Mark O’Donald/U.S. Navy
Culture + Religion /31 Aug 2015
08.31.15

Afghanistan: Normalization of Pain

It happens every time I come to Afghanistan. During my first days I am shocked by the amount of pain and poverty and I go out of my way to give money to the poor and the people on the streets. Even though it relieves me to know that I just gave someone money to buy himself/herself a meal, I realize how temporary that fix is in relation to the underlying problems of poverty. You can’t keep giving people fish — without teaching them how to fish. People in Afghanistan have been given a lot of fish over the past fifteen years, but they were never taught how to fish. That’s why there is so much pain and poverty in this country today.

Foreigners gave Afghans billions of dollars in aid, but the majority of that money left Afghanistan for foreign banks before it arrived in Afghanistan. Corrupt leaders and politicians stole every dollar they could get their hands on and deposited it in foreign banks. Had the world community spent the money building factories and industries in Afghanistan, the people would be much better off today.

Before I proceed, I need to explain the normalization of pain. Although initially the amount of pain and poverty in Afghanistan shocks me, after a few days I’m no longer shocked. In fact, because I see so much misery, it no longer bothers me. I no longer go out of my way to help the poor. I become de-sensitized. Warm feelings toward my fellow human beings begin to dissipate. Pain can become normalized. Pain can be processed and suppressed like all other things and it evaporates even though it’s right in front of you. Pain — even though it’s very visible — can become very invisible.

Every day I spent hours with people from all walks of life: teachers, students, intellectuals, and laborers. Although their backgrounds and life experiences were often dissimilar, they shared the pessimistic view that Afghanistan has traveled beyond the point of repair.

Some say that good things have happened in Afghanistan — an idea that bears some truth. What they mean is that Afghans shouldn’t forget where they came from. They compare the current situation to the era of the Taliban when Afghans were denied every basic right. Now, they are endowed with some rights. The same argument applies to the sphere of economics. The majority of Afghans are much better off. Yes, there’s a lot of poverty but poverty is universal and the Afghans are told to be patient because this situation of terror and panic cannot last forever.

We have stress and misery everywhere, but the kind that is manifested in this country is beyond comprehension. One of the guards at a school where I use the Wi-Fi services works day and night for $100 a month and he feels very lucky to have this job.

What’s amazing is that some very patriotic Afghans who would have never imagined leaving Afghanistan are now thinking of leaving. A doctor who is a relative of mine is considered to be the best heart doctor in this country. He earns about $10,000 a month but is now leaving Afghanistan. A friend who knows this doctor said,” I thought he would never leave this country. Now that he leaves, I realize how dire our situation has become.”

The people of Afghanistan have lost faith and confidence in their government. The government is losing the fight against insurgents not because it doesn’t have enough security forces capable of fighting, but because it doesn’t have the backing of its own people. Today, a BBC article says that only 20 percent of the Afghan people approve of President Ghani’s government. Another recent report, which was prepared by Tolo TV, claims that corruption has increased under the Unity Government. These are not encouraging signs. Ominous dark clouds are gathering over the skies of Afghanistan. I’m afraid the sun cannot break through these clouds…and that is such a tragedy!

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