Report in Afghanistan
MWL Board Member
A Journey Home
journey to Kabul starts in Dubai Airport.
I am standing in a line with other delegates of Global Exchange, an
interfaith group of pacifists that are bringing a message of peace at the
height of the U.S. bombing. The
plane is full with Afghans who are traveling to Kabul to rebuild their
country and journalists who want to report on the political road that the
country will take. I am aware
of the historic move that Afghanistan will be taking.
I am also wondering whether poverty, destruction, greed and the
complexities of a 23-year war will cripple the country’s will to take a
step forward toward a better future.
The aging plane with its old chairs, ducktaped ceiling, and extreme
heat before take off, is, for me, a symbol of the struggle that the
country has gone through. However,
the fact that the plane actually lifts itself from the runway is a
testimony to the pragmatism that Afghans still have even after 23 years of
war and devastation. After
a two and one half-hour journey, the plane lands awkwardly.
The Afghan gentleman setting to the right of me wipes away his
tears. He tells me he is a
civil engineer and has come from Germany for a project to build roads. We both know the country that was once our secure shelter is
now in ruins. As we enter
the airport, I find young men in uniforms wearing faces that look old,
tired and hungry. As we move to get our luggage other, older men offer to help.
Their backs are bent, their bodies are weak, their eyes are sad and
searching, their hands are shaking, but they know that their families'
next meal may be earned by the little tip that they may receive by
carrying our luggage. As we
leave the airport, we find ourselves surrounded by kids, begging, pleading
for money. Aside from the old men, these kids are the other breadwinners
of this poor devastated nation. At this moment I think of the historic
day of March 23rd, 2002 when all schools re-opened for the
entire population of Afghanistan. What
does this historic day mean to these kids?
Apparently not much since their mission in life for now is to beg
so that their families can eat their next meal.
However, in the midst of this poverty, there are signs of hope.
I see some girls and boys with their books walking home from
school. The streets are full
of cars, merchants are selling their products, and people are walking as
though they are on a mission: to survive another day.
In the guesthouse where our 19-member delegation will stay, we
introduce ourselves and the objectives of our trip.
Marie Denis, vice-president of Pax Christi and Laywoman with the
Mary Knoll office of Global Concerns, tells us the reason why she has come
to Kabul. She says, “The
only way that we can bring about change in our country (the U.S.), and I
believe there has to be a transformation, is by going to the places that
are on the receiving end of our destructive foreign policies and finding
those stories of hope. The
gift of my work has brought me to the margins of life. I believe very much that in those places life is most often
nurtured in hope.”
found that my trip was interspersed with hope and despair not knowing
which would prevail in the end. The
struggle between despair and hope surfaced again when we went to Halo
Trust foundation for a briefing on a de-mining project.
Afghanistan is the most mined nation in the world.
It is estimated that up to 640,000 mines have been laid since 1979.
Our delegates were all gathered in a room with displays of maps
showing the mined areas all around us.
The first mines were put in by the Soviets, which was followed by
the Mujahideen groups to repel the Soviets.
Then each Mujahideen group mined the area of their own territory to
combat other Mujahideen groups. From
the types of the mines one can find out the countries that sponsored each
Mujahideen faction. The Halo
Trust works with local Afghans to de-mine the country.
There was a large display of mines and bombs that the Halo Trust
uncovered-including U.S. Cluster Bombs.
I remembered traveling through Afghanistan as a child enjoying its
rich history that each monument, each mosque, each statue and each minaret
embodied. Today, 21 years
later, I found myself staring at a collection of bombs that has destroyed
that rich history. My
thoughts were interrupted by the celebratory tone of a member of the Halo
Trust exclaiming that the de-mining project had just met a major goal: one
third of the country had been de-mined. The
Shamali Valley, once full of farmland is now a destroyed, dusty, dry,
piece of land marked by white and red rocks.
The white side mark the areas cleared of mines and the red side
mark areas still packed with mines. De-miners
have replaced the farmers. They
earn a monthly salary of $128 to poke the ground and probe for mines and
UXO (Unexploded Ordnance). The
team that we observed was led by a gentleman from the Hazara tribe.
He and his team spend hours in the hot sun probing for mines.
He proudly explained his routine while in the background we heard an
explosion of a mine that was detected and disarmed.
On the road ahead we saw trucks and buses full of Afghan refugees
rushing back to reclaim their land.
In the heat of the sun the deminers continue their task to
clear the mines. But not fast
enough for those who have to stay in refugee camps until the mined areas
Rabat Refugee Camp
a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) speaks of the toll of
miseries. Rabat holds people
who were displaced because of the US bombing and refugees that can not go
to their mined villages. Forty-three
families live in a village of tents provided by the United Nations High
Commission for Refugees. As
we got out of our van, kids immediately surrounded us.
