Baltimore Sun’s BEST party in 2 weeks

Amid the Afghan ruins, patriarchs see promise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SARCHINA, Afghanistan - The grandfather's four cows are skinny, his two goats are lost looking for food, his remaining chickens are too exhausted to offer much chase before slaughter, and his onions will not grow. He buried his 1-year-old grandson under dusty stones on a mountainside he can see from his window, next to another grandson, this one a teen-ager.

The man - Malik Said Rahman is his name - sits on a red velvety cushion, his turban at his side. Dust from his parched fields sticks to his sweat.

He thinks about the drought that is killing his animals and plants, about the lack of medical services and social order that killed his grandsons.

He considers, too, what may become of the rest of his family.

And he says that, yes, he is very happy. As happy as he has been in many, many years.

Others share in that feeling.

Eighty-six miles north and west of Rahman's lonely little village of Sarchina sits another grandfather on his own cushion in a clay-walled shop. He shapes the dirt from the surrounding mountains into pottery.

He and his sons have just finished marking an area next to the shop to which they have begun carrying 40,000 bricks - 10 and 20 at a time - a full four miles to rebuild their home. When he becomes too tired, he rents a donkey. He owns no animals.

He and his family, 13 people in all, returned to nothing but the shop two months ago. The Taliban destroyed everything they had. Then, almost a year ago, he knows, there was terrible violence in New York and Washington. Americans came and, with Afghan help, toppled the Taliban.

But yes, says this man - his name is Abdul Qadir - he is quite content in his village, Kulalan. In fact, he also is very happy.

More schools are open, though many of them lack books. Many guns are in sight, but that is not new. That has long been the way of the countryside.

The two grandfathers cannot be said to be typical of all older men in Afghanistan. Nor can Sarchina and Kulalan be called typical of all the isolated villages of the country. There is no "typical" or obvious "average" in a country where customs differ on every slice of mountainside and where recent history - the past several centuries - consists of invasions, civil strife, assassinations, and war after war.

But the grandfathers know they are typical of the country in at least one sense. Their happiness, and that of other villages around the country, will be determined by common factors: how long the world remembers them, how much the world is willing to help them, how - and if - the country's new government will survive.

Whether it will ever rain again will matter, too.

"Afghanistan can't stand on its own right now," says Rahman, speaking in his native Pashto. "People will still cut each other off at the feet, so we need security and enough assistance so that one man won't fight another man."

Says Qadir, who is Tajik, in his native language of Dari: "America will forget. Everybody will forget, we know. For us, we need to help ourselves while others help us so we can be strong when they leave."

Afghans are Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Aimaks, Turkmen, Balochs, Uzbeks. About a third of the population can read. No Afghan government of the past 20 years, including the American-supported leaders now in Kabul, could truthfully claim to control all 30 provinces.

Even now, the world's aid for such remote places as Sarchina and Kulalan is slow or yet to arrive, with most of the donated money and goods clogged in bureaucracies or dumped in Afghanistan's cities. But Sarchina is to Jalalabad and Kulalan is to Kabul something like what Peoria, Ill., is to Washington: distant in every way, and altogether unlikely to receive any help that exceeds their political importance.

Part of what makes the new government here so fragile and its challenges so enormous, though, is that all but about 5 million of the country's 25 million citizens live in villages far from the capital or Kandahar or Jalalabad or anywhere else that is remotely modern.

And helping themselves is not easy.

Qadir lives along a steep mountainside road 38 miles north-northwest of Kabul - a 90-minute drive experienced while sitting on the splintered wooden floor of a heavy-breathing bus or clinging atop the bus like an aged stuntman as its wheels spin and sputter and often stop dead.

Rahman lives 48 miles east-southeast of the capital, a three-hour drive in daylight across a road so obliterated that it may as well be a riverbed. Forget about driving at night. It is forbidden, not that the police enforce this law. That is left to the robbers, who emerge from behind rocks clutching rifles, feigning the need for a ride.

Rahman doesn't own a car, anyway. He, like Qadir and just about everybody else in their villages, would be as likely to own a spaceship.

