision

In August 2010, R took a pivotal trip to Afghanistan.

She had just graduated from university and was serving out her scholarship.

“There were significant events prior to my arrival in Afghanistan. A medical team that was in the country to administer healthcare ­was ambushed and killed.

“When I arrived in Kabul, I felt like an outsider, but I felt privileged, too, to be part of a sacred time of grieving.

“God really challenged me – and I still feel constantly challenged – on what it means to live for Him and maybe even lose my life for my faith.”

“I feel constantly challenged on what it means to live for Him and maybe even lose my life for my Him.”

R was visiting NGOs to study their work, “and also figure out what work God was calling me to do”.

If she had any lingering doubts she was meant to be in Afghanistan, they were laid to rest when God gave her a powerful vision.

“We were travelling to the central mountainous province of Bamyan. At the time, there was no airport there.”

Bamyan is beautiful, remembers R. It is the cultural capital of the Hazara ethnic group, descendants of Mongols.

“We were travelling by car to this beautiful lake which was about a two-hour journey and I was staring out of the window at the desert. It was hot.

“All at once, I had a vision of a big, fierce man in a turban. In his hands was an AK47 rifle and he was running towards me.

“He was shouting in a language I didn’t understand. I was really scared.

“But when he was close enough, about two metres away, I realised he had tears in his eyes. And I found that I could understand what he was saying.

“When he came closer, he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Tell me, tell me – what must I do to be saved?’’

Shaken, R realised that God was showing her the spiritual condition of His people in Afghanistan.

“That really broke my heart … we read about evil terrorists in the news. But they are not always evil, they are desperate. Now even when attacks happen, I see them in a different light.”

Blasts and gunfire

Still, the danger is palpable.

As we speak, R is living in the aftermath of an ambulance suicide attack that took the lives of over 100 civilians and injured more than 235.

She happened to be in Delhi during the attack on Saturday. On Sunday, she was determinedly back in Kabul.

Returning to her home from the airport, she could still hear blasts and gunfire.

Returning to her home from the airport, she could still hear blasts and gunfire.

She was on lockdown for a few days and then was relegated to “essential movement”, meaning movement was restricted to going to work and straight back home.

“Life goes on,” says R simply. “This is how Afghans deal with it … just carry on.”

As a security measure, she has to move residences quite often, she says.

It was actually a year ago when I first heard R speak about her work in Afghanistan. At the time, she was back in Singapore on home leave.

As she shared, the alarm on her phone split the silence in the small hall, making the listeners jump.

“Sorry,” she apologised with a smile. “It’s my daily reminder to call my organisation’s security officer.”

That’s when it hit me – this young woman was living in such treacherous circumstances that she had standing instructions to call her organisation every evening, failing which they’d get the alert: R is in danger.

Suddenly the tranquility with which she was speaking about the beauty of Afghanistan cut a stark contrast to her perilous mission for God.

The real heroes

It is now R’s third year working for NGOs in Afghanistan.

Having taken local language lessons, she works on community development projects with disabled children, and conducts maternal health training (essential in a country where infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world), water sanitation talks and small business training.

“Our local Afghan staff work directly with our beneficiaries. My role is more monitoring and evaluating the projects, and giving training. The locals are the real heroes. 

“I’m very proud of my staff – there is good work being done by the Afghans for the Afghans,” R says warmly.

There are 73 ethnic groups in Afghanistan, she explains, the main group being Pashtun.

“But I look Hazara,” she adds. “So I blend in. I think it’s God’s preparation for me – it gives me access to many places. I still have to wear a burqa in certain areas, but my skin colour is the same as theirs. It’s a privilege – I can move about quite freely as compared to my western colleagues.”

In a country where “there is no safe place”, the expat community is understandably small, and whoever has remained has become a family of sorts … making it grimly personal when one of their own is kidnapped. Or worse.

“It shocked me to discover that they kidnap foreigners and sell them to the Taleban as bargaining chips.”

Last year, a “sister” who had given 12 years of her life to the Afghans, was killed.

A friend, who was to be her roommate, was also kidnapped last year.

“We kept praying for our kidnapped friend and finally she was released.

“Security and governance are low, unemployment rates are high, the country is unstable, and people are desperate. It shocked me to discover that it is a common strategy to kidnap foreigners and sell them to the Taleban as bargaining chips.

“That shook me and my friends. It makes faith real, especially when we talk about new earth and new heaven and new Jerusalem. Until then, we are called to patiently endure,” she says soberly.

When R first started working in Afghanistan, there were about 120 expats, an international school and community centre.

At the time we spoke, R was one of fewer than 10 left in her organisation, and the international school and community centre had closed.

I hear them pray

“Life here is a constant stress and it accumulates,” confesses R. “You hear blasts and gunfire daily.

“For me personally, it was almost a tipping point last year. I went back to Singapore and stayed for three and a half months. I had post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) counselling and debriefing. I ‘offloaded’ as much as possible so I could go back to Afghanistan and serve another term.

