Into the Mountains – Chaman and Back

Mountain pass overlooking Afghanistan from Pakistan | MSF

Mountain pass overlooking Afghanistan from Pakistan | MSF

 

I first travelled through Afghanistan at the age of nine, from London to Peshawar in a Ford Transit van.  Across the Spin Ghar mountains connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan along  the ancient Silk Road. One of the oldest known passes in the world. When there was still Yugoslavia and a safe passage across beautiful Iran and Iraq. This is the closest I would have been to Afghanistan in decades.

 

A boy sits alone in the wilderness of the mountains of Baluchistan | MSF

A boy sits alone in the wilderness of the mountains of Baluchistan | MSF

 

I was surprised to see people wandering around in the wilderness and baron mountains. A rough harsh and arid landscape lacking vegetation and trees to shelter from the blazing sun.

 

Women wearing burkas waiting for test results | Chaman Baluchistan |MSF

Women wearing burkas waiting for test results | Chaman Baluchistan |MSF

 

Some women have travelled across the boarder from Afghanistan to Pakistan [Chaman] to visit the anti natal clinic. Many are into the later stages of pregnancy. It is not uncommon for women to be delivering for the fifteenth time.

 

Mehmood at the anti natal clinic waiting area | Chaman Baluchistan | MSF

Mehmood at the anti natal clinic waiting area | Chaman Baluchistan | MSF

 

Mehmood has been waiting with his mother and grandmother for her test results for several hours. Women are accompanied by family members, usually the mother-in-law and/or husbands siblings.

 

Samiullah waiting patiently in the waiting area outside IPD | Chaman Baluchistan | MSF

Samiullah waiting patiently in the waiting area outside IPD | Chaman Baluchistan | MSF

 

Most of the children I photographed were not running around as expected but sitting patiently with the mothers and grandmothers. Lacking any interest in my presence or camera. I was overwhelmed with a sense of sadness.

 

Baby girl born on the 8th March 2014 | Chaman Baluchistan | MSF

Baby girl born on the 8th March 2014 | Chaman Baluchistan | MSF

 

I’m in Chaman for three days and visit the nursery no less than six times each day. I do not come across visitors or an attendant for this beautiful baby girl.

 

A lady wearing a burka at the window of the pharmacy | Chaman Baluchistan | MSF

A lady wearing a burka at the window of the pharmacy | Chaman Baluchistan | MSF

 

The younger girls are all wearing large shawls but once married then wearing a burka is mandatory. In the few days and many hours that I spent observing these women wearing burkas, I imagined suppressed and timid women to emerge from beneath. But that was not the case. When there were no men then the face cover would be perched at the top of their heads and pink cheeks and sparkling eyes would emerge.

 

Off Roading heading back to Quetta via the old route. Used when the regular route is blocked.

Off Roading heading back to Quetta via the old route. Used when the regular route is blocked.

 

 

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Ready! Steady… DMJ!

Bibi Naz's baby boy | 3 Days Old | Medecins Sans Frontieres | Dera Murad Jamali

Bibi Naz’s baby boy | 3 Days Old | Medecins Sans Frontieres | Dera Murad Jamali

 

Backpack check! Equipment – check!

First destination Sukkar. All set, double checked everything and ready to go. We left for the office where I was meeting my companions on the first leg of the journey – Islamabad to Sukkar.  It started to rain, absolutley pour down, which I like to think of as a good sign – cleansed and fresh!

We were  dropped off outside the entrance of the airport and I was already bubbling with excitement and feeling like an epic explorer off to make new discoveries. Although this was nothing of the sort! With a brand new NorthFace backpack in tow, who could blame me?

The flight to Sukkar would have been quite uneventful had it not been for the chap sitting next to me. His first response to seeing me (in the window seat) to the air steward was “ladies beyte howe hain” (there’s a lady sitting there). So the lovely lady steward asked me if I’d like to move. Rushing through my mind as I was overhearing their conversation was “heck no I’m not moving!” I didn’t change seats. Poor chap just had to sit next to me, whilst I read for the entire flight. He then went on to ask me if I was going to Sukkar to take an exam! Thankfully we landed shortly after. Finally I was in Sindh from where we would travel by road and cross over in to Baluchistan, Pakistan’s most isolated province.

We were staying over night at a guest house, which I must say was really nice (no hot water) but no mosquitos either. The team had a late lunch together of two local delicacies – chicken karai and daal marsh. By then we were famished.

The following morning we set off for Dera Murad Jamali in a standard Toyota Hi-Ace with curtains drawn. The highlight of the three hour drive was crossing the provincial border into Baluchistan. Along route we saw many trucks overturned and burnt, our driver told us that these were NATO trucks heading out of Afghanistan towards Karachi.

DMJ! Was I really in Baluchistan? Looking around at the hustle bustle in the bazaar and the streets leading up to the hospital [MSF] it could well have been any place that I’m familiar with in Punjab. Same atmosphere, similar faces – just the head gear was different on a few people, not the majority. Oh and the shalwar [trousers][on men] was significantly baggier and more flamboyant.

 

Taxi stand in Dera Murad Jamali.

Taxi stand in Dera Murad Jamali.

 

So… raring to go we wasted no time and headed off to the hospital facility. My translator beside to help with the many languages I would encounter. Punjabi not one of them – which I speak fluently! But I was assured Urdu would prevail. Sanobar my trusted right hand speaks – Baluchi, Sindhi, Urdu, Siraiki and English. Phew!

As expected my presence was met with apprehension. NO was the resounding decision to be photographed. So time to readjust approach.

Farzana Ahmed looked at me from the corner of her eyes careful not to make eye contact, sitting on a hospital bed with her two malnourished girls [ages 3 and 18 months]. I took a deep breath and took in my surroundings and the atmosphere in the ward [IPD/ITFC]. Then realized Farzana had two more children – Waqar and Farhan. Two healthy beautiful children. I asked Farzana if I could photograph them, she said yes. I snapped a few shots and shared the pictures with the family [on the LCD] and also had the pictures printed courtesy of the project coordinator which we then gave to them the next day. That was my foot in the door. Success!

 

Farzana Ahmed with her two daughters Rizwana and Shazia.

Farzana Ahmed with her daughters Rizwana and Shazia.