The hardship of life blured their ages.
They possessed small malnutrition bodies.
We heard a woman crying from the inside a tent. We were told she had given birth a week before and had extreme
As the kids
grabbed our hands asking for money and for our pens that we were using to take
notes with, as we heard the woman crying, as we looked at depressing
conditions, one of my fellow delegates feeling overwhelmed asked an old man, “ What can we do for you?’’
The old man responded, “I
am a human like you are. I
need food like you do. Do for
me what you would do for yourself.”
The cries of the woman seemed more urgent than the old man’s
plea. We collected all of our
Afghani money and gave it to the old man asking him to take the women to
the nearest hospital. We
promised that a group of us would come back the following week for the
rest of the people at the comp.
As we left the miserable camp, the old man stepped into a tiny
1-foot by 1-foot garden. He
picked the only bloomed rose and offered it to one of our delegates.
He said, “This is all I have to give you as a gift.
Please accept it.” The rose offered represented the hospitality so
engrained in the Afghans that the 23 years of war could not distort—to
me it represented hope.
The glimpse of hope we saw at Rabat
struck again when we visited the village of Istalif.
As we drove toward the village, I remembered it as a child- a resort
with grape vineyards and flowing streams.
Its bazaars were famous for green and blue pottery. This was the place where we went during the hot days of
summer to enjoy the cool weather and the serene beauty.
Upon our arrival, I beheld, with sad eyes, a burned out village.
The roofless stores were charcoal black and its once fresh streams
were completely dried. The
Taliban set fire to this village in 1998 causing most of the residents to
die or flee. The people have
come back to pick up the pieces of their lives. Their village was
destroyed, but their dreams were not shattered. On March 23rd, the Istalif School opened its
tent to boys and girls. The school is one large UNICEF tent with blue
tarps and blackboards. The tent accommodates 450 students; 150 of them
girls. The girls’ tent is
further away and even though education is mandatory for boys and girls,
this school only has classes for girls enrolled in 1st and 2nd
grade. The principal, Abdul
Qahar, who was the vice-principal of the school before the war, talked with
pride about the old days. He
was bothered by my question as to why the school offered education to the
girls at the elementary level only. With
deep lines in his face and bent back that spoke legions of his struggles,
he tried to answer my question. He
told me boys who came to this school slept at night under those roofless
houses. No parent would allow
heir older daughters to do the same.
He told me that neither he nor his teachers had been paid for the
past 3 months. They were making the best of a very tough situation.
When I gave a cheap calculator to a 9-year-old girl named Nadia, the
joy in the principal’s eyes was obvious.
Nadia was one of the brightest students and was well deserving of the
gift. While he talked, my mind
wondered what would be Nadia’s future after 2nd grade.
What if we sat back and watched this girl lose her opportunity of
education because of prejudice, ignorance or lack of infrastructure.
Claire Schaffer-Duffy was a member of our delegation and a reporter
from National Catholic Reporter. We
met a boy of 18 named Arif Karandesh.
When Claire asked him what subjects he liked the best, he was
shocked and amused by the question. “I
like all subjects, math, history, science, literature”, he said quickly. He was a resident of Istalif when he was forced to flee four
years ago. At age 14, he
joined the Northern Alliance. With
pride he stated that he had fought along Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was
killed by Al-Qaeda. He was very ambitious. He
go to the university, become a teacher, a doctor and eventually the Prime
Minister of Afghanistan. Claire
and I were taken by his keen eyes full of hope.
She knew she had a story to write and I felt the burden of
responsibility to not let his hope die.
Karandesh-would like to go to a University and become a teacher, a
doctor and eventually the Prime Minister.
girl-what will be her future?
political direction that Afghanistan has recently taken could foster
Arif’s dreams. Before our
delegation left the States on June 13, Hamid Karzai won 1295 out of the 1575 votes cast allowing him to be President for the next 18
months. Karzai told the reporters,
“I want to take Afghanistan out of the quagmire of warlordism,
terrorism, hunger and oppression. But
can we have security and justice at the same time? We will see if we have the luxury to do both at the same
time.” The full
participation of several corrupt warlords in the Loya Jiga illustrates
that peace and justice will have to be implemented in stages.
The security of Afghanistan has become a vital issue.
The warlords have become part of the political process for four
reasons. First, if the
warlords were barred from participating, they would have stirred more
trouble. Second, in the
US’s mission to capture Taliban and Al Qaeda members, it cut deals with
warlords. The warlords help
the US capture Taliban members and in return, the US pressures the Kabul
government to keep the warlords in power.
