We know that Afghanistan has been torn by war for decades and that it barely functions on any level, but I could not imagine what that means for individuals trying to make it from one day to the next until I read this blunt, horrific account.

Suraya Sadeed had managed to escape the Soviet occupation of the '70s by emigrating to the United States with her husband and daughter. She became a successful Realtor, living the American materialistic dream, until her husband suddenly died and she faced the midlife question: Now what?

A CNN news report in 1993 galvanized her into action. The mujahedeen, factions under a number of warlords, were fighting one another for control of Afghanistan and converging on her birthplace, the capital city of Kabul.

Within months Sadeed had founded a charity, Help the Afghan Children, and raised money from Afghan immigrants. Dressed in a burqa, with cash strapped to her waist, she made her way to an Afghani refugee camp outside of Kabul and distributed the money.

That proved the first of ever more harrowing pilgrimages, giving out money and blankets, setting up clinics and founding underground schools for girls. After the mujahedeen, she had to contend with the Taliban. They brought order and some stability, albeit under harsh Sharia law which forbade any education aside from the study of the Qur'an (Taliban means "the students") and banned girls from any schooling.

A blunt, forceful woman, Sadeed manages to get some Taliban leaders to help her in distributing aid. Though often afraid, she pushes on. It probably helps that she is pragmatic and not especially introspective.

In straightforward, unsentimental language, she describes scenes that made my flesh crawl. The once beautiful and sophisticated city of Kabul has turned into a treeless ruin where wild dogs tear at the corpses in the streets. There is the tree of amputations, which is festooned with the hacked-off limbs of young men who have transgressed Taliban rules. There is the graveyard with thousands of infants, and the "widow camp" where women and girls as young as 4 can be used by men in any way they wish. She meets a friend from university days, who has aged so shockingly that she looks like a hollowed-out hag.

From 1993 to the present, Sadeed has continued to speak, write and raise funds, including more than $1 million from Oprah Winfrey.

Unfortunately, her mission has no end in sight.

Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.