'Things can get better'

This is how troubled Afghanistan has been: It became far better off once the United States began dropping 500-ton bombs on it.

Toppling the Taliban regime means girls now attend school. Young men without beards are not beaten on the streets. The soccer stadium in the capital of Kabul no longer fills on Fridays with near-silent crowds who watch the government hack off the hands of accused thieves - or shoot accused adulterers in the back of the head.

But the country remains chaotic, backward, almost ungovernable. And despite promises of aid from around the world, from as far away as Washington and as close as neighboring Pakistan, it is likely to remain that way for a long time.

In the villages, especially, conditions remain difficult for women, many of them still forced by tradition to wear burqas, many of them also not allowed to speak to men who are not relatives.

In "liberated" Afghanistan, the currency is nearly worthless. Electricity is scarce. Paved roads that connected cities and provided trade routes are shattered to fragments and dust. Sanitation? There is none.

Crutches are passed out like candy because land mines continue to blow off children's legs at the knees. Farms are scorched from the fourth year of drought. Many farms that have survived are too dangerous to harvest - again because of land mines. So people go hungry. Animals starve.

Families returning from Pakistan or Iran or whatever country would have them are living in tents on the sides of roads. They cannot afford to rebuild the homes the Taliban or any number of warring factions have leveled, cannot afford mud bricks. And winter is not all that far off.

Medical "clinics" for large regions are converted vegetable stands at village bazaars, where donkeys defecate and where plucked chickens and skinned lambs hang from hooks in the dust and sun, covered in orange bees and black flies.

Researchers from Physicians for Human Rights have been studying Afghanistan's maternal mortality rate by counting women who have died while pregnant or while giving birth. They have been counting for six months. They are still counting. But in a report to be released Sept. 11, the group has concluded that the mortality rate is among the highest in the world.

The infant mortality rate is already known: One in four children will die before turning 5.

And Afghan army commanders, many of them part of the government, continue to terrorize people by taking their animals, threatening to cut off their already minimal services, or killing them if bribes are not paid.

Consider where Qadir lives with the 12 other members of his family: His home destroyed, he is living in the house of a neighbor who, like everybody in the village, fled to Pakistan when the Taliban took power.

The house is made of dirt mixed with straw mixed with water. It has two main rooms, each 9 feet by 10 feet, the dirt floor covered by a blue tarp donated to returning Afghan refugees by South Korea. Half the tarp is covered by a red and black carpet - not one of the $60 rugs that the women in his family weave 12 hours a day for a solid month, but a machine-made piece. It sells for $5.

The house has no electricity. It never did. Off one of the rooms is what passes for a kitchen. A pan in which rice or beans are cooked rests on the ground next to a pit where coal or wood or both provide heat for the food. There is a second pan for such food as eggs, frequently served for lunch with flat bread.

The bathroom is 50 yards from the house. It is four walls and a ceiling built around a hole in the dirt.

Qadir's family owns 10 mattresses, each 1 inch thick and covered in thin cotton. They line three walls of the main rooms so family members can sit comfortably on the ground when they eat. They own 12 pillows; the youngest family member, 1 month old, does not need one. Folded and stored under another blue tarp during the day are 13 blankets.

There is an eye-high mirror on the wall. Two gas lamps sit on the ground below it.

Besides their clothes and two metal chests to store them in, that is the sum of the family's belongings.

"For a father with children and grandchildren, the worry makes me old," says Qadir, who is 50 and, indeed, looks much older. "But now is not the time to be sad or ask why this happened to me. Now is the time to rebuild our house and be happy that we can."

People here know what is going on in the world. The few with televisions watch the news broadcasts. Many others listen to radios, getting their news from the British Broadcasting Corp., which airs news shows in both Dari and Pashto. Still others read newspapers.

If George W. Bush wandered into the village, Qadir would thank him for chasing away the Taliban. But he also knows, he says, why the American military was sent to his country: not for his sake or for the dying mothers or their babies, but for the sake of others.

