Japan and the rest of the world must stay engaged with and support Afghanistan’s long-term reconstruction, according to a Japanese nurse who recently returned from the war-torn country.

“When I came back, I was stunned to see how sharply the number of articles on Afghanistan had tapered off in the Japanese media compared with when I left Japan,” said Junko Uezumi, who spent two months in eastern Afghanistan providing medical relief.

Uezumi, 28, who has worked at an Osaka hospital and as a volunteer nurse in Nepal and Pakistan over the past few years, left for Jalalabad in late January with other volunteer aid workers under a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization, the Japan International Volunteer Center.

Public interest seemed to have peaked that month — when Tokyo hosted the Afghan reconstruction conference.

During its stay, the group, in cooperation with a local NGO, operated as a mobile clinic, traveling around eastern Afghanistan and treating about 2,000 patients in villages and refugee camps, Uezumi said in an interview with The Japan Times.

The group also treated nearly 600 women and children at a refugee camp in Nangarhar near Jalalabad. These refugees were in desperate need of care as the area only had a clinic exclusively for men.

“The majority of the patients suffered from infectious respiratory diseases, including pneumonia, brought on by dry weather and a lack of nutrition,” Uezumi said, citing a photograph she has featuring light-haired children. “The color of their hair is fading because of malnutrition.”

Uezumi is optimistic, however, having been invigorated by the relatively cheerful mood of the Afghan women.

Unlike two years ago, when Uezumi visited Afghanistan during the brutal reign of the Taliban regime and could not find any women on the street, this time she saw many strolling around and shopping.

She also said the public order and security situation in Jalalabad is not as bad as media reports suggest.

She admitted, however, that fights occasionally break out between local ethnic groups, and that some unexploded American cluster bombs — still seen at destroyed military bases in Jalalabad — pose a threat.

Meanwhile, the nation’s economy is a shambles.

Most civilians have yet to find jobs, driving many to farm poppies for opium production, Uezumi said, and this is still one of the country’s most lucrative sources of income, with 1 kg sometimes fetching as much as $400.

The average poppy farmer can reportedly earn the equivalent of a few thousand dollars in the harvest season — enough money to buy a huge house, she said.

Another post-Taliban economic complication is the soaring cost of living. The influx of foreigners into Kabul, including journalists and representatives from international organizations, has triggered a rapid rise in housing rent.

Uezumi said rental charges have logged a 10-fold jump in the capital and have also surged in eastern Afghanistan compared with six months ago.

She said global efforts must continue to help ease the plight of Afghanistan and to prevent the country from slipping back into obscurity.

“No one (in Japan) ever knew anything about Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., but all of a sudden, the country came into the limelight,” Uezumi said.

She sees signs, however, that Japanese people are paying less attention.

“Afghans have not experienced a moment of peace since the Soviet invasion more than 20 years ago,” she said.

She added that, having been totally isolated from the international community for such a long time, the people there can never be sure of their future and are afraid the world will turn its back on them again.

But not Uezumi. She and other workers plan to return there early next month to deal with the expected summer outbreaks of diseases.

“We must be prepared to deal with patients suffering from malaria, diarrhea and dehydration, all of which can be fatal, especially to children.”

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