My Bitter-Sweet Memories from Afghanistan

by: Hedy Firouzbakhsh, an Iranian woman working for the Red Cross in Afghanistan

Translated from French by: Shirin Tabibzadeh

Hedy on the right, front row 

Since the revolution of 1979 in Iran, I was really only trying to survive and get by from one day to the next with no hope and aspiration whatsoever. It was indeed nothing but a series of obligations to me. Maybe a quick glimpse into how I volunteered and was accepted to work for the Red Cross will help explain my story.

After obtaining a degree in History of Art and Archeology and having worked in the administrative and secretarial branches of various European and American firms in Belgium, I thought it was time to move on to something else, as I was not learning anything anymore.  On top of that, I thought I wanted so much to discover other bends in my character that I never explored before.

Briefly, with some apprehension, I finally tendered my letter of resignation. I had worked for this employer for a fairly long time and although I was happy to leave, at the same time I had this feeling of insecurity and anxiety of not having a regular income and missing the health and other benefits it provided. Right on the very last day of my employment, a friend called and asked if I could teach Persian to a French woman who had lived in India for a number of years. I could not have hoped for a much better opportunity.

The next day, Claire, the French lady I was to tutor, called me and we arranged to meet for the first time. She already had a good knowledge of Persian.  She had already taken several Persian courses in India and was now trying to prepare herself for her exams.  We had 15 hours of Persian lessons, after which she left for India.  In the meantime, I found a job in an American office.  My boss was a very arrogant and pretentious fellow from Austria.  His values were so contrary to my principles that I could not continue and left after 3 weeks.

Claire called me at the end of May to give me the results of her Persian exams and asked if I had found a job yet.  I said no.  She asked me if I was willing to send an application to the Red Cross (as a translator working in Afghanistan).  She told me to make haste and prepare the necessary documents, my degree, work permit, references, etc, so that she could take them with her to Geneva.  I only had two days. But I was so happy, that I prepared and submitted everything before her departure for Geneva.  When she came back, she called me and told me they were happy to receive my application and did not foresee any problems for my candidacy. 

As a matter of fact, two days later, I had a call from the Red Cross to appear for an interview in Geneva, Switzerland. The interview lasted for an entire day. Three days later, they called and said that I was accepted for the position, and that I had to complete the necessary training as soon as possible, as I would be dispatched to Afghanistan in no time.  I was in heaven!  I had always dreamed of doing public service, or humanitarian work. Now, I was going to Afghanistan, which was also the neighbor to my beloved mother country, Iran. This was more than I had expected.   I had a hard time believing it.  It was simply too good to be true!

I began preparations immediately.  First, I gave a notice to my landlord. Next, I called the office of management of Ixxelles to help me move and store my belongings.  Fortunately, everything went fine, but at the end I felt so distressed.  I spent my last two days in Belgium with my mother. On the day of my departure, my mother, together with my sister Haideh, her husband Ardeshir, and my nephew Ardalan, saw me off at the train station.  I was very sad, but I was simply too overwhelmed to feel anything.   Finally, around midnight, I arrived in Geneva together with my luggage.  It was all so unimaginable!

The next day, I had an appointment with the Red Cross in one of the museums in Geneva to learn a bit of the history!  It was very interesting.  After that, we were transferred to Ecogia  (an ancient orphanage), where for two weeks we received more training, in order to integrate into the mission we were about to join. As soon as we got there, we had dinner in the restaurant and the trainings started right away.   For me, this was the beginning of a New Life I had never experienced before and knew well that I had to cope with. I was curious to test myself and discover my own limits.

At first, I thought the training was very intense and difficult. On top of that, there were different levels of students among our main group of 23, and a smaller group of 6. Nonetheless, the training we were exposed to was enriching and rewarding.  The mountain climbing course in the Alps was extremely difficult for me. I had a hard time breathing, simply because I took the whole thing as serious reality, while others took it as a simulation! So when the doctor came for a briefing, I could not keep myself from bursting into tears. Our team leader, a German girl, very kind and caring, came and talked to me.  I also talked to Nikki, the adorable psychologist who worked there. After these interactions, I felt much better.