Had the Taliban not mixed stupidity with its brutality - had its leaders turned over Osama bin Laden or at least pretended to try - they likely would still be running the country. But the happy accident for Afghanistan is that the country's very oppressors became its heroes, if only in small measure, by picking a fight with Americans. And losing.

The United States, Qadir knows, did not bomb his country to save it; the United States bombed his country to save itself. The Taliban, after all, were ruthless long before Sept. 11, and nobody was rushing to help Afghanistan then.

"These are things I can't care about," he says in the Kulalan pottery shop, where his father and his grandfather were only the most recent generations to practice the craft. "What I can care about is that now I'm free to do my work. Soon people might have money, and business will get good. Things can get better."

But will they? The grandfather refuses to distinguish what he hopes in his heart from what he believes in his mind, but he seems resolutely optimistic. "I cannot say what will happen. That is not a power I have. I can only say what can happen."

His optimism is not for himself, Qadir says. And it is not for his children, not really. It is for his grandchildren, two of them so far.

Most of his own children are considered something of a lost cause. One of the obstacles that Afghanistan faces is that a whole generation of young people, still in their teens and some in their 20s, are either writing off their futures or having them written off for them.

The years of civil war and the rise of the Taliban deprived them of schooling for years. Some children who are 12 or 13 years old managed to get through three years of school before fleeing to the larger cities or to neighboring countries. Many of them will return to their education. Many have.

But for others, like Qadir's 15-year-old granddaughter or his 23-year-old-son, too many school years were spent on the run. Now these young adults are considered too old to begin first grade, too old to resume the third grade.

"It makes us sad, of course," Qadir says. "I don't want my family to continue in pottery like me. I want them to do better because it does not pay enough."

His 12-year-old grandson, Amin Jan, shyly peeks from behind his father's waist. The boy's grin touches his ears. "Let me say what I will do," he says. All attention now toward him, he hesitates.

Amin Jan is silent, for a few moments.

The death of a child

In Sarchina, walking among his starving chickens, Rahman, 60, points to his 17-year-old son, Hayatullah, who is clutching a rifle. People in the village are standing guard, he explains, because they have promised to support the new government.

He concedes that he does not know how long that support will last. So many problems. More hope exists in his village than existed after the Soviets were chased out of Afghanistan, more than existed before the Taliban took over. Americans are here. Why not have hope?

Rahman's grandson's name was Ilyas.

About 1 o'clock in the morning one day in January, Ilyas had trouble breathing. Pale skin that was supposed to one day be brown like his father's became bluish. To this day, nobody knows what was wrong with him other than he needed help. And there was none.

Assistance is available for building a central government or strengthening an army, but not for helping a sick infant in Sarchina. In such a case, the power of the United States is irrelevant.

By wartime standards - despite mistakes and the uncertainty about the fate of bin Laden - the Americans have been successful here. American forces swept into enemy territory with a ferocious assault, killed opposing military members by the scores, suffered a minimum of casualties in its own ranks, and freed 25 million people from a way of life the vast majority of them loathed.

Dropping bombs during war has always been easy compared to managing the aftermath. Iraq is a classic example. Afghanistan is becoming another.

In January, at a conference in Tokyo, nearly $1.8 billion was pledged to Afghanistan by the United States and much of the rest of the world, to be delivered this year. Less than one-third of that money has arrived.

More troublesome still for the interim government is that almost all of that money has been given directly to international agencies to feed people and give them medicine, tents and tarps. Almost no money has gone toward rebuilding roads and hospitals, which the country desperately needs.

The Afghan government estimates that it is $200 million short of its $460 million operating budget for this year. And that money is dedicated almost solely to paying government workers - not so much for services provided but as scantily veiled bribes paid in exchange for political support. Patronage jobs, they are called in the United States. Other bribes are more indirect: They come in the form of a blind eye toward commanders and warlords who are looting the villages.

With that backdrop, fulfilling just a portion of the needs of Afghanistan is an even larger undertaking. The scope is made clear by considering the journey of just one father trying to save one son.