“It becomes a rhythm – my counsellor helps me process, and I continue to do the work God has called me to do.

“The believers are few but growing, weak but strong. I look at Afghanistan and I hear them pray.”

“One of my leaders has been in Afghanistan for 21 years and she is still convicted to stay.

“When you look at the work that remains to be done in this place … it would take a lifetime. But I take it a term at a time. And I try to listen to God.”

Recently R attended a conference in India for workers in the Persian world.

Still shaken by the kidnapping and killing of her friends, she told God: “I don’t know how much I can do when I’m in this state.”

“And God reassured me about a new season. He kept speaking to me about water breaking through and walls coming down. This was confirmed by many others in the community.

“When we returned to Afghanistan, we saw people coming to the faith and it was just incredible. 

“We boldly prayed and this girl was healed. God was moving. To see this young woman, saying in response to killing and blasts among her own people, that we were on the right track and Satan was not happy … I was so encouraged.

“The believers are few but growing, weak but strong. I look at Afghanistan and I hear them pray.”

Coming home

She is back on home leave every year – but it is surprisingly difficult to come home.

“You can’t be comfortable here when your friends’ lives are endangered. You can’t,” says R, who now feels more comfortable with people like older pastors, who understand grief and loss.

“For people my age, there is often no concept of pain or grief or loss on a regular basis.”

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, they cry and I cry. This has made us really cherish the time we have together.”

She has a group of close girlfriends who grew up together.

“I spent the first 26 years of my life in Singapore. But I sometimes find it hard to relate to my friends now,” she says quietly.

“When I first came home and I was still traumatised, I would get angry with them when they talked about things that didn’t matter to me. I was almost swearing and I was shocked at myself.

“But my friends allowed me to be who I am. They bore everything up to the point I had to leave again, and then they cried and told me, ‘Don’t go. It’s hard for us to pray to God, Your will be done, knowing you could be killed.

“I tell them, ‘It’s okay. It’s the same when I pray for my Afghan friends. I say, Oh God, don’t let them be hurt.

“So we meet at that level and I’m thankful for my friends and I accept their love gratefully.”

It is even harder with family.

“Every time I go back to Afghanistan and say goodbye to my family, they cry and I cry, and it’s emotional. This has made us, as a family, really cherish the time we have together.

“I think they still wish that I would come home, but they are proud of me and I’m very proud of them, because they understand and are supportive of what I do. And that’s very important to me.”

Closer to heaven

Hard as life is in Afghanistan, R is anything but dark.

She chatters about bringing Afghan cashews, walnuts, pine nuts and almonds – “good stuff!” – back for her mum and stocking up on Wang Wang crackers, bak kwa and salted egg yolk potato chips when she returns to Afghanistan.

“I’m still a Singaporean,” she laughs.

She turned 31 in Afghanistan this March. You can hear the smile in her voice as she tells you: “My birthday is a holiday here.

“It’s a very happy time, a beautiful time of the year when the farmers sow seeds, and I’m thankful that my birthday is the first day of spring.”

Does she think about dating and marriage like other Singaporean girls?

“You know, I used to think about it and ask God, ‘So will I get married?’ 

“But marriage, to me, is a luxury. Staying alive is a priority. Who knows if I will be alive next week or next year? 

“Marriage is a luxury. Staying alive is a priority. Who knows if I will be alive next week or next year?”

“In the light of eternity, I have no regrets at all.

“The reality of us as pilgrims in a passing world is very real here. Honestly, I feel closer to heaven.

“Singapore is like a bubble; there aren’t even ‘basic’ things like natural disasters! What is faith if we go to church and say, ‘God is good because He gave me a bonus’?

“Afghanistan is a place that confronts you. Here, basic things don’t work – electricity, heating – so you just have to cry out to God and depend on Him.”

And life is not all doom and gloom.

“There are also good things and funny things,” she says. “Last week a horrid attack happened. And a group of demonstrators wanted to burn the Pakistan flag outside the embassy. But many here are illiterate and they burned the Nigerian flag by mistake! An officer had to apologise to Nigeria. It was just so crazy and funny … it only happens in Afghanistan!”

Even if she wants to stay in Afghanistan, she doesn’t know how long she will be allowed to, as aid workers may be asked to leave if there is a major incident.

“So every day is a privilege,” she says, her voice a prayerful hush.

“In a place like this, evil is sometimes right in your face. But I remember John 1:5: The light shines in the darkness, and darkness has not overcome it.

*Name has been withheld for security reasons.

About the author

Juleen Shaw

Salt&Light Managing Editor Juleen hails from the newsrooms of Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp Publishing. She has had two encounters with baptismal pools. The first was at age four when her mother, who was holding her hand, tripped and fell into the church baptismal pool, taking Juleen with her. The second was when she actually chose to get baptised.