An appeal for the Afghans we know and love

Amid continuing turmoil, a new generation was being nurtured that given peace, education and opportunity could turn their country around. Whatever the changes in power arrangements, it would not be in Afghanistan’s interest to undo the progress made

By Nassrine Azimi, Humaira Kamal and Sharapiya Kakimova
(This article was first published in The Straits Times of Singapore)

We write to plead with all Afghan parties and world leaders, to give this long-suffering nation a chance for survival.

Rallying a coalition of key players to support a transitional power-sharing structure in Afghanistan to avoid the country plunging deeper into civil war and anarchy, while the United Nations can organise a fair election within a reasonable time-frame is in the interest of all.

It is clear that nothing can be gained, for anyone, from Afghanistan becoming a wide open battleground for proxy wars again, risking instability for the entire region — with millions of refugees spilling into neighboring countries.

Whatever the outcome of transitional power negotiations, the Taleban would need to bear in mind that whoever gets the reins of power will have to represent 40 million people. The suffering and silent majority of Afghans, thrust into fear and confusion, deserves peace and stability.

We are told often that the country is hopeless, and that the tribal-minded Afghans will never be able to work together. This is not true. We have spent the last 20 years working in different capacities on a training program for young Afghan professionals from all walks of life, race and tribes, from the civil service, academia to business and NGO communities. We know they can work together.

Hiroshima brought us to this program but it is the love of the Afghans that kept us and tens of other dedicated experts and resource persons — from the US and Canada, China and Russia, Japan and Singapore, India and Pakistan, Britain, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — engaged these two past decades.


The roots of this fellowship go back to 2001, when we were tasked with designing a training program to distill some of Hiroshima’s post-war experiences. We went to Afghanistan and interviewed many, to see how we could best help rebuild its broken civil service, despite the catastrophic conditions of the country after 30 years of war.

The result was the UNITAR Hiroshima Fellowship for Afghanistan -- a year-long executive training for the country’s professional cadre.

It delivered core skills -- from project design and team-building, to accounting and budgeting, even English and basic computer skills in the early years.

Each team worked with a dedicated group of volunteer mentors, in and outside Afghanistan. Inclusiveness was mandatory -- men and women, Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek or other — were required to (and did) work together. Each cycle concluded with a final workshop in Hiroshima.

Hiroshima’s story of postwar revival greatly affected these trainees, and many would tell us, after visiting the city’s Peace Memorial Museum, or listening to the testimony of A-Bomb survivors : ‘If Hiroshima could revive, then maybe so can we’. Hiroshima’s efforts to forgo hatred in favour of activism -- to forgive but not to forget -- echoed strongly with them.

Our fellowship was a modest and frugal program, but its paced, long-term approach became a strength, working in a country that had lost almost everything.

We tried hard to remember the realities and challenges our Afghan fellows faced daily — the constant political turmoil, the fear of bomb threats and assassinations, the scarce resources or collapsing infrastructure — and adapt.

The fellowship was first and foremost learner-driven, showcasing time and again the Afghan self-awareness of their own needs and optimal solutions. Our fellows were not passive recipients of top-down assistance. Many in fact risked their lives to assist program events.

Their intellectual and personal responsibility for success transformed the dynamics of the program, and we all became part of a single learning community. The fellowship achieved, in a modest way, what international assistance is notoriously poor at creating -- a real sense of national ownership.


We do not claim that our fellowship could solve all of Afghanistan’s problems, but we have seen, first hand, that the country has no lack of talented people. With a modicum of political stability, the young generation can bring change. We have observed, too, how the work started by the fellowship can be transformed, and built-upon: with the help of our alumni and a wide network of pro-bono botanical garden experts we are now helping Afghan universities create botanical gardens, of which none exist in Afghanistan.

There are many who point to a lack of progress in Afghanistan after the past two decades. We understand their frustrations, but to forget where Afghanistan was in 2001, and to undermine what has been achieved thus far — it is not just self-defeating, it is also inaccurate.

Twenty years ago only some 900,000 boys attended school, today there are more than nine million schoolchildren — 39 per cent of whom are girls. These children are neither government nor Taleban, they are all just Afghan children. With peace, education and opportunity they can turn their country around.

Some 42 per cent of the Afghans are under the age of 14, making it one of the youngest nations in the world. One more generation, and progress can take root. It may still not become Sweden, but it can become Vietnam.

The Afghans touched our lives deeply. They inspired the mentors and their Hiroshima hosts with their dignity, their resilience and warmth, their love of learning and wide-eyed admiration for the discipline and technological prowess of Japan.

We relished and laughed at the way they would find a joke for every daunting occasion, or sing and recite poetry at every opportunity. Our bonds with them have been sustained over the years not out of pity or mere sympathy, but out of empathy and admiration: we knew they can, and deserve, to have a better life. We too came to believe in their hopes for a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan.

Dr Tetsu Nakamura, a Japanese physician killed in Afghanistan in 2019, worked there for more than 35 years, first as a doctor treating leprosy patients in the country’s most poverty stricken regions, then as a campaigner spearheading agricultural reform. Thanks to his vision, 24 km of irrigation canals were built to bring water to almost 16,000 hectares of farmland in drought-stricken Nangarhar Province, ultimately feeding more than 600,000 Afghans. He never abandoned his Afghan friends.

Like Dr Nakamura many of us too have glimpsed the promise of a different Afghanistan over the years -- we know it is possible, we know there is a kernel of ‘Afghan’ identity, in all the people of that country, longing for a peace commensurate with their rich cultural heritage. We plead with you: please do not abandon peace in Afghanistan.

• Nassrine Azimi is coordinator, Green Legacy Hiroshima, and team leader of the Afghan Fellowship Legacy Projects.
• Humaira Kamal is former program manager for the Afghan Fellowship, and currently coordinator for the Afghan Fellowship Legacy Projects.
• Sharapiya Kakimova is a former staff of UNITAR in Hiroshima and member of the Afghan Fellowship core team.