Kabul, the children's nuns who refuse to leave
by Chiara Zappa

As international forces withdraw from the country, two nuns who run a centre for children with disabilities speak out: "Violence is on the rise and people are living in poverty. We are worried about the future, but we will step up our commitment". The role of women and young people.

Kabul (AsiaNews) - "Violence is the rule of law in Afghanistan and the situation is getting worse every day". This is the dramatic testimony of Sister Shahnaz Bhatti, a Pakistani nun who has been in the Afghan capital for several years. Two decades after the start of the US-led mission that was supposed to bring peace and democracy, "blood flows in the streets as if it were water".

On 11 September, the last US soldiers will leave the country: the agreement signed last year in Doha by Washington and the Taliban envisaged the withdrawal of foreign military forces in exchange for a halt to terrorist attacks; the Afghan Islamist militants had also pledged not to give refuge to jihadist formations such as al-Qaeda. On the contrary, there are daily reports of bombs and murders targeting officials, journalists, lawyers, but also health workers, students and, above all, schoolgirls.

"In addition to violence, it is poverty that strikes the people: unemployment is sky-high and many people are forced to beg for a living” the 45-year-old nun tells us in an interview published in the next Italian issue of Mondo e Missione. 

 The Sister of Charity of St Joan Antida works at the day centre for mentally disabled children that was set up thanks to the efforts of the Pro Bambini di Kabul (Pbk) association, an organisation founded in response to the appeal to "save Afghan children" launched by John Paul II in his Christmas speech in 2001, tells us.

It is the only school of its kind in the whole of Afghanistan; together with St Shahnaz, it is run by Sr Teresia Crasta, 50, an Indian from the Institute of the Child Mary, in the country since 2018 and the current director of the facility.

The Pbk Centre takes in 50 children between the ages of six and 12 with developmental delays, including some with Down syndrome. "Our aim is to develop their potential and, when possible, to allow them to be included in the education system," explains Sr Teresia.

"These children belong to very poor families, who do not have the means to take care of them. In Afghanistan, children are often traumatised in the womb and it is not uncommon for them to be born with problems, malformations or some form of disability".

The pupils come from neighbourhoods "where not a day goes by without an explosion, “says Sr. Shahnaz. "Despite the risks, we chose not to settle in the safer green zone because we wanted to live among ordinary people".

The teachers and staff at the school, which is free of charge and includes lunch for the children, are all Afghans. "The coronavirus pandemic imposed some periods of closure, but we have never stopped assisting our children and the neediest families in the neighbourhood through support for food, clothes, school books, medicine and hygiene materials".

For years, international organisations have supported these interventions with their donations, but now "we are being left on our own", explains the nun.

The nuns do not see an improvement in the condition of women: "As far as the condition of women is concerned, it is true that today girls can go to school, but not in the areas controlled by the Taliban, not to mention that even in the city in recent times schoolgirls have become a privileged target of attacks".

Yet 'women already are and want to become an increasingly active part of society, especially the younger ones, who could contribute to the growth of the country, as well as many Afghan young people full of good will and resources'. Pbk has launched a scholarship programme for some of them.

But the political scenario looks bleak. The possibility of a Taliban-led government frightens those who have worked for a more liberal and democratic society. And there is a risk of a new civil conflict. "We are very worried", admit the two nuns, who are nevertheless aiming to strengthen their commitment: from the new school year, the number of students will be increased to 60.

Just as others leave Afghanistan, a new sister will be arriving at the PKK centre in the next few weeks. "We live day by day, with serenity. As St Francis said, we preach the Gospel without using words. Outside our home we cannot profess our faith, but everyone knows that we are Christians, they respect us and appreciate the way we welcome anyone in need. We have many friends here and for the rest we rely on God".