I’ve come to realise that this project is a thought provoking one – if that is not a complete understatement. It is fascinating to hear the women’s stories, and so many of those that I have interviewed have told me how important they think it is that the voices of Afghan women are heard across the world. But many of the experiences the women document are inevitably tragic and difficult to listen to. And I’ve realised, that by disseminating this material, there is a danger that I just reinforce the stereotypes of Afghans. Many in the west already believe that this country is full of animals, who beat their women and abuse their children.

Of course, these things do happen –as they happen in the UK and Ireland as well. But that is not the whole story of Afghanistan. So let me try to tell you more about this fascinating country and its amazing people.

There is a saying here – if you come to my country as my guest, I will fight to the death to protect you; if you come as my enemy, I will kill you. And that effectively sums up the contrasts between my experience of being here, and the experience of the soldiers stationed in Helmand. In the last two centuries the Afghan people have already expelled two of the world’s super powers from their borders – the British Empire and the Soviet Union.

But of course this time it’s different. This time the ISAF troops were not invaders, but liberators. Well, that’s a distinction which may now have been lost, ten years after they arrived, in the same way it was lost in Northern Ireland.

But the other side of that coin is also true. I have always believed, all the times I have been here, that if anyone had attacked me, Afghans would have come to my aid.

The first time I was here, when the security situation was calmer and I had been here for some months, I decided to take a taxi home from Kabul city. I was confident I had enough words of Dari to explain where I was going, and I didn’t want to wait for our driver. I’d been in taxis before, but only with a western male colleague. But that made me all the more determined to do it on my own.

So I stood on the street and tried to flag a taxi down, but none would stop. Eventually a young Afghan man came up to me, and introduced himself in perfect English, explaining that he worked with the international community here, and asked could he help. I explained and he said he would get me a taxi and tell the driver where I was going. This he did and I thanked him, and we set off.

By this time I knew the route to our house, but the traffic was very bad that night and the driver took me s different way down street I didn’t know. It was by now dark, and I started to get very worried. But the driver kept turning to me and talking, and I could see by his expression there was no malice there. Eventually we got home and my Afghan colleagues explained that he had tried to find a better route to bring me home more quickly and avoid the jams. He was obviously worried that I had been frightened, and I began to understand why none of taxis had wanted to stop for me in the first place.

It was a very foolish thing for me to have done. But it also demonstrated to me the incredible care with which most Afghans treat the international community here. Yes, of course we come with money, and the power to offer jobs and change things, but it’s not just about that.

This visit I can see how the security situation has changed. I would never even consider trying to take a taxi alone. But the welcome I have received from my friends, most of whom I haven’t had much contact with for at least 7 years, has been humbling. They have helped with the things I need for the project, they have taken me to dinner and refused to let me pay, they have organised their week around my visit, and, the main Afghan trait, they have fed me to bursting. We used to joke, when the issue of kidnapping westerners first became an issue, that the worst that would happen to you if you were kidnapped by Afghans is that you would put on weight. Again, sadly, there are now more kidnappings happening. But the excess weight is a far more likely scenario!

The other thing you notice about Afghan society is the resourceful way people continue to live and make a living. Every business you pass on the streets, even if it is selling car parts, is beautifully laid out. The goods will all be stacked in an attractive pattern, the path in front of the shop will be brushed free from dust, or wet with hoses to keep the dust down – and when I say shop, generally I mean container. After decades of war and poverty, nothing is wasted here; so many businesses are housed in old shipping containers.

 

And this is a country, where, after decades of war and neglect, no family is free from tragedy. Conservative estimates suggest that 90 per cent of people are suffering from some sort of post traumatic stress, and yet with no mental health services available, life just has to go on.

So, my plea is, even if you listen to the harrowing stories the women have told me, don’t take that as the whole picture of Afghanistan. This country is one of the most vibrant and astonishing I have spent time in – and I have been to more than a dozen around the world.