Turning a Corner

The call came late May.

“We’ll do the usual. The guesthouse, the flight.”

Irshad, an HR assistant for the Aga Khan Development Network, was calling from Kabul to ask I would return.

I’d volunteered twice before for AKDN, the largest development organization in Afghanistan after the UN—to help local staff with their written and spoken English.

AKDN employs over 1500 Afghans. Most are what in ESL parlance would be called zero beginners.

But that wasn’t the reason I said no.

When I first flew into Kabul in March 2006, I hadn’t fully realized that after Operation Enduring Freedom, the 2001 U.S. bombing campaign that killed tens of thousands of Afghans, there had been five years of relative peace. The HR Director who recruited me said, “The air smells fresh. We’re turning a corner.”

Then the Taliban crawled out of their caves, attacking ISAF bases in the south. An insurgence beefed up with Al Qaeda fighters bombed or torched over 330 schools, killing and maiming dozens of children. Impoverished farmers indebted to drug lords produced a bumper crop of poppy, more than the world’s demand for heroin. And a drought decimated wheat fields, forcing people to sell emaciated cattle—and some of their children.

On my second trip in winter 2007, I traveled to four of AKDN’s northern offices and taught 126 people. Before a security threat sent me home, I had less than twenty teaching hours with any one person.

On that trip, there was no more talk of turning corners.

“But, Miss.” Esmat, 28, a project assistant, shot up a hand. We were sitting in an unheated classroom in Puli-Khumri, a city about 150 kilometers north of Kabul. On the white board, I had just capitalized a month.

We turned to Esmat, expecting one of his jokes. “What do Afghans care about dates when all we’ve had for twenty-five years is war?” he said.

I turned from the class’s laughter, and noticed outside our window, a group of children walking through the sleeting snow, bundling brush for cook fires. Most had no shoes.

With the collapse of peace and reconstruction efforts threatened, I wasn’t surprised that Esmat’s patience had worn thin. In the last 25 years most of the class had fled the country, joining six million people, a fifth of the population—the largest refugee group in the world.

People were back now to work with farmers, to teach women how to grow kitchen gardens, and to help villagers elect shuras, village councils. But at the end of their day, staff return to homes without electricity or running water. They have no access to clinics. Their children go to school in tents. In mountain villages, I saw other children sitting on tarps, their teacher lecturing to them.

And this year there was no snow cover in Doshi Valley, nor in the south as I saw from my plane’s window, forcing AKDN to divert funds from farm projects to emergency wheat rations.

Esmat’s question was not the only one I could not answer.

“I can’t go out without a burqa because people will talk,” said Nadia, 21, an office manager who liked to wear tight jeans under hers. With more English gained in the last year, she had overcome her shyness, wanted my help with a letter, to ask for a raise to $150 a month. Orphaned by the war, she supported her sister, paralyzed from the waist down. Her sister had tried to kill herself by jumping from a third-story window during a U.S. cluster bomb attack.

After we finished the letter, Nadia turned to pick up her burqa, draped on a chair behind her. A view of her I hadn’t seen. The thin boniness of her hips and legs shocked me. An attempt at fashion? No, she had become too angry to eat.

I saw few women in the Puli-Khumri bazaar. But the burqa, the symbol we westerners use to gauge the abuse of civil and human rights, is the least of the problems facing women. Poverty is. And with crime on the increase, people keep their wives at home, fearing for their safety. People keep their daughters home, their schools now targeted by the Taliban.

“We don’t have divorce here,” said Anahita, another student. “I’m stuck with one man. How boring.” Her smile told me otherwise.

I don’t know if Anahita’s marriage was arranged. An estimated 80 percent of marriages are forced, sometimes to pay a debt or to resolve a dispute. More than half of the marriages involve girls below the legal age of sixteen—girls as young as seven are bought as second, third and fourth wives to men as old as seventy.

Desperate to escape domestic violence, sometimes by drug-addicted husbands, an increasing number of these girls are resorting to self-immolation—they douse themselves with kerosene and light a match. Clinics have seen hundreds of failed suicides, young women with severe muscle damage or body parts fused together. Women’s rights groups have tried to estimate their numbers, but cases often go unreported for fear of stigma, or because when cases of abuse are brought to court, judges only ask, “Why has she done this?”

“Why doesn’t Karzai show his wife in public—unveiled—like Amunallah Khan did in 1919?” Nikfar, an engineer, had just watched my class of zero beginners in Bamyan leave our classroom. But when the class, women in their early twenties, go to villages to teach people how to vote, they must travel with a marham, a male relative to whom they can’t be married. Otherwise people would talk but not to them.

