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Afghanistan: in a quiet corner, the laundry ladies of Mirwais hospital go about their work

28-09-2009 Feature

It would be easy to overlook the contribution of the women in the laundry room and tailoring workshop to the running of southern Afghanistan’s largest hospital in Kandahar. Yet without them, it would grind to a halt. The ICRC's Jessica Barry talks about their trials, strength and courage.


  © ICRC/J. Barry    
  "We are the heads of our families" says Jamila, a mother of eight.    
    In the rush and bustle of the 350-bed Mirwais regional hospital -- the largest in southern Afghanistan -- it would be easy to overlook the contribution that the women in the laundry room and tailoring workshop make to the running of the place. Without them, the hospital would arguably grind to a halt, for it is they, who, amongst other tas ks, wash and iron the bed linen, make the gauze compresses, and sew the patients'pyjamas and the medics'gowns. 

Mirwais hospital, which is run by the Ministry of Public Health, has been supported by the ICRC for some 15 years. Today, there are over 20 ICRC expatriates and national staff working there. 

During the late 1990s, when the Taliban held sway over almost the whole of Afghanistan, women and children stayed at home. The Mirwais ladies --most of whom are war widows -- had a special dispensation from the authorities that allowed them to work, their jobs being considered, like those of medics, indispensable.

Over the past eight years, however, much within Afghanistan has changed. But for the laundry ladies in Mirwais, life has stood still.

" We are the heads of our families and all the problems fall on our shoulders, " comments Jamila, a mother of eight children.

Some of the women have worked in the hospital for 15 years or more. In those days, water for the laundry had to be fetched from a neighbour's house, and the washing was done by hand. The premises have since been modernised. The ICRC installed new washing machines last year.

For all that their quarters are in a secluded spot, close to the pharmacy, there is little that goes on in the hospital that escapes the ladies'eagle gaze. In the laundry room's steamy interior, there are daily reminders of the conflict raging throughout southern Afghanistan -- surgeons'gowns to wash and sticky blood to be scrubbed off sheets and bedding. Next door in the tailoring workshop, seven women spend hours pleating white gauze into compresses to dress wounds. They prepare thousands daily. When there are mass casualties in the hospital their workload doubles.  
  © ICRC/J. Barry    
  Afghan Gul (Left) and Jamila listen to the conversation while taking a rest from pleating gauze.    

Up in the crowded hospital corridors the war is etched in the creased faces of the elderly doorkeepers. They and the porters and the shuffling sweepers know, perhaps better than anyone, every heart beat of the hospital. From their posts at the entrance to the wards, and in the long corridors, they watch the sick and the dead come and go. They have seen young mothers on their way to the delivery room and have shared their smiles of relief as they swaddle their firstborn. They have suffered with parents whose sick children are beyond hope, and with fighters wounded on the front lines.

 Today, more than ever, the wards are full.  

In their few spare moments, in the secluded tailoring room, the ladies gather for a gossip. Sitting cross legged on the patterned carpet, ch ief tailor Afghan Gul looks thoughtful when asked what she likes to do best when she is at home. " I like sewing, " she says without any hint of irony. " When I have made clothes for all the family, I make little things for the ones not yet born. "

Having been through so much together, including dodging bullets and rockets to get to work during the war, the ladies not surprisingly have drawn close. They visit each other’s houses, and celebrate together on anniversaries and feast days. 

Perhaps it is because they have found solace in each other's company that they can be so strong, talking about life, and dreaming about renewal.

In their quiet way the laundry ladies in Mirwais are an example of all that is good in the human heart -- courageous in the face of danger, compassionate towards others, and caring towards their own. Life may have dealt them a very heavy blow, but it has also taught them how to endure.