Charles Byamugisha was the IFRC field delegate for Kandahar and Herat regions until Sept. 2001
By Patrick Luganda
Disaster does not respect colour, creed or race. When God looks the other way, disasters pile one on top of the other. Take Afghanistan for instance. For 20 years, the people have witnessed war at various levels of intensity.
Three years ago, the heavens dried up and a drought visited. Like the uninvited guest the drought has extended its stay. Then, the events of September 11, 2001 in far away America happened. Soon, the worldâ€™s mightiest guns zeroed in on the devastated country. The bombs rained from the skies, wrecking havoc.
In the midst of all the mayhem, the urgent delivery of assistance is crucial. In the run-up to the climax, a Ugandan delegate was in the heat of the action, on duty with the International Federation of the Red Cross.
â€œWhen a vacancy was advertised, I applied to work in Afghanistan. It was my first international assignment and I wanted to begin in a really hardship area. I wanted to face the challenges. My parent organisation â€“ the Uganda Red Cross supported my application,â€ says Charles Byamugisha.
In March 2000, he bade his wife Alice farewell. His three children Victor 12, Simon 7 and Barbara 5, waved as he disappeared into the interior of the terminal building at Entebbe International Airport.
He arrived at Peshawar in Pakistan ready to face the hardships. There are internal International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) flights but he opted to travel by road through Kabul to his posting at Kandahar. At the end of the 1200 kilometre trek, he was down with backache for four days. Thereafter, he zealously took up his duties.
â€œI was the field delegate in charge of Kandahar and Herat regions. My job was to coordinate relief and strengthen the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society. Our priorities included the improvement of the overall health of the population and strengthen efficiency and building disaster preparedness and response systems,â€ says Byamugisha.
Winters are really cold. Summers are really hot. Sandwiched between the hot and cold waves, the people collapse and die.
â€œIt is a mixture of war and natural disasters. In the winter of last year, over 100 elderly people and children died in one night alone. In the summer, temperatures can be as high as 54 degrees centigrade. It is remarkable how the people are able to sustain their lives in such harsh conditions,â€ says Byamugisha.
It is a shattered environment. Bridges, buildings, roads are in tatters. Concrete electric poles lean dangerously especially in Kabul. But in this incredulous environment, life continues.
â€œMalnutrition levels are very high especially in the camps. By October when the cold begins, people start moving from the provinces to the camps to run away from the cold winter and drought. Some areas cannot be reached in the winter. Boreholes sank at the camps provide much needed water to the people,â€ says Byamugisha.
Food handouts dominate the activities of the aid agencies. Temporary shelter and medical supplies are crucial. The longer-term objective is to build a health delivery system that works.
â€œOur aim was to build an integrated health delivery system. The IFRC supported 48 health clinics countrywide with seven clinics in Kandahar and Herat,â€ says Byamugisha.
Harsh weather and war were not punishment enough. To add insult to injury, in came the Taliban regime whose harshness competed favourably with the obtaining calamities. Byamugisha is apolitical and will not dare talk about politics.
But he describes the Afghan people as jolly, despite the unbearable living conditions.
â€œThey are very hospitable people. They are very friendly and feel offended if you declined a cup of tea. However, for the time I was there, I never spoke to a woman or even saw the face of one. Only females working with the various NGOs were allowed to speak or attend to them. We were very cautious. There was no music, no discos and no films,â€ recalls Byamugisha.
Despite the difficulties, food was available in the city markets. Crops are grown using irrigation.
â€œBread is available everywhere. Watermelons, tomatoes, rice and fruit are available. There is plenty of mutton, beef and camel meat. We would organise and send for tinned food from Pakistan at regular intervals,â€ recounts Byamugisha.
After the completion of a year of service he was requested to stay on for another six months. He gladly accepted.
â€œI felt attached to my service to the people in Afghanistan. I am ready to be of service to any country faced with disaster. It is an obligation that I feel committed to. I missed my family but my wife was very supportive. She sent me cards regularly,â€ says a smiling Byamugisha.
Charles Byamugisha started as a volunteer with the Uganda Red Cross in 1982.
â€œI was not paid but I derived great satisfaction in helping those in need. I joined as a full time worker with the Red Cross in 1986. I served in Kabale, West Nile, Kasese, Bundibugyo and later the headquarters mainly with relief and disaster. I went for a basic training course in Nairobi to prepare me for international service in 1999,â€ he says.
Byamugisha went to Kizinga Primary School and Kihanga secondary school in Kabale before joining Makerere High School.
He holds a diploma in Social Work from the Makerere Institute for Social Development.
The kind, quiet spoken Byamugisha stands tall and proud.
He has fond memories of the desert country he served until September 2001, a little before the bombs started pounding Afghanistan.
â€œI assume most of the people I knew are still alive. I have a feeling of going back. I feel touched to hear what happened to that country,â€ he says on a sad note.
Byamugisha is proud to be counted among the few ready to risk their lives to serve humanity, all the time.
Eighteen months in Afghanistan and Byamugisha would go back