What You Need to Know about This Group’s Work in Afghanistan

Relief InternationalSince Relief International (RI) began working in Afghanistan in 2001, the organization has placed a major emphasis on building strong partnerships with local communities and on earning respect and acceptance in order to ensure the safety and sustainability of its work. Over the years, the scope of RI’s activities has grown considerably, but even though the organization now works in a wide range of areas—from health and education to governance and civil society—the goal of mobilizing, empowering, and supporting individual communities remains at the heart of its mission. To learn more about how RI is helping Afghan communities with both short-term relief efforts and long-term development projects, read on for an overview of four RI programs from the organization’s past and present.

Improving animal health

Roughly 23 million Afghans live in rural areas, and at least three-quarters of these rely on their livestock to provide them with food and income. But after years of conflict, essentials like adequate animal feed and veterinary services are no longer readily available, thus putting not only the health of the animals at risk, but also the livelihoods of the families that depend upon them.

Together with the international rural development organization Mission d’Aide au Développement des Economies Rurales (MADERA) and supported by funding from the EU, Relief International is working in some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable and volatile rural districts to re-establish reliable veterinary care and to educate and train farmers and livestock owners in animal husbandry best practices. By helping communities to improve shelter conditions and nutrition for their livestock, boosting the quality and availability of animal health services, and strengthening ties between public and private animal health sectors, RI is aiming to expand livestock production and increase animal productivity, which in turn have the potential to significantly improve the livelihoods of rural farmers.

Preventing zoonotic diseases

AfghanistanAnimal health in Afghanistan does not only affect the livelihoods of many rural families in Afghanistan, it also impacts these families’ own health. Afghanistan has a small but robust population—about 2.4 million people—of nomadic families and communities who travel with their livestock; these unique living conditions make these individuals particularly susceptible to zoonoses, which are diseases that animals and humans can transmit to each other. Zoonotic diseases pose a significant health risk, which is exacerbated by a general lack of knowledge about animal health, as well as a dearth of government support services in this area.

Under the umbrella of its One Health Asia Program, Relief International works with Afghanistan’s ministries of health, livestock, education, and environment to develop community education and support programs for animal vaccination and zoonotic disease awareness. Educating susceptible populations enables them to better recognize early signs of infection and seek the necessary treatment, while supporting animal health care and vaccinations minimizes the threat of zoonotic disease at the source. According to officials in the Afghan government, RI is the only organization directly involved in fighting the spread of zoonotic disease.

Alleviating cold and hunger in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces

Residents of eastern Afghanistan are all too familiar with the effects of the region’s long, harsh winters: fewer jobs, higher prices for household essentials like wheat and fuel, and more precarious conditions for families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Drawing on its strong relationships created over the years with some of Afghanistan’s most remote communities, Relief International helped support thousands of families in Kunar province through the winter of 2017 by connecting them with a cash program funded by the World Bank and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs & Disabled. With RI helping direct the assistance to cases of the greatest need—typically families with children under the age of 5—the program provided financial support to nearly 2,600 families in 76 of Kunar province’s communities. As a result, more families were able to stave off childhood malnutrition and could afford to send their children to school rather than requiring them to work in order to help out the family.

School construction

afghanistan educationOf the many barriers to education that children and youth in Afghanistan experience, a severe shortage of proper education infrastructure is one of the biggest. With so many schools destroyed by conflict, many remaining education buildings in Afghanistan had to operate in shifts in order to be able to accommodate more students. In other cases, students had to attend classes in dilapidated or dangerous buildings, in tents, or simply in the open air: environments that are hardly conducive to learning.

One of Relief International’s earliest projects in Afghanistan was the construction of three new schools in the Nijrab district of Kapisa province in the country’s northeast. Featuring 60 classrooms, the new facilities offer approximately 2,500 schoolchildren a safe and secure place to learn.

