The Brave Campaigners

Moursal: “I want to support my family … I do not fear death. I will sacrifice myself to help my country and these children.” Photo: Ashley Hamer

It’s before 7AM in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, and Moursal, 23, stands behind an iron gate pulling a heavy blue burqa over her head. She hops nimbly over piles of raw sewage dredged from the roadside. A short walk away she joins her team to begin their mission for the day.

Moursal and her colleagues are Afghanistan’s polio campaigners, tasked with the colossal and vitally important job of vaccinating thousands of children and educating adults in a bid to eradicate the virus.

This team are on day two of a week-long campaign funded and supported by UNICEF.

“First we have culture barriers in Afghanistan,” says Moursal via a translator. “Many people do not want to see a woman working or alone in the street. But for vaccinating children we must visit every house, and only women can enter a stranger’s house.”

Moursal is responsible for overseeing more than 120 households. In total, across the Nangarhar area, a cluster of campaign teams hopes to vaccinate some 17,000 children.

Ideally, the family consents to vaccinate all children under five years old and provides details to help build a database of information to ensure no child misses the vaccine.

But, it’s not so simple.

Remote and rugged, Nangarhar and its neighbouring provinces have been a haven for non-state armed groups moving back and forth across the porous Pakistan/Afghanistan border since the start of Afghanistan’s current war.

The city itself sees regular insurgent infiltration, targeted assassinations, kidnappings by armed groups and criminal gangs and suicide bombings.

“This insecurity we face every day and it is getting worse,” says Noorzia, 27, a campaign colleague of Moursal. “Two nights ago there was a motorbike bomb nearby and it blew some of our windows out. And there was fighting with Daesh which displaced many families to Jalalabad.”

The greatest obstacle for the vaccination team is often the families themselves.

In the last two years over 300,000 Afghans have been forced or coerced to return from Pakistan, where many had lived for decades. The majority of these people are poor, undocumented, vulnerable and funnelled into the country through Nangarhar and Jalalabad.

In Jalalabad, polio campaigners such as Noorzia and Moursal find themselves increasingly visiting families who have spent time in Pakistan.

“We see many refusal families for different reasons,” says Moursal. “Many are returnees with religious views which say that the vaccination is forbidden and there is very much fear of it. They do not trust us.”

She says that increased access to the Internet enables people to spread rumours about polio being a conspiracy invented by hostile western countries.

“If the people are not educated they can believe this.”

To tackle refusals, UNICEF is supporting the deployment of specialist follow-up teams comprised of professional doctor, Islamic religious leaders and polio survivors who address misconceptions.

The virus is so serious that a single case of polio constitutes an outbreak. Worryingly, Afghanistan now has eleven cases of polio. 
Just a short drive to the edge of the city, in a rural neighbourhood called Besoud, Shegofa Saafi, 20, leads her male vaccination colleagues through a maze of cauliflower fields and mud brick walls.

She knocks gently but confidently on door after door and children appear clutching younger siblings — one little girl with a pair of newborn twins! They receive anti-polio droplets and a mark in ink on their fingers to identify them as vaccinated.

Shegofa tells us the families here know her and they know the dangers of polio so they accept the vaccinations, even demanding it.

A tall, intelligent and unmarried woman, Shegofa dreams of going to university to study medicine in the capital Kabul, but for now, the road into Jalalabad is so unsafe for women alone that she cannot even attend English lessons in the city.

Back in town, Moursal and Noorzia are taking a tea break in one of their homes. Both have discarded their burqas to reveal bright, beautiful young faces. I ask why they take such great risks just to work.

Moursal laughs. “I want to support my family … I do not fear death. I will sacrifice myself to help my country and these children.”