The most terrifying killer in Afghanistan isn’t a Muslim mob, incensed by the burning of its holy book, the Quran.
Nor is it a U.S. soldier, going door-to-door, executing families of Afghans, including children.
For the 34.3 million souls who live in this war-torn nation, no killer this year has proved as deadly as the weather.
“This has been the coldest winter here in 20 years,” John Bradley told The Christian Chronicle
from Kabul, the Afghan capital. “More than 50 babies froze to death in the camps in the month of February.”
Bradley and his wife, Jan, members of the Hillsboro Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn., traveled to Afghanistan to serve some of the 35,000 refugees living — and freezing — in the camps. The couple also visited schools helped by the Lamia Afghan Foundation, a nonprofit they launched four years ago.
Two weeks before the trip — the same morning the Bradleys submitted their visa applications to Afghanistan’s embassy in Washington — news broke about the burning of two Qurans at Bagram Air Base near Kabul.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta apologized for what he called the improper disposal of Islamic religious material, confiscated from a prison at the air base. Protests and deaths followed. Afghans and U.S. soldiers were among the victims.
The Bradleys watched the news and prayed. Then they packed. And went.
“Most people question our sanity when they learn we travel here,” John Bradley said. “Actually, at first I could not imagine taking my wife to a war-torn country.”
Nor could the retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general imagine himself making regular trips — unarmed and compelled by God’s love — to Afghanistan, all “because a small, 9-year-old girl begged me for some boots.” WARM SHOES AND A MISSION
Her name was Lamia, a feisty girl who asked John Bradley for the footwear he and his fellow servicemen were sporting as they distributed relief in her village.
Winter was coming, and all she had was a pair of sandals.
Though Afghanistan’s arid plains can reach temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, its mountainous terrain can fall to minus-15 degrees in winter months. Kabul — and its refugee camps — sit at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, higher than Denver.
Lamia’s request eventually got her a warm pair of shoes. It also gave the Bradleys a mission. The foundation bearing the girl’s name has airlifted hundreds of thousands of pounds of medical supplies, soybeans, rice, hygiene products and baby formula to her home country.
The foundation works with a host of nonprofits and church-supported ministries, including Healing Hands International and Eternal Threads.
The Bradleys’ daughter, Leigh Ann Bradley, said her parents’ trips to Afghanistan make her nervous.
But she knows it “truly is where they want to be.”
“Honestly, I have the most amazing parents in the world,” said Leigh Ann Bradley, who works in public relations in Alexandria, Va. “They both have true servant hearts, and I’m so lucky that God gave me to them.
“My parents believe everyone deserves a fighting chance.” LIVING THROUGH WAR AND WINTER
More than a decade of fighting between NATO and Afghanistan’s former rulers, the Taliban, has forced thousands of refugees into camps near Kabul. Without heat, winters are a challenge every year.
This winter was worse than most. The Lamia foundation diverted supplies bound for other areas of the country to the Kabul camps. The foundation raised more than $20,000 after a New York Times reporter mentioned the Bradleys in a story about the deaths.
The foundation’s representative in Kabul talked to village elders in the camps. They asked for coal and flour for the coming months. Meanwhile, the Bradleys collected more cold-weather clothing to help the Afghans survive the winter — and, hopefully, winters to come. CAUTION AND PATIENCE
The freezing temperatures began to warm as the Bradleys arrived in Kabul for a month-long visit. Tempers, however, were running hot, due to the Quran burnings.
The couple heeds the advice of their Afghan coworkers and avoids troubled spots, including the site of protests near the air base.
“We have learned a lot about what to do and what not to do,” Jan Bradley said. It’s her sixth visit to Afghanistan and her husband’s 11th.
Thus far, they have worked without incident — even on March 11, when a U.S. solder allegedly walked off his base and gunned down Afghan civilians.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder for the attack.
There was “very little reaction across the country to the shootings,” John Bradley said.
“You have to be careful, to be sure,” he added. “But the only thing most Americans see in the news is the very bad things that go on here. They are not exposed to the many good things that happen daily.”
Across Afghanistan, infant mortality and maternal death rates are dropping, he said. Women are working in greater numbers, opening their own businesses and going to college.
“The culture is different here,” Jan Bradley said. “You have to sit down and talk and talk and have chai (tea) over and over again, develop trust and relationships, before any work can be done. Patience is not a virtue many Americans possess, but the Afghans possess patience in volumes.” SERVING IN A DESPERATE PLACE
That patience is paying dividends, she added.
Recently, the couple attended the first day of classes at The Lamia School in Lakan Khel. The foundation paid for the school’s construction, thanks to donations from Church of Christ members.
The Bradleys also watched as hundreds of excited children streamed into a newly renovated school in Kabul. The Lamia foundation paid for the renovation with grants from two foundations in Decatur, Ala.
Small donations also make a difference, the couple said.
Audrey Hall, an 8-year-old in Salt Lake City, sent $3.52 and some handmade scarves after she saw the New York Times story. The Bradleys used the money to buy shoes and socks for Khalida, a girl who lives in at tent in one of the camps.
“We think this is the most desperate place on earth,” John Bradley said. He and his wife pray that the Afghan people “will remember that someone reached out to them with very simple actions, like putting a knit cap on their heads, handing them a cute, homemade wooden toy, rubbing lotion on very rough hands.”
Insurgents — and the people who kill when books burn — are a minority in Afghanistan, Jan Bradley said. Most of the people she encounters express sincere thanks. They feel that, after the U.S. helped them drive away the Soviets in 1988, they were abandoned by the West, allowing the Taliban to rise.
When U.S. forces leave in 2014, “life for our people will be worse than ever,” a village elder told the couple recently. “America cannot leave us again.”
“My heart broke for him, and I wanted to cry,” Jan Bradley said. “These people have been left behind before. I think God would not want us to leave them behind again.”