We are now on the second week and 8th day of our training.  Last night, we watched a 2.5 hours documentary about Afghanistan.  The documentary gave me the inspiration to write about my experience.  Despite all of the insecurities and the harshness of life in that country, watching the film made me even more determined and enthusiastic about this trip.  Right or wrong, it gave me the feeling that I belonged more to that part of the world than the one I spent the last 23 years of my life in. Now that I am in Afghanistan, I find these people so close to my heart. Their genuine human warmth has touched my heart from the very first day.  Frankly, I am proud to be from this part of the world. I have the feelings of having been reborn!

Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher said, “We are all citizens of the same world.”  This may be true, but I think that at times, one needs to return to his/her roots. We all need to belong and we need to keep this in mind.  I think this is where we find our true nature and cultural essence.  Otherwise, we lose our identity and our humanistic values.  I am happy that I am close to my culture and able to wake-up anew and relive that once again.  I have to learn again to share, to give, to rejoice, and amuse myself--values that I had neglected for years and could not remember how it came so easy to know them at another period of my life.


I haven’t even started yet, but with all the possibilities that the Red Cross is offering, I have this feeling that I am getting something out of this experience already. I feel that many of my dreams and wishes, which had seemed so far away for so long, are going to be realized.  I feel like I am finally reaching my objectives and feel so much more purposeful than I had in my recent past.  Life, I think, with whatever it offers, is a very interesting journey.  Thank you God for giving me such a marvelous opportunity!!  I hope with all my heart to be able to make the most of it.


My plane left Brussels at 12.oo noon to go to Kaboul, via Zurich, Dubai, and Pishawar.  Leaving was very sad, especially leaving my mother, who had cried so hard for days. That gave me a lot of heartache.  I did not know what the future would hold for me.  What would happen to me?  I was truly moving towards an unknown destiny.

We had one stop at Dubai before leaving for Pishawar.  Going from Zurich to Dubai, we also passed above Iran and flew over Rasht, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Shiraz.  I was so excited when we were passing through Iran and my heart was beating so hard.  I wished we could stop right there!!  I was thinking about this revolution that took us all by surprise and had thrown many of us into exile. Why, I wondered, is it that these strangers have occupied and monopolized my country for years upon years?  All of this broke my heart.  Did we deserve this?  Then I consoled myself as I realized that, no matter what, I belong profoundly to this land--and that one day I can return, if I wish to. I should absolutely do that someday, I thought, before I die.

We had 7 hours of delay in Dubai.  During these 7 hours I tried to talk to the Afghans who were also awaiting their flight.  I was curious to know them and to find out if I could understand their language, which I thought I could speak.  All of these changes in my life were just so moving to me, and I felt very gratified by the experience.

When we arrived in Pishawar, I was devastated from all the miseries that one could see just by first glance of the town itself, with its underdeveloped streets and the poverty of the people. They need so much to better their lives.  There were two other people from the Red Cross with me, who so patiently and kindly waited for me to collect my luggage. We were driven to the delegation with a Red Cross car.  We were welcomed and served very nicely at the guest house

There, I met Christoph, another Belgian who was the chief of the delegation of Heratt.  The cook had prepared an excellent dinner.  I was so tired that night that I went to bed early.


The next day the Red Cross plane took us all to Kaboul. Again, the Red Cross greeted us with a warm welcome, as well as with excellent service. Katherine, who welcomed us, received us very hospitably and took us to a meeting that was taking place that day, administered by Pierre Wettach, the chief of the delegation.  They gave us some information about the problems and difficulties of the situation in Afghanistan. He then introduced those who had joined the delegation recently and welcomed me as a new member perhaps because having a woman translator was somewhat primordial.

With Katherine and Andrea, I left the meeting to have lunch. After lunch, they were to show me where I would be living.  This was a two-story house with a garden, where they lived with Sabina, Gerard, and Alain, who were then on a mission out of Kaboul.  In the afternoon, we strolled through “Chicken Street”, the most commercial street of Kaboul.

