"I am in grief," the old lady told me through the interpreter after I asked what her problem was. She was squatting on the floor of the classroom we were using as a makeshift clinic. Speaking from under her faded grey burqa, she explained that she had lost all her family to the Taliban. She had watched helplessly as they slaughtered her husband and sons.
It was a story I heard often during my two weeks in Northwest Afghanistan with a team of volunteers from Singapore and Malaysia. It was June 2002, seven months after the Taliban had been driven from power.
Whole villages had been reduced to rubble. Defeated villagers had been made to dig their own graves and killed, for being on the wrong side of the gun, or tribe, or religion, or the interpretation thereof.
Graves outnumbered the houses in some places, most marked only by neatly arranged stones. Here and there, a few graves had a bent pole with white or green tattered squares of cloth fluttering in the biting desert wind. Whether they were memorials for unknown fallen heroes or foes, I couldn't tell.
The wizened lady in grief reminded me of a bent little woman in a burqa I once saw in a documentary about people living in a war zone. She was shown walking past the body of a slain fighter. Suddenly she stopped, walked back and gave the swollen corpse a good kick before going on her way. That, perhaps, was the medicine for her grief.
In the evening of our first day, the local Mujahideen commander, who was also the mullah, brought me by jeep to see a very ill woman. She lay on the porch of her house, curled up under some blankets despite the 40-degree heat. A group of women and children were gathered around the woman's father, who told her story. She had been discharged from the hospital after one week of treatment with no improvement and no diagnosis. She looked like she had leukaemia or bone marrow failure. I had nothing to offer her except prayer and strong antibiotics for the fever.
As we were leaving, the man of the house asked if I could see another woman, who was crouching, completely covered in her blue burqa, on the porch. "She is grieved," he explained. She had had a baby recently, but it died a few days after birth. Since then she had been "unwell."
There, in front of all the men, women and children, it was impossible to find out more, or do anything beyond a perfunctory check of her heart and abdomen through all her clothes. From what I could see, she was beautiful, perhaps 18 years old. Her big sad eyes spoke eloquently, though she never said a word.
After the examination I hugged her – two women from two different worlds sharing, for a brief moment, the universal language of loss and deep grief.
Several days later, we saw a young woman in another clinic. She told the interpreter she had dard (the local word for pain) all over. This complaint was so common among the patients who flooded the clinics that our Afghani interpreter got fed up with translating it. In the end, he would just say, "Same thing again, lah - dard here, dard there." The interpreter, who was 19, had told us his dream was to apply to the medical school in Kabul, but by the end of an intense week with us, he decided to study engineering instead.
Looking at the young woman's sad face, I asked about her children. She said she had none. She had been married for four years and had never been pregnant. She was grieved. She was the second wife of a 56-year-old man. On hearing this, the interpreter promptly proclaimed: "It is the husband's problem. He has no energy."
His spot diagnosis was the same as mine. Under the circumstances, where there was no place for any detailed examination, one could only hug her and pray with her for Allah to have mercy. My assurance that "God is good" was a salve for her grief until she conceives, insyaallah, God willing.
Later I saw a mother of seven boys. "She was grieved, and lost a lot of weight during the Taliban regime," her husband said. She was a university graduate, a teacher who was forced to stop working during those ten years. They had to share a small house with three other families because they had no money.
Her two oldest sons were studying at universities in Turkey. The third son had left for Pakistan at the age of 17 with friends to take entry and scholarship examinations for a Turkish university. For reasons unknown, the Taliban stopped them from sitting for the exams. Not daring to return to Afghanistan, they fled to Iran. The son lived there for two years as an illegal immigrant, facing much hardship. The mother, not knowing if he was alive or dead, was deeply grieved.
After the fall of the Taliban, she returned to work. Her husband was given quarters at the company where he worked. Her third son had finally returned home a few weeks earlier. His hands were calloused from doing hard labour in Iran. When he talked to me about his "lost years," his eyes filmed over. You could sense his deep pain. But he had an irrepressible hopefulness and an indomitable spirit that was determined to succeed, no matter what happened.
Perhaps this enduring resilience and inexorable hopefulness is the secret of the unconquerable Afghani spirit and the lasting medicine for the grief of Afghanistan.