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Feature 2 - The long road back for Afghanistan

A doctor’s tale of survival and determination to help his countrymen



The sun had gone down and the temperature was dropping as Doctor Kiram Qayumi and his group of refugees struggled up a 45-degree trail to the entrance of a cave covered with a thick piece of old carpet. The cave was a hotel at the summit of White Mountain, 6,000 metres above sea level on the Afghanistan side of the Hindu Kush Mountains .

Inside the cave were packed another 40 Afghan refugees. A small hole had been cut for ventilation and a cooking stove served for warmth. Just a few candles lit the gloom where people sat on the floor eating. The smell was very bad. The "hotel manager" asked Qayumi what he wanted to eat.

"Bring me the best you have," Qayumi replied.

The best they had was a potato cut in two pieces served in a metal bowl of water with globules of oil floating on the surface. A piece of bread embedded with big pieces of rock salt completed the meal.

Qayumi left the cave at six o’clock the next morning more determined than ever. Nine hours later, just before crossing the border of Afghanistan into Pakistan, he stopped and kissed the land.

"When the conditions are right for me to serve you, I will be back," he promised.

That was in July of 1982. On May 13 last year, Qayumi returned to his native Afghanistan, from his new home in Vancouver, to help repair that country’s medical system. Working with Partnership Afghanistan Canada, Qayumi wants to help establish 90 medical units throughout Afghanistan. Each unit will consist of one hospital with 90 to 100 beds surrounded by five clinics. There will be a total of 90 hospitals and 450 clinics. Qayumi is planning another trip to Afghanistan sometime near the end of March or beginning of April.

A part-time Whistler resident and full-time professor of surgery at UBC, Qayumi’s extraordinary tale began back in December of 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Qayumi was a student at the Kiev Medical School at the time of the invasion. A month later the secretary of the Afghan embassy in Moscow spent a nervous evening in Kiev trying to convince Qayumi to join the Communist Party. Qayumi told the secretary. "I’m not a politician, I’m a doctor."

The secretary returned to Moscow early the next day.

One Sunday morning, a month after the secretary’s failed attempt to recruit Qayumi, there was a knock on the door. Ten soldiers rushed in while Qayumi and his family were having breakfast. With rifles pointed at them, they were told not to move for two hours while the soldiers went from room to room, checking under carpets and in closets for weapons and documents – anything to connect the medical student to the mujahedeen fighters battling Soviet troops for control of Afghanistan.

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