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Eyewitness Report in Afghanistan

by Mariam Momand, MWL Board Member
June 2002

A Journey Home

The 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.” 


I 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 are cleared.

Rabat Refugee Camp

Rabat, 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 abdominal pain.  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. 

Istalif School

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 wanted to 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.  

Arif Karandesh-would like to go to a University and become a teacher, a doctor and eventually the Prime Minister.



Afghan girl-what will be her future?


Political Realties

The 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.

Rebuilding Afghanistan

“Not 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

The 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 school, 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…  

Girls at school-After 5 years of staying at home these girls look forward to attending school




Mined areas-blue arrow indicate locations where de-mining efforts have started

Afghan Women

The 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. 

Islamic Relief

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 sustainable livelihoods.    Afghanistan is ranked among the most deprived countries.  These are some statistic from UNICEF, UN, WFP and Islamic Relief:


70% of the population is malnourished.  (WFP 2001)


3 to 4% of Afghan population is disabled. (Islamic Relief)


Life expectancy: Female 43.5 years; Male 43 years (UNICEF 2000)


1 in 4 children suffer from moderate and severe wasting, a condition where the ratio of weight to height is abnormally low (UN 2000)


Afghanistan has the world’s fourth worst child mortality rate; 257 of every 1000 children born die before reaching age 5.  (UNICEF 2001)


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.  (WFP 2001)

These 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.

How to help :

1) Be proactive and lobby to expand the International Security Force (ISAF) to areas outside of Kabul.

2) 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. bombings.  

3) Ask your Congressmen to give funds to finance micro loan projects to rebuild Afghanistan.

4) 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:               

Muslim Women’s League
3010 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 519
Los Angeles, CA 90010

Muslim Women's League
3010 Wilshire Blvd. Suite #519
Los Angeles, CA 90010
(323) 258-6722

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