At the end of the journey, while waiting for the driver to bring us back to the house, I saw two small boys of 12 and 15 years, who were selling magazines.  They would not leave us alone, insisting for us to buy papers from them.  I asked them about their parents and why they were working instead of going to school.  The 12-year old responded that he could read and write a little, but his parents did not have the means to send him to school.  The 15-year old said that he could neither read nor write, that he had lost his parents in the war and was now living with his aunt.  We asked the 12-year old if he could give lessons to the other one, but apparently neither of them were interested, as their only concern was to work in order to survive.


My original feeling about the whole situation had been confirmed by what I could see. Before coming here, I thought I would see a lot of poverty in Afghanistan, but I assumed that the people would never know what miseries they live under and how unfortunate they are, because they don’t have anything else to compare their condition with.  Now that I am here, my feeling remains the same.  I find these people to be very hospitable, generous, modest and charming.  They particularly have such a deep gentleness in their attitude; one that I admire tremendously, given their circumstances.

By seeing all of the children today, I became inspired to perhaps open a school and teach them Farsi--or even adopt one or two children myself!  This was on my second day after I arrived here, so I knew that I was being very emotional!!


My second assumption before coming here was that I would have a lot of difficulty going to the prisons and shelters-that I would find it hard to bring together the families that were separated because of all the turmoil.  But, today, before even starting the real work, I think it is psychologically more feasible for me to do those things!  I also think that you see so much misery and misfortune in the streets that you don’t find it in yourself to hold back and know that you must go on.  I am sure I will be on top of this work in no time!



Today has been indeed the first day of my real work.  They taught us a few things about how to stay safe, and about the mines, telecommunications, press, and so on.  In the afternoon, we had a tour of the city by the driver, a city that has been almost completely destroyed after the war with the Taliban.  I translated the tour for those who did not understand Dari. Next we visited one of the hospitals of Kaboul, by the name of Carthesy.  This hospital belongs to The Red Cross, and apparently they have invested a lot of money into it.

My first impression was, oh my god, what lamentable conditions these people must endure.  In one small room alone, there were sick people crammed everywhere!  Men and women were, of course, kept in separate sections.  We also visited the section where burnt children were kept.  There were also two Iranian women at the hospital, who had immigrated to Afghanistan with their children.  They wanted so much to talk to me when they learned that I was Iranian. 

The women in charge of the section asked me where we came from, and whom did we represent.  When I told her that we work for the Red Cross, she said that they were in urgent and dire need of help.  She began explaining to me what some of their problems were. Yet before she even began her discourse, I could feel the dreadful heat and see the unbearable conditions, under which those poor sick people were being kept, as plenty of evidence.

After the visit, I was so disturbed from what I saw at the hospital today that I cancelled going to the restaurant, as I could simply not eat.  I really hope that somehow the conditions at the hospital can be improved.

Today’s lesson for me has been immense. While I feel such satisfaction in being able to help these poor people a little, I think of those of us who live in comfort and don’t ever realize what a heavenly life we live. And that so many of us think that we are just entitled to have all of the comforts of the good life--without ever stopping to realize what depressing conditions people in some parts of the world live under.

Also today, Jay introduced me to a woman who is trying to organize training for the women about female hygiene and sanitary issues.  She needed a translator and I was happy to help with that. We met later in the day and I was so glad to be working with her, as she is so charming and friendly.



I held the first meeting of my department, meaning the department of prison shelters.  Francoise, who coordinates the meetings of this department, gave me a briefing about the situation of the prisons.  They directed me to my office, where a computer and other supplies were very rapidly organized for my use.

Little by little, I started to know the people that I work with, and gradually began integrating with them.  I also have come to know that there are several among us here who are discontented about working here.  There are those who don’t like the country and the conditions of life here, and those who have had difficulties integrating into the group.  Rumors are going on that this or that person feels very displaced, that he/she is not at all happy to be here, and that they are trying hard to go on--because it is hard for them to renounce everything and leave.  But I prefer not to listen to rumors and would like to draw conclusions based on my own experience.  We will see how I will feel and how I will tolerate these conditions.

