DOMINIC MACSORLEY(ON PHONE): I'm off tomorrow morning — I get into Islamabad at 2:30 in the morning, followed by a 10-hour drive...

WILLIAM BRANGHAM, NOW PRODUCER: Dominic MacSorley is leaving his home in Dublin, Ireland, bound for Afghanistan. He works for the Irish humanitarian aid group called Concern Worldwide.

MACSORLEY: I'm not actually that used to packing for cold weather. You sort of get conditioned into thinking that all the problems of the world are associated with hot climates, but anyway, quite clearly, they're not.

BRANGHAM: MacSorley has been turning his life upside down again and again for the last 20 years. Today he's off to what's become his real home — the vast global landscape of devastation and despair and need. His journey begins in this Pakistani refugee camp, where tens of thousands of desperate Afghans are waiting to go home.

MACSORLEY: You can provide them with enough to live on, and enough blankets to keep them warm, but the reality is refugee camps are appalling places. And the longer they stay, the more social problems develop. Nobody has a job here. They're breeding grounds for fights, violence, marriage break ups, whatever. They are supposed to be temporary and they offer a temporary solution. But the real solution for these people is back home.

BRANGHAM: The problem with getting them home is that home has become one of the world's wastelands.

MACSORLEY: We're on the road to Zahd Kumar, which used to be held by the Taliban and it's very close to what was the front line.

MACSORLEY: Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Twenty years of civil war, 10 years of Soviet domination, seven years of repressive Taliban rule, further compounded by three years of drought. The history of Afghanistan did not start with the bombing of the World Trade Center. The history and the responsibility for the international community began two decades ago.

BRANGHAM: MacSorley and his team are heading to their main base of operations deep in the northeast of Afghanistan. Successive earthquakes and droughts have made this one of the poorest regions in the country.

MACSORLEY: Of all the priorities that we're currently facing, food is the key at present. And we are running against time in terms of our scheduling to try and get enough food to people who need it. That's not even prior to winter. We're already deep into the winter. There's a car that's stuck in the mud. And there's absolutely no way that we're gonna be able to pass until they get out. We may not get to where we're going before nightfall. You can imagine the problems that we have when we're transporting trucks of food. And we have 11,000 tons of food to distribute in trucks throughout this country over the next two or three weeks. But we better get moving. One of the things you get asked a lot is, "Why do you do this kind of work?" I mean I grew up in Belfast in the '60s and '70s. And like many people, my intention was to get out of Belfast and get away from the troubles.

BRANGHAM: What he thought would be a short break from practicing law has become a twenty-year odyssey from one world crisis to the next.

MACSORLEY: And when you start to look back, in essence, what I was trying to escape from in Belfast was a community that was dominated by conflict. And I thought I was escaping to something different. The reality is, I ended up or was even subconsciously attracted to working within similar environments.

BRANGHAM: Back on the road, the afternoon's rains have now turned to snow. Come morning, MacSorley fears the continuing snow means further delays.

MACSORLEY: I'm not sure we're gonna be able to get out, you know, the roads aren't clearly marked. And when the snow falls, the drivers can't follow the tracks. And you can end up going off into mine fields or whatever. So. We'll see. It's wintertime.

BRANGHAM: Navigating Afghanistan's winter roads is always a challenge. This thirty-mile trip will take five hours. But once they arrive in Zahd Kumar, they find hundreds whose journey has been far more arduous.

MACSORLEY: This area has been designated by the UN as acutely food deficit, which means that up to 80 percent of the population are in need of food assistance. And this is what's happening today — people who have been registered in the villages are coming in, some of them walking up to 7-10 hours. Six hundred eighty families today will receive food, which is an essential lifeline to keep these villagers alive.

BRANGHAM: Concern is a secular organization. They've been working steadily in Afghanistan since the earthquakes of 1998. The American bombing forced MacSorley to evacuate his team immediately. Getting them back in would prove to be much harder.