Third, in order to form a balanced government inclusive of all
ethnicities, the participation of warlords elected by their people of the
villages is essential. Fourth,
the International Security Assistant Forces (ISAF) are present only in
Kabul. The U.S. and its
allies’ decision to limit this security force to Kabul leaves the rest
of Afghanistan in a vulnerable situation.
There have been some allegations suggesting that the election of
Karzai by the Loya Jiga was not a fair process.
The Chief of Staff from the Kabul government told us that he felt
that the Loya Jirga election was a democratic process.
He believes, as much as the 23 years of war has tormented the
psychic of the people, the Afghans are a pragmatic people.
“Yesterday’s warlord could become tomorrow’s society
builder,” He added on saying, “We don’t have many options right now. We are on the top of the bridge that’s shaky.
We either get to the other side or we don’t make it.
making it” is what this devastated nation can not endure.
The 40,000 kids, the breadwinners, who roam the streets of Kabul
doing odd jobs and begging for money to sustain their families have
already, sacrificed their schooling. The 500,000 disabled orphans, the starved men, women and
widows, the land of mines and rubble can not sink any lower. The people of Afghanistan paid a high price when
the world left them alone in their miseries.
The role of the U.S. is important and it has leverage.
Its decision to use warlords to fight terrorism should be coupled
with respect for the Afghan people’s life, dignity and hope.
Ahmed Rashid in his book “Taliban” criticizes the U.S. for
“picking up single issues and creating entire policies around them,
whether it be oil pipelines, the treatment of women or terrorism.”
If America’s policy in Afghanistan is only to capture Osama Bin
Laden, Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda members, it will once again engage in a
shortsighted policy. If the
dreams of young boys like Arif Kharandesh are shattered, we must ask
whether he will respond to the calls of other maniacs.
The Osamas of the world will never be demolished, but youth given a
sense of direction, given a promise to keep hope alive, and given a
helping hand will not respond to their irrational calls.
At this time, the security of Afghanistan is a vital issue.
The security provided by ISAF (International Security Force) in
Kabul should be expanded to other cities of Afghanistan.
If they are secured, the role of warlords will become less
influential. Without this
security humanitarian aid won’t reach drought-afflicted villagers
outside Kabul. Roads, school,
and hospitals won’t be built. More
than five billions in aid was pledged to Afghanistan over five-year period
at a meeting of donors in Toko in January 2002.
According to Hafiz Pasha, Assistant Secretary-General of the United
Nations Development Program, this year donors pledged $1.7 billion -only $1.1
billion dollars is a firm commitment.
The delays in funding reconstruction projects are linked to lack of
concrete proposal and lack of security outside Kabul.
Girls Go Back to School
challenges of Afghan women to participate in society after devastating
wars and five years of virtual house imprisonment under the Taliban regime
are enormous. The girls rush
enthusiastically to their schools regardless of the fact that most sit on
dirt floors and are surrounded by rubble, buildings destroyed by bombs and
bullets. Leeda a, 16 year
old, represents the challenges faced by many girls.
I met her at the Mental Health Hospital during the Memorial Service
for Victims of US Bombings. Global
Exchange delegates spoke to her and other Afghans who had lost their families
and homes as a result of the US bombing. Rev. Myrna Bethke and Kristina
Marie Olsen, who lost family members to the terrorist attacks of September
11, spoke of their losses.
Kristina sang from the depth of her heart about her vision of a
peace in the world. As we
listened, Leeda turned to me and said Kristina’s voice sounded sad.
I told her she was sad, but she was also hopeful, like her, for a
better tomorrow. Leeda and
her family lost their house in the US bombing and were now living with
other family members. When I
asked her what she needed, she shrugged her shoulders and said nothing.
She said she was happy now that she was back in
but was keenly aware of the lost years when she was forced to stay home.
She was in seventh grade when the Taliban stopped her from going to
school. When she restarted
school in March and took the placement exam, she was placed in grade 7th
instead of 11th. She said her friend was tutored by her mother
at home and when she took the exam, she was placed in the 11th
grade. When I asked if she
needed school supplies, she suddenly became aware of how much she needed.
She pointed to her torn shoes, then began a long list, something to
carry her books in, a pen, a pencil, an eraser…
at school-After 5 years of staying at home these girls look forward
to attending school
areas-blue arrow indicate locations where de-mining efforts have
girls and women paid a high price for the turmoil that inflated their country.
Girls are rushing back to school to make up for lost time and
fulfill their dream of becoming contributors to the reconstruction of their
country. Women of Kabul are
coming back to work to make a living and celebrate
their newfound freedom to participate in society. They have created day care centers subsidized by the
government for government employees.
