Letters from Afghanistan: installment #3

Nasim’s story:  making and unmaking terrorists

by Connor O’Steen

It turns out the road between [location excised] and [location excised] is currently held by the Taliban, so until NATO clears things up I’ll be here. Seeing how that’s the case, and I now have some extra time on my hands, I might as well tell you some more about what I’ve seen.

Nasim showed up on our doorstep early in the morning, and when asked what he needed, said that he had been told by some of the other children of Chaghcharan that we ran an orphanage. His face was bruised and slightly purplish, both of his eyes were swollen and there were dark rings underneath.

Nasim is about 14 inches shorter than I am, but he says that he’s fifteen. We’re still unsure whether this is because he’s malnourished or because, like most Afghans, he has no idea when he was born. (As an aside, this is why a number of Afghan passports and ID’s list the date of birth as January 1st, followed by the year. Even the years are often uncertain data). Either way, he didn’t look like he could be older than 12.

Nasim was our guest for about five days as we worked to get him into the orphanage, and in that time, we managed to learn some of his story, the rest of which we gathered through the unique displeasure of visiting his village a few days after that. For the sake of avoiding some tedious explanations and re-explanations of when we learned the chronology of events, I’ll give you the full story rather than the pieces of it.

Nasim’s father and mother divorced about a year and a half ago. Divorce in Afghanistan is a notoriously risky business as it is likely to result in allegations of adultery which, in turn, can result in revenge or honor killings. Still, this one seemed to go all right–Nasim’s mother moved back into the house of her first husband and his father quickly remarried. Nasim found himself left out of both arrangements, however, and had an uneasy existence shuttled back and forth from his mother’s and father’s houses, essentially begging for food and shelter and exchanging labor for meals. A year ago, his father beat him badly and told him that if he ever came back, he would kill him.

After that, Nasim started the 45-mile journey to Chaghcharan. Because he had no money and no food, his progress was painfully slow. As he made his way there, he was exploited for labor, exchanging work for two meals a day. Sitting outside on our porch at night, he told us how he saved up scraps of food so he had something to eat as he jumped from village to village. When we drove to Nasim’s home it took us an hour and a half.

It took Nasim six months to get to Chaghcharan.

His troubles weren’t over there. He found himself excluded from the orphanage because he lacked an ID or an adult to confirm that his parents were unwilling to take care of him. For the following six months, in the harsh winter of Chaghcharan [Ed. note:  Chaghcharan is at around 10,000 feet above sea level], he worked for two meals a day at a tire repair shop and slept in an unheated garage. The bruises under his eyes explain the abuse, and the scabies infecting his arms and legs showed his living conditions.

This isn’t a story designed to ruin your day or make you feel bad about your own life.  In fact, this story isn’t particularly unusual in terms of the way orphans and neglected children are treated here. That’s the point. Labor exploitation has become systematized by three decades of war, hardship, poverty, and the destruction of familial and clan ties. These children, lacking the defense mechanism of parental protection, do hard manual labor to survive. The odds of receiving any kind of money are practically none; most wealth in Afghanistan is inherited, so starting on the bottom is a particular disadvantage. Being an orphan outside of an orphanage is to live a life without any hope for advancement or improvement. You will not be educated, you will not be paid, no one will help you when you get sick or hurt, you’ll only be fed enough to keep you working.

Of course the orphanage isn’t the only option.  You could also do what Nasim’s older brother did. Confronted with the same hopeless situation, he and a group of friends went to Pakistan to study in a madrassa. There’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll be back on Afghan soil soon, working to shape his country into the same frustrated and angry mold that he himself was sculpted into.

There’s a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud. Nasim is in the orphanage now and he says that, for the first time in his life, he has hope for something better. He’s getting an education, and he’s being fed unconditionally. Afghanistan isn’t a doomed country the same way Nasim, by taking his life in his own hands, has never been a doomed child. What our responsibility must be is to make sure that orphanages like these can continue to shelter the children stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder.

[Ed. note:  A “madrassa” is simply a school.  The madrassas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, however, were and are the breeding ground for the Taliban.  During the Soviet-Afghan War, Saudi Arabia funded more than 8,000 madrassas that teach little except the most aggressive, fundamentalist side of Islam – a mixture of Wahhabism and the brand of hatred stemming from the Muslim Brotherhood.]

9 replies »

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  2. Hanging on every word of these dispatches. Microfinancing is some of the noblest work one can do on earth.

  3. This is an incredibly powerful series. Great thanks to everyone making it possible for me to read the dispatches. And hearty agreement with Russ about microfinancing.

  4. Lex:

    Connor should be able to access the Internet sometime next week. I’m sure he’ll appreciate your comments.