Tales From AFGHANISTAN

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For five months spread over four trips between July 2003 and May 2004, Lois Kitsch experienced her toughest assignment - to help war-torn Afghanistan gain some financial stability.

Kitsch recently traded her job with the World Council of Credit Unions to become director of special projects for the Filene Research Institute where she still expects to travel, but only within U.S. boundaries (see story, below).

"I went (to Afghanistan) to look at what the market was like and help start a credit union," said Kitsch, who served as international project development manager for the World Council for eight years.

She was successful in her mission, she said, northern Afghanistan now has three credit unions ready to open.

Kitsch said in addition to a sense of accomplishment, she came away with a tremendous education and a new appreciation for the everyday things people take for granted.

For example, being able to travel on smooth, paved roads. "It took 12 hours to go 250 kilometers (155 miles) because the roads are so bad," she said, explaining that 22 years of war have pretty much destroyed them.

Besides that, she said, food is scarce in many parts, and the winters are "the coldest on earth" with no central heating (or air conditioning in the summer).

In fact, she said, electricity shut off between daylight and sunset.

After traveling to 35 different countries, including a five-year stint in the Philippines, Kitsch said, "Afghanistan was the hardest place I've ever been."

She said while the infrastructure is showing signs of improvement, all those years of war have simply taken their toll.

"People are so tired of war," she said. "They are ready for peace and very grateful to America and happy that the Taliban no longer has control of the country."

She called the environment "hopeful and progressing."

The country, whose major source of income is from agriculture, has only five banks, none of which are accessible to 99% of the public, most of whom are poor.

Farmers make up most of the workforce. But, the job is very dangerous, she said, because there are landmines everywhere. "You see rocks that are painted red or white," she said. "Red means the area is mined. White tells you it's safe to pass."

She said men are very respectful of women, but expect them to take a certain place in the home and are not allowed to interact with men outside their own families.

"The cities are not spectacular but the countryside is beautiful," Kitsch said. During her first trip, she said, she stayed in a "very expensive hotel" that was also very modest in conveniences. Fortunately she met an Afghan-American early on who guided her to guesthouses with common dining rooms and a bathroom for subsequent trips. "This person helped me find my way and kept me safe."

Kitsch said it was not uncommon to hear bombs exploding but "nothing I was particularly afraid of" Then again, she added, "I'm not easily scared."

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