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Afghanistan: in Kabul, a house for the destitute becomes a place of hope for the mentally ill

08-05-2009 Feature

There are very few places in Afghanistan where the mentally sick can find care. ICRC communication coordinator, Jessica Barry, together with a colleague, visited one of them.

   

  ©ICRC/VII/James Nachtwey/v-p-af-e-01454    
 
  This young woman was abandoned by her parents when she was ten years old and left to roam the streets of Kabul. The police picked her up and brought her to the Marastoon, run by the Afghan Red Crescent Society.    
     

It was 52-year-old Najiba who greeted us when we arrived at the do or of the Marastoon, a house for the destitute on the edge of Kabul, which is home to 18 mentally disturbed women and scores of other forlorn adults and orphaned children.

The women under Najiba’s care were out in the garden taking their morning exercise, so she sat us down in a quiet spot in their empty dormitory.

Out in the compound, a woman wailed again and again. A persistent ‘lalala’ accompanied her keening as another inmate walked in circles, loose skirts flapping, singing to some unseen companion.

“There is a girl here,” Najiba said quietly, “whom we call Gul-ma. It means ‘our flower’. We do not know her real name. The police found her wandering the streets six years ago and brought her to the Marastoon. She was mentally sick and had been abandoned by her parents. She was ten years old.”

Even now, according to Najiba, Gul-ma rarely speaks and retreats even deeper into a world of silence when she is sad.

 

" Thirty years ago, during Afghanistan’s communist regime, " Najiba continued, turning the conversation to her own story, " my husband disappeared and never came back. I was left to bring up our four young children alone. It was then that I came to work at the Marastoon. "

 

“Sometimes, the most difficult thing to cope with is the noise at night,” she remarked, as we listened to the toneless cacophony coming from the garden.

“And the best thing?” I asked.

She paused, then smiled: “The best thing is when we can make the women happy. "

I thought about the sacrifices of life, of the people who put themselves on the front line to help others, despite tragedies of their own. Around us, the compound, and the singing, and the white, airy dormitory in which we were sitting, with its view over Kabul to distant mountains, gave food for much thought.

 

 
  ©ICRC/VII/James Nachtwey/V-P-AF-E-01516    
 
  The women in the mental ward of the Kabul marastoon spend much of their time outdoors, where it is sunny and warm. At night they sleep in dormitories that are spacious, and leads onto a wide terrace with a view over the city.    
     

In the 1930s, marastoons – a Pashto word meaning “home for the destitute” – were set up by the Afghan government in the cities of Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar and Kabul. The Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) took them over in 1964 and, 30 years later, as civil war ravaged the Afghan capital, the ICRC stepped in to evacuate the marastoon’s inmates as the frontlines began to encroach on their compound and rockets rained down. The ICRC continued its support for the next decade.

Intended primarily as shelters for the homeless, the marastoons are also refuges for social outcasts and the mentally ill. Despite their regional differences, each one has a common goal: to give the children who live there an education, and the adults a trade, so as to ease their integration back into society when their time comes to leave after a maximum of two years.

But Gul-ma and the other women in the ward for the mentally sick of the Kabul Marastoon will not be going anywhere.

Much has been done in recent years to make the women’s compound a place of comfort and welcome. As the president of the ARCS, who was responsible for many of the improvements, explained in a recent interview, “now the women can live there and die there in dignity”.

Decades of occupation and civil war in Afghanistan have left tens of thousands of physically and mentally disabled people bearing the scars.

Gul-ma is one of the lucky ones. Plucked off the streets and taken to the Marastoon, she at least has somewhere to live and people to care for her. But the help that the marastoons can offer the mentally disturbed is but a drop in the ocean of need.

As conflict escalates once again across Afghanistan’s formidable mountains and dun-coloured plains, Gul-ma and her companions remain protected from the inhumanities of war by their inner solitude. People in the mud-walled villages where the fighting is going on are not so lucky.