Afghanistan: Building peace after centuries of war

Girls on street Schoolgirls are now a regular sight on the streets of Afghanistan

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There is a saying in Afghanistan that when you leave, you take some of the dust with you.

Afghanistan is indeed an incredibly dusty place, but it is also a country that many people fall in love with, a country that changes lives.

I first visited a decade ago, to train journalists to report on the 2004 presidential elections. I lived there for six months and returned again in 2005 and 2006. I was one of those who fell in love.

But in the last 10 years, hundreds of soldiers from the UK have died or suffered terrible injuries there.

Colum McGeown, who is originally from west Belfast, was stationed with the Irish Guards. In 2011 he lost both legs when he stepped on an explosive.

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It just is an amazing country - beautiful, starkly beautiful. But you're really talking about a medieval society outside the big cities”

End Quote Rev Graham Connor Presbyterian minister

"My feet were gone within a second, they were turned to dust I guess, and… or mist," he said.

But although his life has been changed forever, he is determined not to let his injuries define him.

Building peace

"My fear is being that old bloke in a bar with an alcohol dependency and a beard, talking about him being blew up in Afghanistan 30 years ago and he hasn't moved on," he added.

"So that's a very real fear, and that fear will make me do something productive and be inspired and keep pushing forward."

Kabul traffic Traffic in Kabul has grown to such levels that you are often caught in jams like this

But Northern Ireland has not just contributed personnel to the war in Afghanistan - many other people have also given their time and effort to trying to bring peace.

And in Northern Ireland, people know a lot about the challenges of building peace.

The Reverend Graham Connor is a Presbyterian minister in Saintfield, County Down. He and his wife Pat spent several years living and working in Afghanistan. Graham ministered to the international community and Pat worked as a nurse.

Graham said: "It just is an amazing country - beautiful, starkly beautiful. But you're really talking about a medieval society outside the big cities.

"I think we live on an island that has two tribes and we struggle with those tribes. It's much more complex there, there are five or six main tribes and lots of other smaller ones, and they have the same difficulties that we have in building trust with each other and living at peace with each other."

Haunted by past

Pat said: "Those people have just had war after war and they have been through so much and they're such a poor people, and yet they still have that wonderful sense of hope."

Last year I returned to Afghanistan for the first time in seven years. Many things in Kabul had changed for the better. But, after six years of reporting on politics in Northern Ireland, I could see that Afghanistan still has a long way to go.

Like Northern Ireland, Afghanistan is haunted by the past. For centuries the country has been in the middle of a tug-of-war between the world's superpowers as they have fought for influence in central Asia.

Garden with security walls The beautiful garden of the house Julia Paul stayed in - but despite the plants, notice the security walls

Michael Semple has worked on conflict resolution in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the last 30 years.

Now he is a visiting research professor at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen's University in Belfast. He believes there has been progress towards democracy in Afghanistan.

"This is a process that continues and which will last longer than the presence of western troops and which, in a very important way, should be quite familiar to people in Northern Ireland," he said.

"Because for me, it really parallels the way in which the setting-up of robust institutions in Northern Ireland was an essential part of the process of escaping from long conflict."

But as the NATO troops prepare to leave, inevitably people are asking whether the deaths of so many service personnel have been worth it.

Doug Beattie has written two books about his experiences of fighting in Afghanistan.

The former soldier, who was awarded the Military Cross in 2006, said: "If I reflect on 2006 when I first went, to 2011 when I left the country, did I see a fundamental change in the way that country was? Well, the answer has got to be yes.

"Is it the change that we wanted? It's certainly not the whole way and I think come transition, it will still be a difficult place to be, but I think we've made an incredible, an incredible difference. It's a sustainable and better country now for us having been there."

Julia Paul is a journalist and academic. Her documentary Strangers in a Strange Land: How Afghanistan Changed Our Lives is on BBC Radio Ulster on Sunday 2 February at 13:30 GMT.

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