Afghan Survivor: Not a reality show… just reality

These hills are hard. Hard to get to. Hard to leave. Hard to cultivate. Hard to navigate. Hard to survive.

Written by Kieran McConville

Mountains in Afghanistan

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Welcome to Yawan. High in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, near the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, its steep slopes are sprinkled with tiny villages of rough stone, connected by rocky tracks and winding paths. For six months of the year (sometimes more) there’s no way in or out, except for a grueling, perilous trek on horseback through the snow.

There aren’t many horses here.

Snowy mountains in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province

Life in Yawan is hand to mouth. The ground is barely fertile and the growing season is short. You eat what you grow, and it’s never enough. “We grow wheat, sometimes barley,” says Ahmad. “Most years it’s about enough to last for maybe 6 months, if we’re careful. The rest we have to buy.”

This begs the question: what do you use to buy food?

Man ploughing hillside in Afghanistan

Ahmad* tills the stony earth of Yawan

Nearly every able-bodied man leaves Yawan during the winter, to find work. For years, Iran has been the default destination, migrants seeking out construction or laboring jobs in this neighboring land. But that brings its own challenges. Crossing the frontier can often end badly, and the economy on the other side is under serious pressure due to international sanctions.

Failure to find work means hunger for those waiting at home.

Afghan village

The other option is the military — and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure how hard that can be. Young men enlist in the hope of securing some sort of regular income, but many never come home. Abdar has 3 sons in the military and confides his abiding fear… “Every time I hear a helicopter, I worry they might be bringing home one of my boys in a body bag.”

Afgan man in mountains

Afghan military helicopter

There are virtually no trees here, deforestation having stripped the hillsides bare years ago. As the climate changes, snows and glaciers higher up in the mountains are melting earlier and faster, generating powerful flash floods. With nothing to hold them together, the hills disintegrate and slide downward, sweeping all before them.

Every slope is scarred with gullies and ravines and nearly every community shows the impact. Ghost villages scatter the landscape, battered and smashed by cascading rocks and debris. Cuhofran shows us the remains of his former home, from which his young family had a lucky escape. “We just had to salvage what we could and start again.”

There’s almost nothing left.

A village in Yawan, Afghanistan, which was destroyed by a flash flood in 2014.

The hits just keep on coming.

Despite the seasonal deluge, there are few sources of clean water. Children toil up and down steep gradients to collect heavy containers of water from far-off rivers and streams. Often it’s unclean, and often it makes them sick. There are no health clinics up here. Falling ill with a treatable disease can be fatal for those not strong enough to make the long journey to the health center in the valley below. Many of the children here are chronically malnourished, leaving them weak and poorly prepared to cope with illness.

Afsar and Zulika*

And then there’s women.

Being female in these hills is particularly hard. Culturally, women are restricted mostly to the home, and have little say in their own affairs. Few girls get beyond the early years of elementary school and many never attend at all. A lack of female teachers effectively means that puberty will put a stop to a girl’s education. There is little or no opportunity for women to work or generate income. And during the winter, when the men are gone, it is the women who carry the burden of survival for their family.

Rural home in Afghanistan

Needless to say, there is no electricity in the remote villages of Yawan. During the long winters, families burn animal dung in a feeble attempt to heat their homes. Remember, there is no wood here. The dung could help to make the fields more fertile for crops, but given the options of either freezing to death or fertilizing the land, it’s not hard to see which one wins out.

Afghan donkey and child

And yet the people of Yawan survive. Barely.

These folks are unbelievably tough. Their families have lived here for generations and seen many challenges come and go — instability has become part of the fabric of everyday life. But it’s getting harder and harder every year. To a large extent, this is a forgotten place. The international community is busy elsewhere. “There are very few organizations working here,” according to Gerry Ganaba of Concern Worldwide, which works on erosion prevention and water provision among other projects. “The people we work with are thankful for what they get, but in some places we are the only one providing any kind of a lifeline… and it’s really hard to get funding for our work.”

Afghan man closeup

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All photographs by Kieran McConville, except “Yawan in winter” by Peter Wilson.

*Names changed for security reasons

The Road to Yawan

For those trying to assist the people of Yawan, the first challenge is… getting there.