Photo/IllutrationTeachers in the back observe an outdoor class, supported by Japan International Volunteer Center (JVC), held in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan in June 2013. (Provided by JVC)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

ISLAMABAD--Ajmal Khuram could only watch helplessly while his infant son’s health rapidly deteriorated.

Hospitals in the area in eastern Afghanistan were packed with casualties from a suicide bomb attack, and the 6-month-old could not receive proper medical treatment for his illness.

“My son died in my arms,” Ajmal, 32, said. “But the loss of my son has given me more courage.”

The bravery of Ajmal and other locals has been key to the continued work of Japanese nongovernmental organizations struggling to improve lives in the war-ravaged country.

Fewer NGOs are operating in Afghanistan as the threats of terrorism, shootings and kidnappings have increased while funding is drying up. Those that have remained rely heavily on the expert knowledge and connections of local members, such as Ajmal, for survival.

In an agricultural area of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, a bearded teacher pointed to the blackboard of an outdoor classroom on the edge of the school garden.

“What is this?” he asked, prompting the students to raise their hands.

“Yes, it’s ‘nuqta’ (punctuation),” a student said. For the next symbol on the blackboard, another student said, “‘Koma’ (comma).”

This Pashto language class was intended not only for children; teachers from other schools also showed up and took notes to improve their educational skills.

The Japan International Volunteer Center (JVC) started this support project based on Japan’s classroom observation system in which parents can watch their children’s classes. The JVC support project, however, allows teachers to watch other educators’ teaching methods and how they manage their classes.

The literacy rate here is about 35 percent, one of the lowest in the world.

Many boys in the area work to help out their impoverished families, while many parents do not allow their daughters to attend school because of strict conservative customs and fears for their safety.

Ajmal plays a role of encouraging village elders to promote such projects. His local connections are like a “lifeline” for the NGOs’ aid projects because many armed groups regard foreign workers as enemies.

He himself also feels under threat.

But two years since his son, Mahdi, died, Ajmal remains determined to help.

“I strongly believe we should never give up and must continue to educate Afghan children and adults because education helps families set up the basics for daily life and security,” Ajmal said.

JVC will open classes for people in the community this summer by using teaching materials for practical purposes, such as balancing household budgets and creating invitation cards. Around 250 people from five villages plan to attend the classes.

Other Japanese NGOs that remain active in the province also rely on the expertise of locals and others more familiar with the country because it is difficult for Japanese staff members to fly there due to safety concerns.

Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA), which built 39 schools in Nangarhar province and in the capital of Kabul, has been inspecting each project by meeting with local staff members in India or Tajikistan.

Members of Japan Emergency NGO (JEN) who are stationed in Pakistan have dug 11 wells in Nangarhar province, helping to solve the water shortage problem for about 800 households.

In addition, the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR) has taken the initiative to deliver food and solar power devices to 1,215 households in eastern Afghanistan since last year.

Afghan citizens are helping the NGOs by working on the eradication of drugs and guns to create villages free of violence.

JVC member Sabirullah Memlawal, 42, organized a public meeting held in the center of Nangarhar province on March 14, and about 50 village elders, NGO members and others attended.

Rohidar, 54, a religious leader from the province’s Kuz Kunar district, brought up measures aimed at reducing drugs, a source of income for militant groups.

“Preventive results have already emerged by prohibiting poppy cultivation as ‘taboo,’ reporting violations to village authorities, or imposing village fines against the perpetrators,” Rohidar told the gathering.

Another campaign, aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of children, prohibits sales of the weapons, even toys.

But the biggest risk, according to locals, is that young people are becoming attracted to the armed groups.

The unemployment rate among people 24 years old and younger in Afghanistan has reached nearly 30 percent.

Local divisions of the Islamic State terrorist group provide members between 30,000 yen ($275) and 50,000 yen a month, almost double the pay of public officials.

Islamic State also uses its own radio station to spread its message, repeatedly saying, “Don’t allow the intervention of the United States.”

Areas often accidentally hit by U.S bombs are fertile grounds for recruitment by Islamic State.

Aid groups are also targeted by Islamic State and the Taliban.

According to the United Nations, around 7,600 Afghan refugees returned to Nangarhar province from Pakistan each month in 2017 on the urging of the Pakistani government.

About 60 organizations from around the world have entered eastern Afghanistan to provide support, despite the constant dangers.

Nangarhar province is a battleground between three parties--the Afghan military, divisions of Islamic State and the Taliban.

An Islamic State division has controlled areas of the province, particularly in the central part, where it has fired weapons, abducted residents and set fire to schools.

Aid groups and media organizations that have stayed in the region are targets for attacks.

At the end of January, Islamic State militants killed at least six people in an attack on an office of Save the Children, an international NGO.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been working in Afghanistan for more than 30 years, has lost seven staff members since December 2016, forcing the committee to reduce its presence in the country.

According to the United Nations, aid groups were targeted in 388 attacks in Afghanistan in 2017, double the number of the previous year. Twenty-one aid-related workers died and 149 were kidnapped last year.

More than 10 Japanese aid organizations had been working in Afghanistan. Now there are five.

Financial sources are growing scarce for the aid groups.

Although countries have provided money to Middle East or European countries, the funds have been spread out. Total support for Afghanistan was $530 million in 2016, a reduction of around 60 percent from five years ago.