Seeing that Ilyas was in grave trouble, his father, Esmatullah, 23, grabbed him and ran down nine mud steps from the top floor of his house to the ground. One of his brothers ran ahead, nearly two miles, to summon one of the village's two taxis, a yellow-and-white Toyota Corolla. On this night, it became an ambulance.

Sarchina itself is actually a village within the village of Sarobi, and it has no clinic. So the taxi, after picking up the father and son, raced 4.8 miles - and over rocks smoothed by a stream that once flowed - to the Istalif clinic.

From front to back, the clinic is 9 feet. From side to side it is 6. It is made of plywood. There is a wooden table inside. Some medicines are kept in a box that looks as if it once belonged to a carpenter. But there is nothing inside to help a baby who needs oxygen.

So the driver passed the clinic and swerved onto the main road connecting Sarobi with Kabul.

"The driver went as fast as he could, but there was no light and the road is not good," Esmatullah says. "We told him, 'Hurry! Hurry!' But he was already going as fast as he could."

The trip east to Jalalabad is nearly 60 miles and 3 1/2 hours on a good day. So they headed west toward Kabul.

The road, as it is loosely called, consists of rocks the size of skulls, some of them very sharp. A fool, or someone who is poor, drives this stretch with only one spare tire. The road runs along a mountainside, and most of it is a single lane that handles cars traveling in both directions. Trucks packed top-heavy with goods chug between Kabul and Peshawar, Pakistan, and a lot of them tip over.

When two vehicles approach each other from opposite directions, one might pull to the side of the road. More often, though, the vehicles stay on a collision course until the last possible second, when each veers just slightly to the right, outside wheels falling temporarily off the road. Feet punch gas pedals to keep momentum.

The road conditions have isolated Afghanistan from its border countries in the way that Sarchina is isolated from Kabul. Not one paved road has survived to connect Afghanistan to Pakistan to the south and east; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan to the north; or Iran to the west. That not only hurts babies in trouble but also hurts trade and hinders the delivery of help.

Just under nine miles into the trip, with the father cradling his only child in his arms, the taxi passed the Naghlo dam, which provides one of the few bodies of water in the country. On either side of the water, though, farms that once swayed in green with onion, corn and rice now crackle in dead brown. Residents are forbidden from tapping into the water because it is used to generate electricity and used by Pakistan when it crosses the border.

Along the route are the skeletons of burned-out tanks, the remnants of blown-up trucks, reminders of what Afghanistan was and warnings about what it could be again. In the daytime on this road, gunmen appear from nowhere trying to flag drivers down. Some of them merely need a ride. Others are out to rob.

Small children, some who look as young as 3, appear with handkerchiefs tied to shield their noses and mouths from the dust. They pat dirt into holes in the road with their hands. They rise from dirty knees to stand square in front of the jerking cars and trucks, hands out, begging for money for their repair work, darting away like deer at the last minute when the vehicles do not stop. Some of the children pat the dirt and extend their hands 12 hours a day. Some of them fall asleep in wheelbarrows along the sides of the trenches.

Then they walk a couple of miles to their homes.

The taxi bumped and swerved past what was once a waterfall called Maheepen - which means "where the fishes fly," for those that were hurtled 100 feet below. The waterfall is now barely a trickle.

And, finally, the taxi reached one of four gates marking the entrance to Kabul. A broken tread from a tank was stripped across the road as a speed bump.

The newly reopened Jamhuriat Hospital, in the center of Kabul, is limited in its supplies. Like many of the hospitals in the country, it is short on basics. Not even enough thermometers are on hand. Across the street, a medical school that once trained 1,000 students a year, remains closed. So even if medical supplies were abundant, the country is short of doctors who know how to use them.

None of this mattered to Ilyas.

"He died on the way," his father says. "We were hoping maybe he was in a coma and that babies can't breathe in a coma but will eventually be OK. At the hospital, they said, no, he is dead."

Rahman, gesturing toward the mountainside where his grandson is buried, said: "You look what happened to my grandson, and that is what is happening to a lot of grandsons. If there are no clinics, grandsons die. If there are no roads to the clinics, grandsons die."

