By Phil Taylor
Andrew Berry was in Soughdar, a village of mud, dung and straw huts a half-hour drive along the potholed Silk Road from Bamiyan township, when a local woman approached.
Berry, a senior sergeant who works in Manukau at the police’s multi-services abuse centre, was on a six-month deployment to Afghanistan. Part of his job was to support the local police programme aimed at reducing family violence.
With his trusty interpreter, Abbas, Berry was following up an incident where a woman had been struck in the head with a rock during a family dispute.
A local woman, balancing on her head a bundle of sticks she had gathered for firewood, came up to Berry and through Abbas asked, “can you help my son”.
“That in itself was unusual,” recalls Berry. “She was an unaccompanied woman and she was speaking directly to a male she didn’t know.”
To appreciate why that is extraordinary, you need to understand the Afghan notion of “honour” and its importance. A family without honour has nothing and in much of Afghan society any suggestion of intimacy, other than that between husband and wife, is an “honour crime”.
The woman’s name was Rahallah, aged about 30 and the mother of four.
“She had trouble explaining and so she called over Tamim [her 3-year-old son].”
Berry knew nothing about cleft lips or cleft palates and he explained that he was a policeman not a doctor but he would nonetheless look into it.
“Seeing the little boy pulled on the heartstrings,” says Berry. “Plus she had the courage to come and ask a complete stranger for help. The least I could do was make some real honest inquiries.”
From the Bamiyan Hospital administrator, a British expat, Berry learnt the boy was unlikely to reach adulthood. The opening in the mouth, combined with freezing winter temperatures, left those with the condition prone to repeated bouts of pneumonia and eventually respiratory failure. “It was explained to me that that usually happened before the age of 10. That really did energise me to get something done.”
The surgery wasn’t available at the local hospital. There was a remote possibility the Red Cross would fly a surgeon in or the boy could be referred to the free hospital in Kabul. The problem with the latter was it wasn’t really free at all. A backhander would be required for the surgeon but as Tamim’s family were subsistence dwellers, they had nothing to give except …
“It was put to me that they could give away their youngest daughter,” says Berry, quite likely to a life as an unpaid domestic helper.
That left the option of Berry raising the money ($5000) for the operation to be done at the French Medical Institute in Kabul.
Berry emailed friends and family back home and 10 days after Rahallah approached him, Berry was able to tell her he had the money (half from his contacts in New Zealand, half from Berry himself) and the local hospital would make the referral.
That day was Saturday, June 13, 2009, and in his diary Berry wrote that it was his “happiest and saddest day in Afghanistan”. Rahallah was delighted with the news. She asked Berry to come to her house to see her husband, Nadar, who she said had a rash.
“Nadar had a tumour the size of a watermelon on the right side of his chest.”
Despite the tumour having been prominent for two years, Nadar had not made the short trip to the local hospital. “He was, basically, slowly dying in his little mud-brick house in the middle of Afghanistan.”
Tamim and his father were loaded into an armoured truck and taken at snail’s pace to hospital. “Every bump, this mass would move around. It was harrowing. We would have to stop for him to be sick.”
Verdict, cancer. Nothing could be done. Doctors hadn’t explained the consequence and once home, Nadar asked Berry that question. “I’d never told someone they were going to die before but I told him that from what the doctors had told me, ‘yes, he was dying’. He thanked me and Allah for what I was doing for his son and laid back down on his bed.”
The family had already endured much. Rahallah’s mother was shot dead by the Taleban and Nadar was jailed and tortured. They are Hazara Shiite, a majority in Bamiyan province but a minority in Afghanistan, and an enemy of the mostly Sunni Moslem Taleban.
Tamim’s operation was scheduled for one week’s time. Berry hired a car and driver to take the family – including Nadar, who was to attend another hospital to see if anything could be done for him – on a 36-hour journey to Kabul.
Berry was to pay the French hospital directly for Tamim’s operation but gave Nadar’s brother US$500 ($700) cash to pay for the trip.
On the day of the operation, Berry got a message that the family were back in the village and the operation had not gone ahead. Berry hurried to the village to find out why.
Having been told by a Kabul hospital doctor that his tumour was almost certainly cancerous and nothing could be done, Nadar and his brother had gone to a faith healer, to whom they paid most of the cash.
Without money for accommodation, the family returned home, stopping to spend US$60 on opium, which Nadar chewed raw as a painkiller.
Berry managed to organise another operation date for Tamim. Work commitments meant he was elsewhere in the province but his interpreter, Abbas, went with the family and texted Berry progress reports.
“It was a relatively simple operation but one that saved his life.”
Seeing Tamim back home with his deformity fixed was an emotional moment. “He came running over when I arrived and gave me a hug and a high-five.”
Before he returned to New Zealand, Berry also ensured that the villagers of Soughdar had clean water. Its well had caved in and villagers were drawing water from a roadside ditch. A contractor redrilled the well, lined it with concrete hoops and installed a pump.
“At a cost of $800 to provide 600 people with clean water, New Zealand has had a tremendous effect on that village,” says Berry, a recipient in 2006 of the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award.
His last personal mission was securing Tamim and his brother and sisters (aged 18 months to 6 years) places in a well-run orphanage.
Nadar died a month after his son’s operation and the family dwelling and small plot passed to his brother. “He got all of the assets and none of the liabilities,” notes Berry.
To secure her future Rahallah needed to remarry but couldn’t bring her children to the new marriage.
Berry came to regard this last task as his legacy plan to secure the childrens’ future but worried his term would be up before he could achieve it.
As it was, three days before he flew home to be reunited with wife, Donna, and son, Nicholas, 6, Berry was informed that the children had arrived safely at Samar Orphanage.
On the day Rahallah signed with an inky thumbprint the necessary papers, Berry wrote in his diary:
“I was shocked that she had handed over her kids and was not likely to see much of them in the future. I tried not to look at it through New Zealand eyes and in the end I came to see it as a sign of her love for her kids that she would take the opportunity to give them a better future – accommodation, food and education until they turned 17.”