What You Need to Know about Traditional Islamic Gardens

For well over a thousand years, gardens have occupied a special place in Islamic culture. Viewed as an earthly symbol of paradise, Islamic gardens can trace their origins as far back as the 7th century, when Persian gardens were established. Today, beautiful examples of historic Islamic gardens can be found throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, including the gardens of the Taj Mahal in India and the Alhambra palace in southern Spain.

In Afghanistan, the most famous example of a traditional Islamic garden is Bagh-e Babur, or “Babur’s Gardens”. The beautifully restored gardens in the heart of Kabul were originally designed and created by the Mughal emperor Babur approximately 500 years ago. Following a long period of neglect and disrepair, a comprehensive restoration of the gardens was launched in 2002 with the support of the Aga Khan Development Network. Today, Babur offers locals and tourists alike a glimpse of a peaceful and beautiful part of the Islamic cultural heritage.

Like most other traditional Islamic gardens, Bagh-e Babur carefully follows the key principles upon which all such gardens are based, incorporating the vital design elements common to Islamic gardens of all sizes. Read on to learn more about how these gardens were designed.

Basic Principles

Islamic gardens are much more than pleasant green spaces. They are sophisticated, living cultural artifacts that reflect key elements of Islamic tradition and culture. Following are seven important principles on which all Islamic gardens are based.

gardenDiversity—Islamic gardens are unique in that they bring together disparate elements while at the same time celebrating their distinctiveness. In particular, gardens explore and reflect the connection between urban and natural, tangible and symbolic, and physical and metaphysical.

Beauty—In the Islamic culture, beauty is a goal rather than a luxury. Aesthetic considerations are therefore of prime importance in garden design, encompassing everything from the types of plants that are chosen to how the garden structures are decorated.

Conservation—This is an important tenet of Islam. In garden design, it manifests itself in the careful consideration of how water in a garden is used and controlled.

Context—Islamic gardens should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, the gardens’ design should be created in response to the surrounding architecture and planning elements, ensuring that they will fit in harmoniously with their environment.

Individualism—While they are common spaces, Islamic gardens are designed to encourage visitors to have their own individual experiences with and their own responses to the design.

Multi-functionality—The ideal Islamic garden serves many purposes. It should provide food and water for visitors, as well as for the animals and birds that live in it. Its trees and shrubs should not only produce fruit and herbs, but also shade and scent. A range of both active and passive activities should be possible in the garden.

Moderation—Islamic gardens demonstrate restraint and moderation in that they are all about finding a balance between humans and nature.

Design Elements

A number of key design elements are common to all Islamic gardens, regardless of their size and location. They include:

Water—Water is at the heart—both literally and metaphorically—of Islamic gardens. Given that the gardens developed in arid countries and were typically designed by desert dwellers, water assumes an almost sacred importance. Indeed, water is actually a more important part of an Islamic garden than the plants. Many Islamic gardens feature a fountain at the center with four water courses radiating outwards. The water courses are often lined with green or blue tiles that enhance the interplay between water and light.

The number four—Four is an important number in the Islamic culture, representing the four directions and four elements that form the order of the universe. As such, traditional Islamic gardens are laid out in a quadripartite design. That is, they are shaped like a rectangle divided into four parts (the divisions are usually created by the water courses described above). The layout is traditionally referred to as “chahar-bagh,” a term derived from Persian and meaning “four gardens.”

Greenery and shade—The geometric lines of the traditional Islamic garden are softened by greenery, which is planted first and foremost to create shade. Fruit trees are some of the most common plants featured in Islamic gardens, as they not only provide crucial shade, but also nourishment and a pleasant aroma.

Walls and gates—An Islamic garden, much like paradise in the Islamic tradition, is an enclosed space protected by walls and accessible by gates. In physical terms, enclosing a garden serves three main purposes: it helps to keep out the encroaching desert and allows the area within it to be organized and maintained more effectively, it concentrates visitors’ attention on the garden rather than its surroundings, and it designates the garden as a special area separate from its environment.