'It is time for peace'

Asleep on the floor of his neighbor's house in Kulalan recently, Qadir had a dream so preposterous that his family and neighbors laugh when he shares it with them. In the dream, he has enough wood to build support beams for the mud house he is rebuilding.

"I saw somebody giving me money," he says, and he, too, laughs at this. "I had enough money to buy all the wood I needed, and then the money was gone, but I had my wood."

And, he says, he was able to complete his house before robbers or commanders or warlords stole the wood from him.

Rahman also had a dream while sleeping, but he is deadly serious when he talks about it and there is no laughing from his family. Every gun, every rifle, every land mine in Afghanistan was collected in his dream.

"It is a dream only," he says, "but this is the dream Afghanistan needs to be real."

Troops from the International Security Assistance Force are spread across Kabul, riding in trucks with their rifles loaded and ready to fire. Kabul, with streets as busy as New York's, is a relatively peaceful place these days - relative to its past.

But U.S. military officials have prevented the 18-nation security force, sanctioned by the United Nations, from patrolling outside Kabul. So Kulalan is on its own. Sarchina, too. Wood gets stolen. Seventeen-year-old boys with Kalashnikovs stand patrol with no authority.

"Without the guns, the children can go to school," Rahman says. "Without the guns, there is a chance for the children."

Much has been made about tensions between Afghanistan's ethnic groups, its Pashtuns, like Rahman, and its Tajiks, like Qadir. There has been no ethnic fighting reported, though, since the Taliban were chased out.

But gunbattles still break out among competing warlords, particularly in the eastern and far northern parts of the country. Al-Qaida, damaged as it is, still threatens villages. The army commanders continue to loot.

All of this has put the new government in a difficult position, seeking wishes that seemingly conflict with each other: It wants autonomy but needs outside help to achieve that. What it does not want is a heavy hand from Washington or other governments as it tries to build a new country. It simply wants to rebuild itself as itself, minus the wars.

The question is whether the peace will last long enough for the government to stand on its own. And the ethnic tensions, although real, are low on the list of dangers.

"Real Afghans will not hurt each other whether they are Tajik or Pashtun," Qadir says. "Nobody wants to go back to war. It is time for peace."

He is looking toward the future, he says, when his grandchildren can live like he did, only better. As a boy, he recalls, the entire village, about 100 families, would gather for picnics on the mountain about 200 yards from his home. There was music. Food. Dancing. Laughter.

He does not know when the village will have another picnic. So many people have to rebuild their homes. Money is scarce. And if the world forgets, peace might be scarce again, too.

"Everybody was happy at the picnics," Qadir says. "We were young, and we did not know what was going on in life. That is how it should be when you are young. When I achieve this again for my family, this will be the happiest day of my life for me."

His grandson Amin Jan, the 12-year-old who went silent earlier, gets up his courage. He is studying, he says, because he wants to be an engineer one day. "I will rebuild the village," he says, and his grandfather places a hand on the boy's head. "It will be so strong it will not be destroyed again."

His aspiration is common to many of the children in Afghanistan. To become engineers or doctors. And their aspirations are obtainable. Education through college is free in Afghanistan - as long as there is peace.

The boy's grandfather finishes his green tea and walks past no possessions toward the crumbled house he is rebuilding.

In Sarchina, the other grandfather is saying much the same as Qadir.

"As long as there is peace, anything is possible," Rahman says. "The future can be very bright for the children if we can feed them and get them to school."

One of his grandsons, Zainullah, leaves the house at 6 o'clock in the morning. He is 10 years old and bright as the sun. He walks 4.8 miles to the school in Sarobi. He arrives at 8, has lessons until 11:30. Then he returns home, feeds the hungry animals and studies.

"There is no doctor in the village, so that is what I will be," the boy says. "That is what we need. What should I do with a gun? I will study every day until I am a doctor."

His grandfather pushes himself off the ground to his feet. He walks to the yard, which is all dirt, looks to his garden, which is all dead, looks to his animals, which all look hungry.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
75°