The dirt road to Shotol twists perilously up the side of the Panjshir Valley, bringing nervous glances over precipices and heart-stopping encounters with oncoming trucks. Yet even though it replaced a crumbling track barely fit for mules, the road still bypasses the village's basic health clinic. "When we have an emergency, we have to carry the patient in a stretcher to the top of the hill, where an ambulance can pick them up," says a local health official.
And when we scramble down the 250ft slope and meet Zarmina, the clinic's 37-year-old midwife, we discover that her office also has to serve as a delivery room, first-aid room and family planning centre. She weighs babies in the corridor, because there is nowhere else to set up the scales.
Women in blue and white burqas come and go along the narrow path to the clinic at regular intervals, but Zarmina who, like many Afghans, has just one name delivers only five babies or so there every month.
"Mothers don't want to come here to give birth, because it's very cramped and there's no privacy," she says. "I have to go to their homes in most cases, but some families live in very small settlements even higher in the mountains, and in winter it's impossible to get there." The dangers to the health of mothers as well as their children are clear.
Afghan Mother and Child Rescue (AMCR), the charity The Independent on Sunday is supporting in its Christmas appeal, has built two mother and child health clinics, or MCHs, as they are known, elsewhere in Panjshir province, and is completing a third.
In each case they have brought a dramatic reduction in mother and child mortality, and Abdul Zahir Jaheed, financial adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health in the province, believes another MCH in Shotol would have the same impact. "The last clinic AMCR built is as good a facility as anywhere in the world, and has saved many lives," he says.
Now one of AMCR's trustees, Roddy Jones, 73, a former major in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, has come to Shotol to see for himself where a mother and child clinic can be built. He paces out the steeply sloping site with Mr Jaheed and a contractor, discussing issues of access and likely costs.
"We need many more community clinics in the Panjshir, but we don't have funds for construction," says the health official. The charity will have to decide whether Shotol or one of several other villages has the most pressing case, then set about raising the money: each clinic costs about 30,000 to build.
AMCR, founded by a retired Coldstream Guards officer, Brigadier Peter Stewart-Richardson, believes in giving aid in the most direct fashion possible. Peter enlisted old comrades to build and refurbish clinics in the Panjshir and other provinces of Afghanistan, often with their own hands, and equip them with solar-powered lighting and water heaters.
AMCR also helps war widows to earn an income through such projects as building village bakeries where they can find work.
"Many other organisations come and make promises, then do little or nothing," said Mr Jaheed. "We know, though, that if AMCR commit themselves to a project, it will happen. We are very happy with them, because they deliver."
The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal
Thanks to the generosity of our readers, the 'IoS' Christmas appeal for Afghan Mother and Child Rescue has already raised more than half the 30,000 cost of building another clinic for women and their children in one of the poorest countries in the world. But more is still needed please help.
Donate online www.independent.co.uk/iosappeal
Send cheques, made payable to "Afghan
Mother and Child Rescue", to: Afghan Mother and Child Rescue 128 Kensington Church Street London W8 4BH
A Gift Aid declaration form, which increases every pound you donate by 28p, can be downloaded at: www.amcr.org.uk/ GIFT_AID_DONATION_FORM.pdf
By BACS transfer
Account name: Afghan Mother and Child Rescue
Account number: 00011780
Sort code: 40-52-40
For more information on Afghan Mother and Child Rescue (registered charity no 1097423), visit www.amcr.org.ukReuse content