Spotlight on the Amazing Phototheca Afghanica

Decades of turmoil and conflict have destroyed many elements of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, including the vast majority of historical photographs of the country. Today, a visual record of the time before Afghanistan’s troubles is all but non-existent, leaving the country with very little visual heritage to look back on with pride or to pass on to future generations as a record of the past.

However, not all photographs were lost, and one unique project is working to ensure that those photographs that were saved from destruction are safely preserved and made publicly accessible. Read on to learn more about the Phototheca Afghanica and its work to preserve and restore Afghanistan’s visual heritage.

What is the Phototheca Afghanica?

old photosThe Phototheca Afghanica is a project initiated and maintained by the Swiss Afghanistan Institute (SAI), a politically and religiously neutral institution that has been systematically researching and documenting the history and culture of Afghanistan for more than 35 years.

The image archives of the SAI have served as the primary source of material for the Phototheca Afghanica; these archives contain approximately 50,000 photographs derived mainly from collections that were lodged with the SAI or entrusted to other safe individuals and institutions for protection during Afghanistan’s conflict years. It was a common practice during this time for important cultural artifacts to be hidden or sent out of the country for safekeeping, as objects that remained in the country were at great risk of destruction.

At present, the aim of the Phototheca Afghanica is to make roughly 5,000 historical photographs available for research and accessible to the general public through exhibitions, publications, or online.

Why were so many of Afghanistan’s photographs destroyed?

Afghanistan’s photographs—again, like so many other cultural artifacts—suffered from two waves of destruction. In 1978, pre-revolutionary photographs were destroyed by communist activists attempting to erase what they viewed as the country’s bourgeois past. Then, from the mid-1990s onwards, images depicting living creatures were destroyed as the regime believed them to be blasphemous.

What has the Phototheca Afghanica been doing to preserve photos?

The practical work being carried out by the Phototheca Afghanica is all about ensuring that the photographs are preserved in as good condition as possible, and that it is easy to access and search through the collection of photos. Practical steps to this end include: preparing a comprehensive inventory of existing photographs, including albums, prints, negatives, and glass plates; scanning and digitizing all available material; physically safeguarding the photographs by mounting them in special acid-free paper folders and then storing them in acid-free boxes; compiling individual descriptions of each photograph, including the identification (as far as possible) of the people and places featured and the date of the photo; and assembling searchable databases so that photos can be found based on selected criteria such as photographer, location, etc.

What kinds of photos can be found in the Phototheca Afghanica?

The Phototheca Afghanica has already made a select number of images available online from the following collections:

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880)—Photos from this collection are some of the earliest photos of Afghanistan in existence, as photographic technology was unknown in the country prior to the late 1870s, when it was brought over from Europe. These particular photographs were taken by the British Royal Engineers during the Second Anglo-Afghan War; the aim was to photograph military action on Afghan territory to supplement conventional military documentation of the time.

Souvenirs d’Afghanistan—This intriguing series of photographs was initiated by the Afghan ambassador in Paris in 1924. At this time, the recently independent Afghanistan was a relatively unknown player on the world stage. The ambassador’s intention was to introduce people to his country through a series of photographs depicting Afghanistan as a modern, up-and-coming nation. The collection primarily featured buildings, cars, and bridges, with very few people appearing—and then only members of the royal household dressed in Western apparel.

Why is preserving these photos important?

Photographs provide a vital record unlike any other of a country and its culture. Particularly in a country like Afghanistan, which has seen so much change over the years, photographs stand as an important reminder of a past that has been all but lost. For example, many historic buildings that feature in some of the photographs have since been demolished or destroyed, and the photograph is therefore the only reminder of their existence.

In addition, while preserved photographs have a cultural importance all their own, they can also serve a very practical purpose in helping with the rebuilding of Afghanistan. According to the Phototheca Afghanica, photos from its collections have already been used in the reconstruction of Bagh-e Babur, the famous gardens in the heart of Kabul, as well as the buildings of the Afghan National Museum, the Afghan National Gallery, and some of the oldest parts of the Presidential Palace.