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Flowers Symbolize Progress in Afghans' Everyday Lives

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 23, 2005 – People who have hope plant flowers. And Kabul, Afghanistan, will be blooming this spring, according to Mary Jo Myers, wife of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Afghan women are planting flowers and enjoying the rain that seems to have finally broken the decade-long drought in the country. "Given the importance of flowers in the country, the actions of these women show they have hope for the future of the country," Mrs. Myers said.

Mrs. Myers visited Afghanistan with her husband, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, March 17. While her husband met with Afghan and American leaders, Mrs. Myers visited hospitals and met with Afghan government ministers.

While her husband heard about the progress on the military, political and economic fronts, Mrs. Myers saw concrete examples of how the lives of average Afghans have improved.

When she first visited Kabul in 2003, the city was just starting to pick itself up from more than 25 years of occupation and civil war. Conditions have improved since she first started visiting the city after the liberation from the Taliban.

"Hospitals had no supplies or personnel or windows or doors," she said. "There was rubble everywhere. And the few women you saw in the streets wore burkas."

Today, many Afghan women - while still wearing the hajira head covering - have eschewed the body-concealing burka in favor of western clothing, she said

A hill that rose above the city was covered with homes, but since they were the same color as the ground, you barely noticed them. "Now that part of the city has electricity, and you can see just how many people live there," Mrs. Myers said.

The hospitals have been rebuilt, and donations of equipment and supplies are coming in. Foreign specialists augment Afghan doctors, nurses and other hospital employees.

Mrs. Myers visited the Indira Gandhi National Pediatric Hospital. She said when she first visited the area, the hospitals didn't even have potable drinking water.

"A patient only had water if she had someone who could go to the courtyard with a container and bring back water that wasn't even drinkable," she said.

There was running water in the hospitals and bottled water for the patients. People go to the hospitals to get well now, Mrs. Myers said. In the past, they went to die.

The hospitals have incinerators so that medical waste is burned now rather than being left to rot and attract rats and other vermin. "They installed a laundry system, and they had to find a way to dispose of waste water - and they did. Their infection rate had drastically been reduced."

But that doesn't mean that everything is rosy in the medical world of Afghanistan. Still one in five children die before they turn 5, Mrs. Myers said. Malnutrition is rampant, and children who look 7 or 8 years old really are 11 or 12.

"There was one precious child - you can't tell the age. He looked 18 months, but he could have been 3 years old. He was sitting up and had big brown eyes and smiled. He was probably going to make it," she said.

"There was another with just sunken, emaciated and just sallow complexion, just pitiful look in his face, and a vacant stare up at the ceiling," she continued. "I got this visual of my granddaughter, who looks about the same age. The utter contrast, you just can't believe it."

Vaccinations would prevent many diseases, but the country doesn't have the infrastructure to inoculate those in Kabul, let alone the countryside.

And mental health care is in its infancy. Mrs. Myers visited a mental health ward and found two patients to a bed. There was no medication to help the patients, and in many cases, the families abandoned the patients to the mercies of the healthcare system. "While there are cases of (mental) retardation and schizophrenia, many of the cases have been caused by shock and mental trauma," she said.

The important thing about this, Mrs. Myers said, is the people and the government understand that more must be done. They need money for construction, supplies and expertise. It is no small thing.

"Just as an example, there are about a million and a half disabled people, and they could use 30,000 to 40,000 wheelchairs," Mrs. Myers said. "They have 5,000." But they had nothing before, and under the Taliban, the Afghan people didn't even have hope, she noted.

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