MACSORLEY: It's rather ironic that the visas that were being issued to the journalists, they were getting them within a matter of hours. Whereas the aid agencies had to queue up and follow the usual procedure which was actually two weeks. It's a bizarre situation where you have journalists in photographing the acute needs of the population where the aid agencies are sidelined. We needed to be there. We should have been the first people on the plane. And we weren't.

BRANGHAM: The bombing has ended, but the desperation clearly continues. The fledgling government taking shape in Kabul might as well be millions of miles away — for this is Northern Alliance territory — local warlords dictate the law.

MACSORLEY: Food is currency in Afghanistan. Food is a political item within a country like this. And if much of your food was being diverted to local commanders, to reengage in a war, these are the moral dilemmas that agencies face on a day-to-day basis.

BRANGHAM: MacSorley told us that in a neighboring region, a local commander seized 30,000 food ration packs for his own people. A nearby refugee camp saw none.

MACSORLEY: The only way an organization can guarantee that their food is not being used politically or militarily is to be there.

COMMANDER ZAHIR (through translator):: He says I am Commander Zahir and I am responsible of this area. Concern helped our poor people a lot and I hope that Concern will continue its cooperation in our area.

MACSORLEY: And were many of the houses destroyed by the fighting in the last couple of months?

COMMANDER ZAHIR (through translator): About 95 or 90% of the houses were destroyed by the fighting between the Northern Alliance and Taliban.

BRANGHAM: Commander Zahir controls the 23 villages in this region. He's a veteran of the recent fighting and today, he's come to meet with MacSorley.

MACSORLEY: Maybe we need the Northern Alliance to come to Ireland. We've had our own problems, similar to Afghanistan.

COMMANDER ZAHIR (through translator): He says that since the Europeans helped us and we are ready to help the Europeans.

MACSORLEY: Concern employees are people who are not just there to kind of hand out biscuits. They have to be diplomats. They have to be manipulators. They have to encourage a man or a commander or forces who have been used to killing people, to turn around and say to them, "Can you help us now build up communities and feed the population?" And this is not easy.

COMMANDER ZAHIR (through translator): We are starting our life from zero. And I hope that the Concern will continue their cooperation and their assistance to our people in this area.

MACSORLEY: Ok, then. Thank you.

BRANGHAM: Before he leaves, the commander wants to show MacSorley a bomb crater left over from America's war on the Taliban.

MACSORLEY: The bombing campaign — it worked. The military strategy was effective. It has now liberated Afghanistan. It has now enabled agencies like Concern to spread their operations out into areas that were completely cut off before.

The fight against terrorism, you know, many people ask you, "Do you support that?" Well, of course, you do. It is a just cause. But, that being said, at the end of the day, poverty and terrorism are so inextricably linked. And an absence of human rights, an absence of health care, an absence of education becomes a breeding ground for the terrorists of tomorrow.

We come from our own history in Ireland of repression, famine, civil conflict. And it is something that is built into the character of the Irish people. And we have developed what I think is a practical approach to how we live our lives within that. What is achievable. You can do a huge amount within any of these communities, be it in Northern Ireland or be it wherever, at grass roots level.

BRANGHAM: Here in Rustaq, there isn't enough food for everyone who's hungry. Village elders were asked to identify those people in their own communities with the greatest need. Those families are given ID cards that they'll then use to get food and supplies.

MACSORLEY: Many of them are unable to read or write, so everybody just stamps their thumb. Just making sure that we haven't missed anyone because sometimes people can't make it because of the weather, but today is a better day and it looks like everybody showed up.

MACSORLEY: It's absolutely fantastic to see families coming down here to collect very essential items for them to go back and start rebuilding their lives. And this is where satisfaction comes that we're actually reaching people in need. But we shouldn't delude ourselves. The people that are coming to these food distribution centers are the people who have the strength to either walk or they have a donkey. There are hundreds and thousands of families who we have not yet seen.

