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While the world watches with a mix of shock and concern as the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan, a prominent Afghan doctor who has practiced medicine in Japan for decades is calling on Tokyo to lead the Group of Seven in providing assistance to his homeland.

Khaled Reshad, a pulmonologist who runs a clinic in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, hopes Japan will help Afghans now living under Taliban rule deal with the tumultuous takeover, which has left many feeling fearful and anxious over how the change will affect their lives, including when it comes to medical care.

In an interview Thursday, the doctor said that the Taliban’s first moves have, in fact, brought about some sense of relief, as in some areas internet connections and phone networks were surprisingly still working or even restored, enabling some people to contact relatives they haven’t been able to reach for several years. Reshad was able to verify the safety of his siblings and their families, but serious concerns persist over the country’s future under the Islamic extremist group.

“The thing is, we don’t know how long this is going to last,” Reshad said. “The (current situation) doesn’t give any peace of mind.”

Different regions in Afghanistan have been faced with many challenges and, according to Reshad, people in rural areas could not rely on such connections in recent years due to various reasons, including difficult access to aid, which was mostly funneled into larger cities. A number of media reports have also cited sources, including journalists in Kabul, confirming that internet connectivity remained intact despite earlier speculation the takeover might limit people’s access.

He also said that, at least temporarily, Taliban forces have improved access to affordable food.

Reshad is worried that despite the Taliban’s vows to protect women’s rights and ensure peace in the region, the new rule will lead to restrictions, particularly on women and children.

Khaled Reshad, a pulmonologist living in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, speaks during an online interview on Thursday. | MAGDALENA OSUMI
Khaled Reshad, a pulmonologist living in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, speaks during an online interview on Thursday. | MAGDALENA OSUMI

The 71-year-old, who moved to Japan in 1969, has provided assistance in Afghanistan through his nonprofit organization Karez no Kai, which he established in 2002 with an aim of helping people in his native country through medical aid and education. He had previously told The Japan Times that he was hopeful that aid provided by his group and other organizations would help people who have been affected by the war get back on their feet to the point where they would not need it anymore.

However, during Thursday’s interview, he lamented that, even under the previous administration, the situation has become more dire, especially in rural areas, due to growing levels of corruption and safety concerns, leading to uneasiness among many Afghans.

“The uneasiness has become more serious,” since the U.S. announcement that it would withdraw its troops from the country, he explained.

Going forward, the doctor remains concerned about limited access to vaccines for children against deadly diseases such as polio.

Similar concerns also apply to women.

His nonprofit has set up so-called health posts that enable people, particularly those living in rural areas where access to medical care is limited, to get the treatment they need. The posts have served as a lifeline for women.

A child lies on a bed awaiting treatment at a hospital in Herat on Aug. 1 after he was injured during skirmishes between Afghan forces and the Taliban. | AFP-JIJI
A child lies on a bed awaiting treatment at a hospital in Herat on Aug. 1 after he was injured during skirmishes between Afghan forces and the Taliban. | AFP-JIJI

Women, many of whom have held lingering fears of being treated by male doctors after the Taliban banned the practice during its first period of rule over the country, had accounted for 60% of the patients at the health posts.

As his organization has also been helping with childbirths, Reshad was particularly worried that restrictions on women’s rights will hinder women’s access to health care and will make safe deliveries impossible.

“This is what we’ve been helping with 24/7 for 365 days each year,” he said. Given the recent tumult, he worries that the group’s efforts to ensure easy access to health care and ensure a safe and hygienic environment may be undermined.

Even though the Taliban has not re-enacted the ban, many women are already fearful of seeking medical help.

Reshad stressed the mortality rate in children under the age of 5 is still very high, despite progress over the last 20 years.

In 2019, the mortality rate in children under the age of 5 stood at 60.3 deaths per 1,000 live births. Additionally, Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, according to 2020 United Nations data, with some 638 women dying per 100,000 live births.

Reshad added that the uncontrolled coronavirus pandemic may exacerbate the already dire situation in the region.

“People in rural areas are not tested for the coronavirus as PCR tests aren’t easily accessible … and there are serious concerns it will spread further” amid the turmoil of the takeover, which has prompted thousands of people to seek ways to flee the country, he said.

UNICEF members label a shipment of Astrazeneca COVID-19 vaccines donated by the French government after it arrived at Kabul Airport on Aug. 8. | AFP-JIJI
UNICEF members label a shipment of Astrazeneca COVID-19 vaccines donated by the French government after it arrived at Kabul Airport on Aug. 8. | AFP-JIJI

Earlier this week, horrific scenes at Kabul’s airport showed men and women rushing to climb onto U.S. jets during takeoff in a desperate bid to escape. Reshad said the situation has pushed many people from rural areas to relocate to larger cities without a plan nor a place to go and despite scorching heat.

In the wake of those images, the Japan Association for Refugees issued a statement on Tuesday urging the government to join other nations in ensuring the protection of asylum-seekers from Afghanistan. The group pointed to Japan’s promise of aid in a joint statement alongside more than 70 countries.

“The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. We in the international community stand ready to assist them,” the countries’ joint statement read.

While Afghanistan has been receiving vaccines against COVID-19 through the COVAX global vaccine-sharing program, with the U.S. having donated some 3 million doses, Reshad says current aid is still not sufficient to ensure the protection of the population of nearly 40 million. He was hopeful Japan could help with the country’s vaccine rollout.

“Amid uncertainties over what kind of rule the Taliban will establish, I hope the world leaders won’t abandon Afghanistan now and will continue their support and provide guidance to help restore normal life there,” he said. “Japan has so far invested some ¥700 billion in aid for Afghanistan (since 2001) … and is viewed (by Afghans) in a very positive way. And I hope Japan will continue to support Afghanistan from a neutral position.”

Afghan refugees gather at the Iran-Afghanistan border on Thursday as they try to enter Iran following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban earlier this week. | IRANIAN RED CRESCENT / VIA AFP-JIJI
Afghan refugees gather at the Iran-Afghanistan border on Thursday as they try to enter Iran following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban earlier this week. | IRANIAN RED CRESCENT / VIA AFP-JIJI

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