Making lives better for the children and dogs of war
A team led by a former Royal Marine is providing a ray of light in the middle of a country ravaged by violence.
This summer, a small team bearing one hundred footballs, flew to Afghanistan on a mission that could help to build new bonds between children affected by warfare and animals that are also the victims of a country torn apart by conflict.
Led by Pen Farthing, former Royal Marine and founder of Afghanistan dog rescue charity Nowzad Dogs, from Tiverton, the group, which included British actor and animal welfare stalwart Peter Egan, walked tentatively into an orphanage in central Kabul as part of a pilot project that could transform the way animals are treated in the country.
The initiative, Kick a Football not a Puppy or Kitten, was the invention of Andrea and Gavin Gamby-Boulger, founders of East Anglia-based animal rescue charity Wetnose Animal Aid.
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The pair were so moved by Pen's astonishing achievements over the last six years, rescuing strays from the country and reuniting them with their soldier companions all over the world, and his crucial rabies vaccination and neutering programme which is having a profound impact on the citizens of Kabul, that they sought to link-up with the 42-year-old to "shine a light" on his work.
Animal welfare awareness is low in war-torn Afghanistan where strays are associated with the deadly rabies disease and stones are thrown to keep them at bay. And children, through their innocence and ignorance, can be found kicking young animals, perceiving them as mere playthings incapable of feeling pain.
Armed with 100 footballs, the team, which also included a cameraman and was part-sponsored by the actor Ricky Gervais, went to see if they could change this.
Within an hour of landing in the stiflingly hot mid-morning sun, the team found themselves not only seeing the charity's work firsthand, but involved in it.
While visiting the Nowzad clinic, which is headed-up by Kabul University Veterinary Clinic graduates, Dr Hadi and Dr Amin who were neutering that afternoon, an emergency case came in – a stray whose back leg had snapped in a suspected dog fight, its bone sticking out, broken at the elbow. His leg could not be saved but needed fixing and fast, before gangrene set in.
Peter found himself assisting Dr Susan Chadima, an American vet who has been Nowzad's veterinary advisor for five years and has recently been training undergraduate vets at the university, in the emergency amputation.
Dr Chadima, who assists the clinic vets with complicated procedures, came out on her afternoon off – which happened to be the afternoon the city was beset with a power cut. With no fans, the operating theatre was "like a sauna" in sweltering 40 degree heat.
And with no lights, the actor ended up holding the lamp from the cameraman's camera above Dr Chadima's head while Pen wiped perspiration from her brow for the two-hour operation. Every time she made a cut, Peter was splattered in blood, and no sooner had she put the last stitch in, the surgeon collapsed backwards.
"It was like a scene from Mash," recalled Wetnose ambassador Egan, who, now 66, has used his fame to promote international animal welfare initiatives for around two decades. "There is a lack of equipment and surgical instruments, everything is rudimentary," he continued. "But it was done expertly. During the operation the saw broke and we had to find another. It took twice as long as it should have, in 40 degree heat drenched in sweat. But it was successful and the dog was up and running the next day.
"The terrain is extraordinary, like the surface of the moon," he continued recalling coming into land. "There is a huge sense of security in Kabul," he added. "We were constantly going through checkpoints. But the Taliban aren't evident in the city – we heard things happening, but we were kept right out of it.
"Kabul is a devastated city. You look around and think, where has it gone? It's like a bomb site. Every other building is rubble. But it was obviously once very beautiful.
"I was aware I was going in to a war zone," he said matter-of-factly. "That made me apprehensive – the last thing I wanted to do was get a limb blown off in the process.
"The Afghan people couldn't understand why we were there – there are no charities in Afghanistan, a lot of people were surprised we were there and not gaining."
After a traumatic first day the next morning the team launched what they hoped will be the start of an enduring initiative at the orphanage.
The Afghan Scout Movement, supported by Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan (PARSA), a US NGO which is coordinated in the UK by Pen's partner Hannah Surowinski, was integral to the project in helping the team deliver their message to the orphans, furthering Pen's intention for the charity to be Afghan-centric.
"Some of the children's parents had been killed but many abandoned," explained Peter, who engaged with the children through an interpreter. The film and stage veteran spoke about a seven-year-old boy who was left in his village with an uncle when his father died and his mother abandoned him. But he was not allowed in the house and was made to sleep outside. "He was a sweet kid but developed all kinds of skin problems," Peter said. "He was eventually taken in by the orphanage.
"The children were very attentive," he added. "They had great fun when the balls were brought out and they could go out and play with them. What Pen's set up requires huge commitment and dedication."
This summer, Pen has spent longer than intended out in Kabul, where there is also a shelter on the outskirts of the city for around 75 dogs waiting to be re-homed either with soldiers or local families. The last few weeks have been filled with complete turmoil and the Afghan War veteran has been unable to spend much of it at his Mid Devon home after finding out that the lease on the clinic building, which also houses around 30 cats, staff accommodation and the charity's office, was being terminated at the end of August. Pen's dedication has paid off and new premises have been found, but the charity is in urgent need of a funding boost to facilitate the move.
The demand for donations is as high as ever Pen said, adding that he's looking into a re-homing request from a British civilian working in Syria, and if they stop, the charity comes to a halt.
Pen said the footballs initiative worked and the plan is to go back in the spring, when the schools re-open after the winter, and continue spreading the message.
"Not many hospitals carry the rabies vaccination," he explained. "We needed an incentive and the footballs were the incentive. This was a great way of getting the interest of the city's young generation so we could tell them the important message of avoiding rabies.
"Getting the Afghan Scouts to help was far more effective than Westerners preaching to them – the kids were fascinated about the fact they had free footballs – but they actually sat and listened which was fantastic to see.
"It was a trial to see if it would work. Now we know it does. Animals have come low down in people's priorities because people are struggling themselves, their whole lives is a struggle to survive. But now there's a sense of security in Afghanistan people can start thinking about other priorities. The clinic is in constant demand," he added.
"We're developing a programme we know works. We've seen a massive difference in the last three years. Donations are the only way we survive. The second they stop, the work stops."