On one hand I can understand their reasons of those having difficulty here, but on the other hand I think their discomfort stems from the fact that they have never experienced anything of this harshness in Europe. Working for six months here is equivalent to 6 years, say in Belgium.  I suppose that because I come from a similar culture in Iran and I speak the language, I am better able to assimilate and tolerate more than many of them.


Today I visited the Center for Orthopedics that belongs to the Red Cross, and is managed by Alberto Cairo, who has been living in Afghanistan for the last 12 years.  I had a guided tour of the center and could gather lots of information about it.  It was so great to see this extraordinary investment by CICR, but, at the same time, so terrible to see all of the handicapped people, many with their legs amputated. Among those who worked for the center were also some handicapped individuals.



While going back to my delegation, I saw the little boy who shines shoes (he has become my friend).  He did not feel very well.  He was sick, but he had to work because his parents could not work.  I took him to Alain (our doctor) to treat him.  Alain gave him some medication and I gave him a little money.  After that, they called me Mother Theresa, and told me since I have worked at the shelter I have become the savior of all!!

In the afternoon, I had some training with Katheleene.  It was very good.  The Afghan women who were being trained were very interested and quite cooperative, as they took part in the training with great interest and enthusiasm.



Today my morale was a bit low.  In the past two nights, I’d had terrible nightmares.

This morning, I was talking to my roommate who told me that the next person who will go on R&R (Rest & Rehab) would be Alain, then Gerard and her, and then it would be my turn!! It made me feel very sad.   I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I already feel so tired from being here, despite the fact that my work is interesting and I am living with kind and agreeable people.

I suddenly miss my life in Belgium, despite all the emptiness that I felt in the recent months!  Since I have been here in Afghanistan, I have not been able to call Belgium, and that has been difficult.  I want so much to hear my mother’s voice and that of Ardalan, my little nephew.

Someone asked me today if I could teach Persian to a few people, to which I wholeheartedly agreed. This coming Thursday, August 15th, I am going to start the class.  I asked some of the women at the training center if they had an elementary Persian book to start with.  They said that they would purchase one for me. 

The Afghan women here are so kind and adorable.  But I must say about the language, that the Persian we speak sounds much more beautiful to my ears than Afghan!  One day, an Afghan man who was listening to me speak, kindly told me:  “How is it that we have the same language, but yours sounds so much more shirin (sweet) than ours!!”  I modestly responded that theirs was also very pretty to listen to.



I was at our delegation meeting when Katheleene came looking for me. She wanted me to leave with her, in order to begin the work of delegating the management responsibilities of Kaboul’s hospitals to the Afghan women. We were to give them administrative training. Each time that I have contact with these Afghan women, I find them so very warm, modest, humble, receiving and generous.  I really love them with all my heart.



The course for the hospital training started at 8am.  Everybody was present and was to prepare a report on what they had personally observed.  It was a tiring day, because they all talked together or they all talked at the same time!!  I felt so irritable that day and very emotionally down that afternoon. I was especially very nostalgic for home and I missed my mother. I was able to talk to my father 2 days ago, but the connection to Belgium is still not possible.  I hope things change, because at first I was so happy about things and then felt so unhappy so soon!  Anyways, it is good that this is happening to me, because I have been daydreaming and living with my head in the clouds for too long in my life! Maybe this experience is also helping me to grasp some of the realities of life. 

A few days have already gone bye!  I even talked about my morale to Pascal, who was leaving to go to Chakhcharan.  He told me that it was so normal and that almost everyone will be passing this stage, but that it is good that I talk about it instead of hiding it. He said that I should talk about it and ask any questions if I find it necessary!  He told me that many people superficially pretend to be happy and try to forget their worries. For instance, some always have busy get-togethers where they can hide their true feelings.

My chagrin brought back the memory of the second day after I arrived here.  I met an Italian girl, who seemed very depressed, to whom I had said: “It is a good life here, what else would you want?”  And she responded to me saying: “Everything we do here is only for basic survival, so that we can all go on!”  I thought her points of view were very negative at the time, but now I can sympathize with her, because I feel helpless and somewhat like a prisoner in a golden cage.

Tonight there has been a party for the departure of Katheleen and Jean-Pascal.  Although I did not have any desire to go, I did anyway and had a decent time. 


