Letters from Afghanistan: installment #2

Afghan terrainby Connor O’Steen

Editor’s note: Our guest is currently in Afghanistan working for PARSA, a non-governmental organization (NGO) specializing in microeconomic development with an emphasis on women and children. He’s often in rural areas far from Kabul where most other journalists cannot, or will not, go. You’re unlikely to find his insights in the mainstream media. Often, he has no access to the Internet, so excerpts will be sporadic, at best. His correspondence to us is edited for context and to remove information that might put him or his coworkers in danger.

The hard-working orphans of Chaghcharan

Chaghcharan is the largest–essentially only–city in Ghowr province. I use the term “city” lightly, because the “city” part of Chaghcharan is the intersection of two roads around which a number of buildings are clustered. In the plane ride over, (we flew in an aircraft that was roughly three times smaller than any I’d ever ridden in before. There were six seats. Our luggage was piled behind us and held at bay by a shaky canvas netting. It also looked disconcertingly like a toy airplane made proportionally larger) I was shocked by the sheer magnitude of the landscape. I’m not unused to seeing mountains, but they rolled away literally as far as the eye could see. The entire country from Kabul to Chaghcharan was one enormous mountain range, a never ending swell of ridges and draws. Just looking out the window of our comically small plane, it was hard to imagine that anyone had ever decided it would be a good idea to walk over that purgatory of raised stone; it was hard to think that anyone could have truly thought there was something worthwhile on the other side. To say, then, that Chaghcharan is in the middle of nowhere is an understatement. Yassin (the in-country director of PARSA) who has done the 200-mile drive from Bamyan to Chaghcharan, says it took him 15 hours. It wasn’t that the roads were bad; it was that there were no roads.

But enough of that.

Chaghcharan was pleasant and unpleasant in a few very noticeable ways. For one, it’s about 9,000-10,000 feet which makes the weather about 10 degrees cooler, something that I appreciate, although my lower altitude-residing companions have had a harder go of it here and in Kabul because of the elevation. Furthermore, because it lacks the industry and the traffic of Kabul, the air is fresher and the water is cleaner. On the first day we got here, we went to the river some ways out of the city and swam around the wonderfully cool water and I gave myself a terrible sunburn (I also jumped off a 35 foot cliff, and have pictures to prove it). The unpleasant things: most mornings we woke to the smell of burning plastic and garbage, the result of less-than-perfect environmental controls on factories, and the fuel for fires of the desperately poor. More unpleasant than this is the attention you receive from some people here.

In Kabul, while most foreigners do not leave their compounds, it’s not unheard of to see some of them in the Chaghcharanmore affluent parts of town. In Chaghcharan, we were the only foreigners in town. Period. The five of us represented, in its entirety, the international community. This means that we were the center of attention for every single person on the street: every age from 4 to 90 would stop in their tracks and stare until you had passed. This was unsettling enough, to be watched constantly, but what made it worse than Kabul (where the stares, at worse, were of indifference) was that at times there was a distinct impression that we were not welcome. The looks were not always polite; the salaams were not always returned. Chaghcharan is a border town in the full sense of the word. The streets are shared by government supporters and Taliban supporters in roughly equal number, and the protests are frequent and sometimes deadly. At the orphanage, there’s a genuine fight for hearts and minds between a cruel and angry form of Islam and foreigners like us. It’s not too dramatic to say that we are on the front lines of diplomacy, showing by our actions what kind of people we are, rather than the kafirs we’ve been made out to be.

Despite these heavy issues, our time there was great. The orphans in Chaghcharan are tremendously set on Orphans of Chagcharanlearning and improving themselves, despite the difficulties involved. For one thing, few of them are fully orphaned, meaning that in most cases their mothers or disabled fathers are still alive…but unable or unwilling to support them, and in some cases actively abusive to their offspring. Because of this, a number of them walk back to their villages to earn money for their family in the morning (a walk that takes up to three hours one way), and walk back to the orphanage to be supported themselves in the afternoon and evening. These orphans realize how lucky they are–they’re motivated to work, because they know there’s a waiting list for the program, and someone will work to succeed where they stopped trying. To an even greater degree than Kabul, the potential and the motivation is there, it just has to be complemented with opportunities for success.

PARSA has been working hard to get the teachers of the orphanage out of the habit of beating the children and into the habit of caring for them. After a few tense meetings, we made some progress in that direction.

Being back in Kabul is pleasant, although we aren’t currently allowed to leave Marastoon (the headquarters of PARSA and the Afghan Red Crescent) because of the recent bombing of the Indian Embassy. Just driving back from the airport, I could feel the tension in the air…bombs don’t generally come in ones, they usually come in threes, so Kabul might not be done yet with this round of attacks.

In short, it’s probably a good thing I’m going to [destination excised].

Connor O’Steen is the former editor-in-chief of the Shady Dealer, the humor magazine of the University of Chicago, is a Fellow of the International House, and is currently awaiting publication of his policy white paper on the inherent dangers of the Pakistani military’s ownership of private sector companies. He has language skills in Dari, Urdu, and Arabic.

8 replies »

  1. Six hours walking in total for some children and a beating to boot. I hope the young ones find a better life.

  2. Good luck with this most challenging work. No doubt, part of the challenge is not to be emtionally worn from all that you see..what a concept; NOT beating kids..alas.. when I lived in Saudi Arabia, I would see dads smack their kids in public (and saying god knows what)..