UNR grad glimpsed Afghanistan before the war

Jan. 7, 2002; Page 1A
By Matt Riddle
RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL
(Note: No live link)

He grew out his beard, donned the traditional garb, wore sandals and spent almost two months of last summer in Afghanistan.

Wes Watkins, a December graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno, was working for a relief agency as an engineer in Northern Alliance territory. This was June and July, just a few months before the Sept. 11 attacks. Osama bin Laden’s name had not yet become a curse to most Americans.

Afghanistan was still a vague place somewhere in Central Asia.

But just weeks after the 23-year-old Squaw Valley man returned home in mid-August, that all changed.

For Watkins, his Afghan summer was a spiritual journey, although a journey very different from that of John Walker, the Northern Californian who fought with the Taliban.

Watkins’ work with the people of northern Afghanistan provided him with context for the Sept. 11 attacks that most Americans do not have.

Now, he said he hopes Americans don’t blame all Afghans – many of whom were themselves oppressed by the Taliban – for the acts criminals who have committed terrorist acts in the name of religion.

“I’ve never met a people so eager to entertain a guest, so eager to laugh,” said Watkins. “They’re really nice people.”

The years of war have scarred them with crisis and a fight for survival.

“They really need our prayers,” he said. “Pray for peace.”

Watkins was working for Shelter Now International, a non-profit, Christian relief organization that has operations in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Macedonia, Kosovo and Tajikistan.

Two other American women were working for the same agency when the Taliban arrested them in August on allegations that they were proselytizing. Watkins never met Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer of Waco, Texas, who were arrested the day after he left the country after contracting a case of malaria.

He said he doubted the Taliban’s charges that the women were attempting to dissuade Muslims from their faith.

“They were there loving and helping the people,” he said. “Lots of people there have questions, and they are spiritual people, and I’m sure some people had questions and they had some spiritual talks.”

Relief mission

In countries such as Afghanistan, the agency’s workers take part strictly in humanitarian projects, but in other countries where the practice of Christianity isn’t forbidden, they have Bible classes and churches.

“We believe we are blessed to bless others,” said Mark Dyer, Central Asia coordinator and recruiter for International Teams, which introduced Watkins to Shelter Now.

“One of our first priorities is to help people rebuild their lives,” he said, “build a shelter: a foundation to rebuild everything.”

“It’s a pretty tough place to adjust to. The refugees live under terrible conditions,” Dyer said. “Wes did a great job in terms of helping out and assisting on these projects like road projects, food delivery projects.”

Shelter Now International was started in 1979 as Afghanistan’s refugee population increased in the wake of the Soviet invasion, said Harry van Burik, international program director for SNI.

The workers are not there to proselytize, but to help the refugees rebuild their lives, van Burik said “Instead of giving them fish, we teach them to fish.”

Christianity in a Muslim land

Watkins said he found that in northern Afghanistan, outside of Taliban control, Christianity also was suppressed.

“The north isn’t very different, but one of the main differences is that they didn’t have a political agenda,” he said. “They’re more worried about staying alive.”

Many strict customs were the same in the north as under the Taliban.

“Even in the north, women had to be completely covered,” he said. “You’re considered disrespectful if you don’t have a beard. If you’re curious about something, if you want to talk about another faith other than Islam, it can be very dangerous.”

One of the most dangerous things is being a Christian, like Watkins.

“You’re regarded as an outcast,” he said. “Being a Christian is one of the worst offenses. You’re what they call a ‘kafar’, or one worthy of death.”

He did not tell many about his Christian faith while in Afghanistan, something that was the source of controversy at UNR in April.

Watkins had written a statement of faith and placed it in an advertisement on the back of the Sagebrush, the student paper. That spurred what was known as “Agree Week,” an event meant to evangelize and spur debate.

More than 300 Christian students wore bright green T-shirts with the words “I agree with Wes” on the front in attempts to share their faith with non-Christians. The name ‘Wes’ became an icon on the UNR campus.

But many students felt threatened by “Agree Week,” which was sponsored by several campus Christian clubs. These students said the initiative invaded their privacy.

Work: Afghan style

While the intent of “Agree Week” was to talk about God with non-Christians, Watkins stressed that he wasn’t proselytizing in Afghanistan. He was a humanitarian aid worker. Besides, Afghans made a strong impression on him.

He was in charge of a ramshackle road crew of about 300 men leveling roads. He had two supervisors that spoke semi-fluent English. The crews worked in 10-day increments for 60 kilograms of wheat, courtesy of the United Nations.

His team worked on roads around Rostaq and Feyzabad. Shelter Now provided Internally Displaced Peoples, or refugees within their own country, wheat and bread in the summer and blankets in the winter, also from the UN.

“I think there needs to be more people that are willing to go over and help,” he said.

Watkins had one health problem after another. He got sick soon after he arrived. When his initial illness cleared up, he got amoebic dysentery, an infection of the lower intestinal tract. Then shigella, another intestinal illness. And in late July, he came down with malaria.

“Being sick is part of the package of being there,” he said.

The illnesses took a toll on him. At one point, he ran a high fever and it caused minor but permanent inner-ear damage. For a couple of days, he had lost almost all balance and could barely walk. He said even with his greatest effort, he walked as if severely drunk and he couldn’t go anywhere.

“But I’ve been totally restored,” Watkins said.

That isn’t good enough for his dad.

Bruce Watkins was upset about the Afghanistan trip, particularly after learning about his illness.

Watkins was taken out of Afghanistan early and into Tajikistan. That ended three sleepless nights for his dad.

“He really wanted to go some place that was a real risk. Afghanistan fit that bill,” he said. “He wanted to serve the Lord by giving to people’s needs, so he went over there to use his engineering skills.

Watkins said he wants to go back. If the opportunity is there, he will return. The first trip wasn’t enough for him despite his family’s desire for him to stay home.

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