BRANGHAM: Many of these towns along Afghanistan's Northern border were the front line for the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Two years of fighting forced most people to abandon their homes.

MACSORLEY: When the fighting ceased two or three months ago, the population came back but largely came back to houses that were destroyed and infrastructure that has been seriously damaged. There are 24 villages, there are probably about 5 or 6 thousand houses have been damaged and become uninhabitable.

BRANGHAM: During the fighting, soldiers stripped these homes of their wooden roofs, doors and windows. One of Concern's rebuilding efforts has been transporting new lumber in from Tajikistan.

MACSORLEY: We have, to date, I believe, helped reconstruct over 2,000 houses and the aim is to construct approximately 5,000 in this area. But as you can see, there's a huge amount of work to be done. And this is only a, really a snap shot of what has been happening in this country for the last two years, in fact, the — the last 10 years.

BRANGHAM: The villagers are now trickling back home, and the severity of their loss quickly becomes apparent. Many Afghan men have died, leaving countless mothers and children to fend for themselves.

BEBE NANDALUM (through translator): I'm a widow. I don't have — I don't have son and I don't have husband. I am living alone with some of my children.

BRANGHAM: Bebe Nandalum is sixty years old. She lost her husband and eldest son during this past year of war.

BEBE NANDALUM (through translator): There was many, many nights we were sleeping hungry. I have nothing. There is no one to look after me.

BRANGHAM: It's a story MacSorley and his people have heard all over this region.

MACSORLEY: Mothers are effectively starving themselves so that their children will have a better opportunity. Women were selling off whatever assets they had to ensure that they could purchase food, that is, selling blankets or selling a quilt or selling their goat, in the clear knowledge that these were the very things that they needed to keep them warm through the winter and to keep the family unit together.

BRANGHAM: Life was hard enough for these women before the Taliban came to power. Seven years later, the war is over, and they're starting new lives. Concern is helping them learn how to make their own living.

MACSORLEY: I notice you don't make burkhas here — is that because you are expecting that women will not be using the burkha in the future?

WOMAN: Actually, in the future, we are trying to have project that provides burkhas.

MACSORLEY: Because you still use the burkha...

WOMAN: Yes, it's our culture.

YOUNG WOMAN: I don't like it, if the government lets me, I will take it out.

WOMAN: Most of the women are not hesitating the burkha. We want permission to work. With burkha, if they allow us to work with burkha, then we are not hesitating.

MACSORLEY: The repression of women has been ingrained, systematic and you will notice even in areas of the Northeast where the Taliban weren't working, women are still continuing to use the burkha. And it will take perhaps 10, 20 years. It's a generational problem. To get women to develop the level of confidence that they need. They have a very very clear and a very strong role to play in the reconstruction of their own country.

BRANGHAM: Concern is just one of hundreds of agencies working with the Afghans to rebuild their country. Four and a half billion dollars in aid has been pledged by international donors. Those who work on the ground know that the real challenge is turning the world's good intentions into the foundation of a new nation.

MACSORLEY: Despite the last 20 years, the people who have survived within Afghanistan have incredibly retained a humanity that you only witness when you actually spend time with them. And I think my experience within Afghanistan has taught me one thing — I have been humbled to a certain extent by the ability of people to retain human values within an extraordinarily inhumane situation.

Dominic MacSorley on Rebuilding Afghanistan

May 3, 2002

Altruism isn’t easily understood. But from time to time, we’re reminded that there are people who do good things even in bad times. NOW presents a story from Afghanistan — a country in ruins, with millions of people homeless and hungry. Producer William Brangham follows the trail of one humanitarian who is trying to make a difference. Irish aid worker Dominic MacSorley traveled to Afghanistan with his group Concern. His purpose: to help rebuild a nation shattered by war, a nation that’s not even his own.

MacSorley tells Brangham: “I think my experience within Afghanistan has taught me one thing — I have been humbled to a certain extent by the ability of people to retain human values within an extraordinarily inhumane situation.”

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