Living with the Taliban

It’s called ‘The News Cycle’. It’s that period of time that a story lasts on the front page or top of the TV headlines before being replaced by the next big story.  It’s always been the same, what do they say, tonight’s headline news is tomorrow’s chip paper?

The news cycle seems to have accelerated with the advent of 24 hour rolling news.  You can tell that a story is getting cold as it slips down the running order.  One minute its all live reporting from the scene, maybe an hour later it’s a short update clip before the adverts.

I am no different.  Every week I try to find something new to talk about but this week I can’t move on.  Last week I talked about my meeting with Sian Hawkins, the lady who was working for Church Mission Society in Afghanistan.  Back in 2000 I was chatting to her about possibly visiting her in Herat.  All of that ended abruptly with 911.

Just before I finished writing that piece I managed to contact Sian who is now married and living in the Midlands.  It was on one of my morning runs along the bay I thought I should interview Sian properly.

This is the full podcast

On Thursday evening Sian joined me and Johnny Tudor for ‘The Mal & Johnny Show’. In the past we have interviewed, Max Boyce, Ruth Madoc and Steve Balsamo.  The previous week we talked about the life and work of Welsh comedian Stan Stennett.  We knew this episode would be very different, but it proved to be at times both inspiring and horrifying.  Johnny even made us all burst into laughter.  These are some of the stories from our chat.

The first thing we wanted to know was why Sian had chosen to go to Afghanistan. At the time Sian was a probation officer but she had always felt called to work with people less fortunate and to travel.  She decided to go back to college to see if she could find that purpose and because of her faith attended All Nations Christian College. 

Whilst there she felt a real call from God to go to Afghanistan.  I asked Sian did she mean one of those feelings inside, a silent voice, or did she really hear someone talking.  She told us that during a lecture she was thinking to herself what on earth she could offer the Afghans. Suddenly she heard an audible voice saying, ‘Just go!’ and she nearly fell of her chair.

It was then that Johnny Tudor said that back in the 1970’s he had also once heard a voice asking him to go to Vietnam during that war…. but it turned out to be his agent!! When told that he would be flown in under the radar by helicopter to avoid the heat seeking missiles he said NO!.

Sian working in her office in Peshawar around 2000

But Sian said yes to her voice and after some time in Kabul language learning she ended up in Herat.  Herat is a beautiful ancient city, whose glory they say once matched Florence.  When Sian got there the city was controlled by the Taliban. 

Her mission was to work with the women of Herat on their mental health.  With us all here in Britain having gone through lockdown during the pandemic I said we were all very much aware of our mental health, did these women have similar issues.

It was only when Sian went through the various problems these women had faced that I got a glimpse of the task that faced her. The project had been set up to address the problem of women committing suicide by setting themselves on fire. For many this was the only way out.

When she arrived, Afghanistan had been at war for 25 years following the Soviet Invasion.  The streets of Herat had literally run red with blood.  Much of the burden had fallen on the women.  Many women rarely left their homes without a male chaperone and if there were no male members of the family left going out alone meant they risked harassment from the Taliban even on essential trips to the market.

Add to that young girls being given in marriage to much older men and women living with mother in laws who might treat them cruelly, it all added up to women who were suffering from ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’.

Trips to the market for Sian were essential but fraught with danger.  The intimidation went from being stared at, often at close range, to being touched inappropriately.  Now Sian isn’t the biggest of women but in those instances there was no room to back down.  She would turn on the person who had touched her screaming at them, ‘Did they have no honour?’  She said she would not accept the shame of being touched, she would throw that back at the person who assaulted her. On one occasion a little old Afghan lady who was walking near to Sian also joined in admonishing her attacker.  It would seem that shame and honour and very powerful forces in Afghanistan.

Sian was in the UK on the 11th September 2001 planning a return to Herat. Like many other western aid agencies, she had been forced out of the country.  Within a few months of the Western forces invading Afghanistan Sian was back in Herat.  The Taliban had gone, and people were delighted to experience a new way of life, new freedoms, new foods and shops full of all sorts of treats. 

Sian in her garden in Herat. Trousers, long skirt and long sleeved shirt but no headscarf as she was at home in 2000

But over time things deteriorated.  Even though the Taliban had gone Afghanistan was fundamentally a conservative Muslim country.  Before long the streets had westerners with little understanding of the cultural values of the local people.   Also, while the Taliban had been evicted they hadn’t disappeared completely.  Before long ex-pats became targets for kidnap or murder.  Sian said the word on the street that there was a price of $200,000 on every ex pat’s head.

I wanted to know with all she had seen did she ever question whether God had sent her to the right place.  She said she never doubted the calling, but she questioned whether he had given her enough grace to stay.  Eventually after 6 years she had run out of grace and she returned home.

Sian is now married and is a chaplain at a local hospital.  Through social media she is still in touch with friends in Herat.  How are they I asked?  Sian said they are desperate, feeling abandoned, betrayed and really afraid. Afraid for themselves, afraid for their families, afraid for their country.

When we asked what her abiding memories of the ordinary Afghan people she said they were welcoming, hospitable and kind.  Sian said the men she worked with directly were like brothers or uncles who looked out for her and who she literally trusted with her life.

The story is sure to move on soon, but I hope that we won’t forget the people of Afghanistan.  They will need our prayers help and support for years to come. For the lucky ones who escaped we must welcome them with open arms because I don’t think we can possibly imagine what they have been through and what and who they have left behind.

To view the full podcast please visit www.themalandjohnnyshow.com