Reference : V-P-AF-E-02006
Date : 2012
Country/Region : AFGHANISTAN
Caption : Outskirts of Kabul, marastoon of the Afghan Red Crescent Society. The asylum accomodate many categories of the marginalised: the destitute, the widowed and the insane. Shahnaz is in charge of helping those with mental health problems.
Photographer : DANZIGER, Nick
Confidentiality level : public
Publication restrictions : reserved users only
Copyright : DANZIGER, Nick
Description : RC RC magazine

Issue 1, 2013, p. 6-7

“I couldn’t leave these women”

“I HAD NOTHING,” says Shahnaz of the day not long after her husband disappeared that she first went to live at the marastoon (‘place of assistance’ in Pashto), an asylum for destitute, widowed and mentally challenged women provided by the Afghanistan Red Crescent. “I couldn’t turn to my family, they didn’t have anything to spare, they were living off the land in Nejrab. Like my husband, one of my two brothers disappeared at the same time. With nowhere to go and unable to support myself, I moved to the marastoon, where I lived for five years.”

Today, Shahnaz, at 54, is one of two women at the Kabul marastoon in charge of helping those with mental health problems. There is no task too difficult or too degrading for Shahnaz. She cares for these women and children who have been abandoned or whose parents are imprisoned as if they were her own, cleaning, consoling, cajoling them through their moods, which in the blink of an eye can turn as quickly to violence as to docility.

The workers in Afghanistan’s marastoons (first set up by the government in the 1930s, and then given over to the Afghanistan Red Crescent to run in 1964) are an example of how time-honoured, local systems of protection and assistance have been built up and supported by Movement efforts and investment. Other National Societies have supported the marastoons and, in 1994, the ICRC intervened to rescue people at the Kabul marastoon, when it was the front line in the country’s civil war.

In 2001, while I was working on a story for this magazine, Shahnaz talked about those days, when her daily commute had become a matter of life and death. “I was terrified of the bombing. But I couldn’t leave these women on their own. There would have been no one else to look after them.”

Speaking a few months ago, during my most recent visit, the memories are still fresh. “I would leave my home and cross the city and the front line and barricades that were not far from the marastoon. I knew it was dangerous and I was scared. When I couldn’t leave my children at home, I brought them with me to work. One day Basir, my oldest son, and one of my daughters, 7 at the time, were injured. I was also hit by shrapnel. I still feel pain in my arm and hand when I raise it.’’ Shahnaz even brought orphans and women to her own house when, at one point, the marastoon became unsafe.

Shahnaz’s story is an example of the transformative nature of humanitarian action. Today, she sees herself as one of the fortunate ones, able to work and make a difference in the lives of others during a time of relative peace. “I am a lucky mother, my children are all happily married, the orphaned children I looked after have been adopted… I have a good life that makes me think I am a very successful woman.”

Author: Nick Danziger
Original material : digital
Resolution : 4032x3024
Orientation : landscape
Colour/B&W : colour