PITTSFIELD, Maine — Asked whether Afghanistan could ever see true peace, Mary MacMakin had a surprising answer.

“Afghanistan is basically already at peace,” said MacMakin. “The whole central part of the country lives in peace.”

What’s broken, she said, is the government’s ability to govern.

MacMakin has spent a total of 30 years in what many people see as a country ravaged by years of war and conflict. The 81-year-old told members of the First Universalist Church in Pittsfield during their Sunday service that she’s planning another trip to Afghanistan to start her second nongovernmental aid organization.

“I assure you that what you see on television is not Afghanistan,” she said. “We don’t have bullets kicking up dust all around us.”

MacMakin, who now lives in Arizona but visits her two daughters in central Maine regularly, moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1961 with her husband, Bob, who was pursuing a job. She was a physical therapist for 20 years until she left Afghanistan in the early 1980s. About 10 years later she returned and in 1996 founded a nonprofit aid organization called PARSA. PARSA remains in operation today, providing health care, education and a variety of other services to Afghan people in need.

In 2005, MacMakin returned to Arizona to care for her husband, who has a debilitating illness. She is collecting money to return to Afghanistan and start an organization that helps women learn skills to support themselves.

“During the past five years, I’ve realized Afghanistan has a big hold on my heart,” said MacMakin. “I’m really trying to get back again.”

MacMakin has seen firsthand the tragedy of war and internal strife, including invaders ranging from Russians to Americans. In July 2000 she was temporarily expelled from the country by the Taliban, and escaped to Pakistan over a mountain in the cold. She told the story Sunday in response to a young girl’s question about a picture of MacMakin bundled up on a horse.

“We saw ice, sleet and everything else,” said MacMakin. “The person who rented me the horse kept my spirits up by telling me there was an army outpost on top of the mountain and that they had hot tea. We got there and there was no outpost and no tea. We just kept on going … and by the time we got to the bottom [of the mountain] it was like summer again.”

Despite experiences like that, MacMakin said, there’s something that has always made her feel safe in Afghanistan: her ability to speak the local language. She suggested simple communication might be a good approach for troops now stationed there.

“How can you do any good if you don’t talk to people?” said MacMakin. “Their lifeblood is talk. I don’t think there’s a single introvert in the whole country. The troops need to be able to talk to people. They’ve got to be more human.”


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.