Karzai hasn’t presented his wife in a single public ceremony. Some say he’s afraid of alienating Islamists, who are increasingly turning militant.

On this 2007 trip, I’d learned why the guard came running after me whenever I attempted to leave the compound. The year before in Puli-Khumri, three Afghan women had been found on a road outside of town, with notes tied to them warning people not to work for the internationals.

Whoever had done it—a sect or militia—had left the women with their throats slit.

It was also Nikfar who, after we had climbed to the top of a bombed Buddha cave, pointed below at a planned highway, abandoned. “You can see it’s still dirt,” he said. “Karzai is Pashtun, you know, and there aren’t enough Pashtuns along this road.”

We then ducked out of a blizzard into another cave, where six children in donated snowsuits huddled around a fire. As we put money into their pail, Nikfar said, “The government will kick them out. But they’ll come back.”

And what of the new democracy, the finishing touch on Afghanistan’s extreme makeover?

Monawar, a helicopter pilot before mujahedeen destroyed the Afghan Air Force in ’92, wrote in a class assignment: “Why is Karzai worrying about Pakistan when everyone knows half the parliament is warlords? Why is Bush lying about freedom when we know the Taliban controls half the country?”

I wondered if, as employees of an international agency, Monawar and my other students held insights that impoverished, jobless Afghans did not.

In Faisabad, the capital of the northeastern-most Badakhshan Province, the signs to our compound had been taken down. People were throwing stones at AKDN vans because of a dispute between mullahs and the provincial governor. Many of our staff are Ismailis, the same sect as the governor.

“People don’t trust the government, the UN, or the U.S.,” said Mutahar, a thirty-year-old project manager. “People think the U.S. is friendly with the Taliban. They think U.S. helicopters supply the Taliban with weapons.”

Astounded, I asked him if people knew about ISAF. The international security force.

“No, all they see are the Americans wandering around with their guns,” he said.

It occurred to me that the “people” had drawn logical conclusions.

At times, it seemed a mess. At times, I thought I was there for only appearance’s sake. AKDN couldn’t afford to pay me. Our short trainings were long enough to leave my zero beginners comfortable with saying, “Fine, thanks. And you?”

But it wasn’t my students’ fault. Given a choice, wouldn’t people want to live, work, raise their children in peace?

On February 15, we watched Bush declare that Afghans were “free to realize their dreams,” while boys are sent home in body bags, clinics in the south can’t handle half the wounded civilians, and in camps, babies freeze before dawn.

In the last six years, we’ve pledged but not spent an estimated $11 billion of reconstruction money for Afghanistan. Money that has been spent filters through so many contractors and subcontractors, leaving little for projects on the ground, that most of the billions ends up wired right back into American pockets—a wastage that stuns veterans of the aid community.

And on March 11, against the protests of Afghans, we watched a powerless Karzai sign a bill passed through the lower and upper house, granting amnesty to members of parliament for killing children.

Has Afghanistan, cited by Bush as a model for Iraq, turned its penultimate corner?
The road to Baharak, a Shangri-La-like town high in a northern valley, snakes along an icy turquoise river, twists through mud-brick villages with ancient-faced children who appeared as if they’ve seen it all. A toddler in a mirror-spangled dress ran to the side of the road, watching our white van pass with a sad, old-lady face, like nothing lay ahead of her.

I supposed I shouldn’t have left the new compound; people torched the old compound after seeing a Newsweek article, a photo of American soldiers flushing page of the Quran down a toilet. But I did leave. There were no women about. Not a one. But this could be partly because their numbers are fewer here, with the highest recorded rate of death from childbirth in the world—one of every fifteen births.

That first day in Baharak, a dozen men arrived for a training, looking whacked after bouncing for five hours on the back of a truck on a carpet of rocks. Khalid quickly became my favorite. Wiry, with razor-sharp eyes and a face leathered by his farm work, he wrote every practice email about needing a generator for his seed-cleaning machine. When the others groaned, “Not that machine again,” Khalid would smile, shrug, and turn to me with a wry look. Nothing escaped him much.

At the end of our week’s workshop, Khalid stood with me, the two of us alone at our conference table turned into classroom. “Why don’t you stay?” he said. “You know the background, the people.”

At first, I thought yes, why not?

As we’ve talked, dusk had flushed the walls pink. Outside the window, sparrows chorused, from one tree to another.

Khalid then told me he had learned English forty years ago from two Peace Corps volunteers. He said, as if announcing them just walking into the room, “Mr. and Mrs. Springfield from Poughkeepsie, New York.”

He turned to me. Those eyes. “I wonder where they are now. I wonder if they are alive.

Los Angeles Free Press, July 2007.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: