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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 May, 2005, 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK
Clementina Cantoni: A force for good
By Nadene Ghouri

I found out in an email from a mutual friend late on Monday night - had I heard there had been a kidnapping?

Clementina Cantoni
Clementina Cantoni works for Care International

All she knew was that the victim was Italian and from Care International.

It hit me with a sick thud: it could only be Clementina.

For weeks now, those of us living and working in Afghanistan have feared that Iraq-style kidnappings would begin.

Kabul runs on rumour and security warnings are a part of our daily life. Some cause more concern than others.

A recent description of a potential suicide bomber, for example, as one-legged, sweating profusely and reading the Koran, caused us more amusement than fear.

If you choose to live in a post-conflict zone, the risk of explosions and the odd rocket is something you can accept.

The risk of being abducted at gunpoint, however, is genuinely terrifying.


The mood in Afghanistan is changing. When I first arrived in Kabul in 2002, the same year that Clementina began working there, the optimism in the air was tangible.

Afghans welcomed foreigners with open arms and Kabul was booming with new restaurants, hotels and businesses.

Now the mood is markedly different.

Frustrated by the lack of development and the grinding poverty, more and more Afghans are replacing initial gratitude with cynicism and a slow-burning anger.

The country-wide anti-US protests which left 16 people dead last week would have been simply unbelievable two years ago.

Courageous protest

But, through our increasing fear, ex-pats in Kabul have taken comfort in the fact that the majority of war-weary Afghans are good and decent people, clinging onto their fledging and somewhat flaky democracy.

That was proven during an earlier kidnap attempt, when an American man managed to escape from his armed abductors' moving vehicle.

Throwing himself onto the road, he was helped by several Afghans who raised the alarm.

Afghan widows demonstrating for the release of Clementina Cantoni at a Care International centre in Kabul,  Afghanistan
"The protests are a testament to how much she is respected"
It was displayed again in the moving image of 100 Afghan war widows protesting for Clementina's release.

I found it frustrating that, except for the Italian press and the BBC News website, those images were hardly used by the world's media.

Afghan women live their lives behind closed doors, and for those widows to find the courage to publicly protest on the streets in honour of a foreign woman speaks volumes about the true courage of Afghan women, but also about the respect they have for my friend Clementina.

She runs an emergency food programme for widows, but one of her aims was to get them off food vouchers and into employment.

As such, I hired two of them as cleaners. Whenever I saw her, she never failed to ask how they and their children were.

Thousands of women had contact with her over the years, but she knew them all as individuals, never forgetting key details - children's names, an illness, a family wedding.

Since her abduction, Clementina's friends around the world have taken comfort from emails to each other.

The wife of the Afghan ambassador to Canada calls her "the sweetest, most gentle, intelligent, and loving young woman. One who has been deeply moved and transformed by her experiences living and working in that country".

Another mutual friend, a fashion designer working with Afghan women, wrote: "I am going to make her the top she wanted but never ordered as it was too expensive... blue and red. The blue matches her beautiful eyes. The red is for passion - a contrast. Just as Clementina could be... Playing tough football with men, but still looking absolutely straight and gorgeous...".

'They no longer want us'

I last saw Clementina at my birthday party three weeks ago.

I keep picturing her as she wished me many happy returns, smiling and gorgeous as ever, her intense blue eyes sparkling.

I still can't comprehend that it was she, one of the most experienced and careful aid workers in Afghanistan, who has been abducted.

No-one in Kabul would ever dare to say it, but we are all thinking that if it was her, it could have been any of us.

Afghan women queue up at a Care International food distribution centre in Kabul.
"She helped these women in a small but tangible way"
I flew back to London last week, and at the airport I bumped into a colleague who was leaving the country for good.

"I'm not sure any of us are actually making a difference," she told me.

"They no longer want us there and it is only going to get more dangerous."

I pray she is wrong about the future dangers.

But whatever happens in the future, there were people in Afghanistan who did make a difference - who made sure that a child was able to eat fresh meat occasionally, that a mother could afford medicine for a sick baby or a warm coat for herself in winter.

These were small, but tangible differences that can change the course of a person's life. That is what Clementina did.

And to whoever is holding her, I want to send this message: she is a force for good in this world. We love her and we want her back.

Nadene Ghouri is on sabbatical from the BBC. She promotes media development in Kabul, Afghanistan.

People in Afghanistan appeal for care worker's release

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