However, the conditions at these centers are very primitive. Infants as young as 1 month old are sleeping on the hard
concrete floors. The principal, Sima Nori, was enthused about how much they
had accomplished in a short amount of time.
However, we found the rooms dark with flies swirling around the
kids and could not picture our own children spending 8 to 10 hours a day
in such a place.
We visited Tajwar
Kakar, the Deputy Minister of Women’s Affair—an advocate for Afghan
women’s rights for decades. In
forming his cabinet, President Karzai announced the creation of 13
ministries, but the ministry of Women’s Affairs was not included.
Ms Kakar is convinced of the importance of this ministry.
She spoke of her experiences in the refugee camps in Pakistan where
women were virtually ignored. She challenged the Mujahidden leaders in
Pakistan and the Taliban leader in Afghanistan to point out to her the
verses of the Quran that excluded women’s participation in society. According
to Kakar, 67% of refugees and the internally displaced are women and many
of them are widows. There is
a need for programs such as food-for-work.
She stated that her ministry had become an advocate for girls that
missed five years of education during the Taliban era.
One of the duties of this office is to extend the hours of
education of girls another 3 hours to make up for handicaps.
Kakar believes that merely giving women money will not make them
productive members of society. She
believes that the establishment of vocational training is urgent. She foresees the Ministry of Women’s Affairs engaged in
building small factories for dry milk, tomato sauce and cheese production
to create a work force for women to stand on their feet.
Even though the direction of this department and Kakar’s position
is unknown, her strength, her understanding of the needs of Afghan girls
and women, her understanding of what Islam is, are assets that will make
her a contributor to the Afghan society.
In the middle of destruction, drought,
and poverty, the work of humanitarian groups such as Islamic Relief sheds
some light on despair. Our
delegates met the Islamic Relief members in their office in Wazir Akbar
Khan. Sakandar Ali, the
president of the organization introduced his staff of 4 who were all young
and determined to help Afghanistan in this time of terrible need.
A 2002 video documentary presented the Islamic Relief’s efforts
to provide food, health care and education in different area of the
country. Immediately after
Sept 11 when all the NGOs were pulling out of Afghanistan in anticipation
of U.S. retaliation, the documentary showed trucks sponsored by Islamic
Relief distributing food. Sakandar
told our group that his staff and the other employees of Islamic Relief
were asked to leave the country for security reasons, but that they
declined stating that their help was urgently needed and that they could not
fail the Afghan people for their own security. Sakandar told us that he and his organization
understood that each Islamic Relief agency had to be investigated to
absolve them of any affiliation with terrorist groups.
However, his plea to my fellow delegates and the American people
was to expedite this investigation so the poor do not continue to suffer.
Islamic Relief has set up target sectors to help the country
through emergency relief, health, education, water and sanitation, and
Afghanistan is ranked among the most deprived countries.
These are some statistic from UNICEF, UN, WFP and Islamic Relief:
of the population is malnourished.
to 4% of Afghan population is disabled. (Islamic Relief)
expectancy: Female 43.5 years; Male 43 years (UNICEF 2000)
in 4 children suffer from moderate and severe wasting, a condition
where the ratio of weight to height is abnormally low (UN 2000)
has the world’s fourth worst child mortality rate; 257 of every 1000
children born die before reaching age 5.
Every year approximately
16,000 mothers die in childbirth.
The maternal mortality rate is the second worst in the word.
For every 1000 live births 17 mothers die.
statistics are alarming and as we traveled the streets of Kabul and its
surroundings, the burden of poverty overwhelmed each delegate. Yet in the
eyes of every child, every handicapped man and every crying widow, I
witnessed hope. The city of
Kabul is robust with merchants selling and citizens clearing the rubble
and trying to rebuild. When
the citizens of such a devastated nation have not given up hope, we the
citizens of the richest country of the world should not give up on them.
Be proactive and lobby to expand the International Security Force (ISAF)
to areas outside of Kabul.
Call our senators and urge them to support the Afghan Victims Fund—which
has been set up to help the families of casualties caused by U.S.
Ask your Congressmen to give funds to finance micro loan projects to
Support the Muslim Women League in its endeavor to support the Istalif
School at the grass roots level. Our
organization will direct your contributions to provide desks and chairs
and school supplies to the school. Let’s
not forget the hopeful faces of Afghan children turning toward you and
pleading for a normal life.
Please mail you financial support to the address below and indicate
“Afghanistan Project” in the memo of your check:
Wilshire Blvd., Suite 519
Angeles, CA 90010