It was a good occasion to talk a little to Florence on how cold and remote some of the people in the group seemed.  She told me that I should not feel offended, and that many of them had been working so hard and for such a long time here, on various and extremely hard assignments; hence the newcomers, like us, don’t interest them at all!  I hope I feel more comfortable around them soon, nonetheless.



I stayed in my room the entire day to prepare the report on my work with Katheleene.  In the evening, Sabina, my roommate, talked to me and told me that it was not my responsibility to prepare that report.  She also asked me how it was that I didn’t seem to feel at home in the house that they had placed me in.  I told her about my feelings and how hard it was for me to mix up with some of the veteran workers.  I knew she was right that I should try to mingle more, but at the moment it is so hard for me to get used to living under one roof with these people and befriend them.  I hope to God that I change in this respect.



This morning I was in the training room and Katheleen’s replacement was there too.  She told me thereafter that I had done a great job, as I had translated for 5 continuous hours!  In the afternoon, I went to the Intercontinental Hotel with Thierry for an exhibition of Afghan women’s handicraft.  It was very good and I bought myself a nice little bag.



I went to the office and stayed there the entire day.  We had our normal meeting and talked to Romain Bircher (head of the shelters) in Geneva.



I helped a few Afghan women who were preparing themselves for a show, which was supposed to be playing in the afternoon, in front of the delegation. It was an enjoyable day.  I adore those Afghan women who played their roles with such ease and enthusiasm that you thought they were actresses their entire lives, while indeed this was only their first experience!



Aside from routine schedule of the day, I went to Katheleene’s house to see her before her departure.  It was quite an amusing day, as I talked to Romain Bircher, who knew Iran quite well and who liked Iranians. We had fun conversing about the peculiarities of my culture and people!



I started the Persian course for 5 interested students today.



I went to the Intercontinental hotel to see an exposition of a painting from a quite well known Afghan man. Someone needed a translator to buy one of the paintings and I had to negotiate for a good price!  For dinner I was invited to Jean Marc’s house with all the people of the logistic.


My morale was again low today, while my spirit feels depleted. I have been experiencing many ups and downs lately.  I want so much to go back to Belgium, because life is starting to be so monotonous and I already feel void of energy to continue going on like this.  I don’t like the image I am portraying to those around me, some of whom are worried about me when I tell them about how I feel. 

Finally on the 20th I received my luggage that I had shipped before my departure for Afghanistan. It made me even more depressed that I brought so many extraneous things with me. I asked myself what I was really doing here. I felt the same feelings that I had when I left Iran for Belgium, for the first time, to continue my education. It too, was very hard for me, leaving my country and my loved ones. Luckily, I was able to get a good education and finish my studies with success.

This week was a very tough one for me, because I had to go outside of Kaboul with the health department, and the heartbreaking atrocities that I saw in the Afghan people around me were ones I could never have imagined before.  All of these miseries and misfortunes made me so sad and depressed, especially seeing what had happened to the little Afghan children.  I thought, what an injustice!  I was ashamed of how I was living my life before I saw these atrocities.  But when I related my feelings over the phone to my brother Hormoz, who lives in England, he rationalized saying that as long as the world exists certain injustices may exist, and that the best I could do was to offer my help and support where it is needed.

The next day, I did my first work in the prison (sedarat) as a translator.  This too was very heart breaking and shocking to me.  I translated for Pancho, the prison Doctor.  It was interesting work, but also very disturbing to look at all of the prisoners jammed in such a small cell.  There were all kinds of conditions among them: sick ones, ones suffering from malnutrition, and the mentally ill prisoners.



We saw a concert of Afghan music in the Gallery of Arts.  It was very good and I felt so much better after listening to their music.



Today I could talk to my brother in London.  We both cried very hard because I was very depressed today.  In the evening I was invited to Saaid, Ali, Catherine and Andrea’s house.  It was very good.  I talked a lot with Saaid, who has a lot of experience with the Red Cross.  It made me very happy and I laughed a lot because Saaid knew a lot of Iranian jokes!


Will continue………….