Letters from Afghanistan: installment #8

Back from Bamyan; the sewing program; village dominance

by Connor O’Steen

I have now been on the road between Kabul and Bamyan for a total of 32 hours, and it’s safe to say that that’s 32 hours too many for my taste. The road is roughly the quality of a rural mountain road in the United States, but the fact that it feels endless makes it much worse. Going to Bamyan, you cross a number of mountain ranges with valleys nestled between, and beyond each steep ridge I hold out the hope that the next section will be smoother. This, of course, just makes it more frustrating when the sections get progressively rougher, and I have to tighten my white-knuckled grip on the car’s overhead handles. The up and down turbulence is unsurprising, it’s the occasional side to side rocking that’s hard to stomach. This last ride back to Kabul was made worse by the presence of a dog and her eight puppies in our trunk. Just like in Kabul, we take in dogs in our regional offices, and through gross oversight one of them was left unspayed. She also acquired the skill of escaping the compound. 2+2= eight puppies to take care of.

For obvious reasons, no one in the trunk was happy (by extension, no one in the car was happy): not the endlessly mewling puppies with their eyes still closed, and not the mother who tried to jump into the backseat every 15 minutes or so. Every 15 minutes, for eight hours, I fought a running battle with this dog, shoving her back into the trunk every time she tried to jump out. The combination of this with the bumpy road, the crying puppies, and the Dari music blasting from the radio only intensified the fight. By the end of the trip I had bite marks and scratch marks up and down my arms, and had completely lost my temper. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever been that angry and upset.

Other than this, we had a successful but difficult trip to Bamyan. We spent all our time working in Jawzareen valley, starting a women’s sewing program and a scholarship program for exceptionally poor and disadvantaged families. Men from the villages and I lugged heavy sewing machines up hills and across rivers, laying them (more or less) gently in various houses where the program would be conducted. Right around this time, the difficulties began.

I should backtrack: living in villages here makes people very hard, very fast. You can see the stages of development in the children. From 0-3 years old, children don’t have responsibilities and they run or crawl around with smiles on their faces, chasing livestock. From about 4-9, you see a kind of early bitterness. It’s something that I see in their eyes and in the way they frown, almost like they’re asking, “Is this it? Is my life going to be filled with herding animals and working the fields?” By around 10, that bitterness has given way to acceptance, people are engaged with you but they seem calmer and almost resigned. Working hard from sunrise to sunset has become second nature, and the consequences of not playing along are demonstrably dire.

Although I haven’t seen it myself, I’ve been told that villagers will casually mention which child, or whose family, froze to death the previous winter because they couldn’t afford heating material. It’s something we don’t often think about, but we have a tremendous safety net in the United States. Our government may be all right with the very poor being very uncomfortable and very hungry, but (for the most part, of course) we as a country aren’t all right with people dying from starvation or exposure. We have food stamps, homeless shelters, rehab clinics, and even credit cards for when someone needs to stretch out the money. In Afghanistan, none of that exists. If your parents die, or more commonly if one of your parents die and the other one remarries and leaves you behind, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to be taken in by an uncle. If not, you fend for yourself or you don’t make it through the winter. We work in a series of villages about a one-hour drive out of Bamyan. If the situation is this unforgiving here, the interior villages that are more isolated from NGO and government programs are suffering more.

So, people are very hard, because kindness isn’t a contributing factor to survival. In we come with our limited number of sewing machines, and the problems spring up. As we sat in a small room sipping green tea and sucking on small, sweet pieces of candy, the women from Urgash came in threes and fours and filled the space. Soon they were shouting, really shouting, at our shell-shocked program coordinator, Aisha. Aisha valiantly held her ground, and eventually we left a more-or-less pacified crowd. I only got the full story later that night: the elder woman of the village (all of the elders are relatively very wealthy) showed up at the meeting, and demanded that four of the eight sewing machines be given to her and her family. She said that if we refused to give her these machines, she would make sure that no one used them. The other women in the room were clearly afraid of this woman. The 14 year old girl, Rukiya, who was hosting the machines in her house, was visibly shaking. Aisha responded to this by threatening to take all of the machines back, and really this was the only step she could take. If she had attempted to reach a compromise with the elder, the program would’ve been completely out of her hands. Everyone would boss her around if she didn’t hold her ground.

Starting the sewing machine project was a good lesson in the raw and unabashed power imbalance in Jawzareen. The elder in Urgash was one example, the mullah in Sar-e-Jawzari is another. As we came out of the sewing house in the latter village, we were confronted by three men. Again, there was an angry exchange in Dari and they stormed off. I found out later that they had come from the local mullah, who told them that it was haram to accept money or help from infidels, and that we were “polluting” the area with our sewing machines. Aisha responded by saying that this was “Taliban talk,” a clever but potentially volatile statement. Claiming that anyone is like the Taliban in a Hazara area, where most people have lost at least one family member to the Taliban, is bound to make some angry. Aisha was unafraid, “I know the Quran,” she said. “Let him come here and tell me where it says that in the Quran.”

And of course, she was right. It isn’t in the Quran, and if the mullah actually knows Arabic and can read it in addition to reciting it (a slim chance, for mullahs in rural areas), then he knows that too. In fact, his statements had nothing to do with Islam, and had everything to do with power. The mullah is a very wealthy and influential man.  By bringing in our programs and providing a source of income for others, we undermine his standing in the village. Islam in this scenario, like many other religions at many other times, serves a means to a self-serving end. He attempted to maintain his own position by making the villagers feel morally ashamed of working with us. I’m happy to report that, at least for the time being, his efforts haven’t been successful.

What was most shocking about this for me wasn’t that it occurred. I’m not so gullible as to believe that the villages in Jawzareen are one big happy socialist Utopia. The surprising thing is that no one in positions of power felt the need to justify their own underhanded attempts at acquisition. What I had expected was justification: “We work harder than they do, that’s why we’re richer,” or, “Their family is no good,” or, “They’ll only waste the money.” But the reason didn’t seem to interest anyone. The elder woman asked for machines because she wanted them; she made no claim that she deserved them more than the other girls (all of whom were the sole providers for their families), she just expected them as the spoils of her social position. The mullah didn’t care what benefit came from our program; he was only interested in how we might affect him.

In an ideal Afghan village (so I’m told), the elders and the leaders look out for everyone. If people are destitute, they are cared for, if someone is hurt or abandoned, he or she is supported. I wonder if this society ever existed, if war has destroyed it, or if it was always just a pleasant fantasy.

Past all the blackness of power and who has it, we supported a lot of people who needed it. Five years ago, Habiba’s father died and her mother remarried and left the children on their own. Habiba, who doesn’t know her exact age but is probably 14 or 15, has since taken care of her four brothers and sisters. She is the only one to provide an income for her family, and she’s now hosting our sewing program in her house and receiving a scholarship for starting her own business. Habiba’s story isn’t rare; it’s actually exceptionally common. Of all the women and girls enrolled in the sewing and scholarship program, nearly all of them have lost or been abandoned by both parents, and are now the heads of their households. A few are enrolled because their parents are too old or disabled to work.

This description of the villages might strike some as Hobbesian, and I had some dark moments where I fantasized about preaching the truth of Leviathan from a soapbox, but it’s more complicated than that. I think we would all, deep down, like to feel that, if situations took a turn for the worse, it would illuminate something indomitable and beautiful in us. That, if faced with crisis, we would give our support to those who couldn’t support themselves. Or, to dig up the old question: if you’re a soldier and a commanding officer tells you to open fire on innocent people or be shot for insubordination, what would you do? I think we’d all like to say that we’d sacrifice ourselves for the standards we believe in.

But who knows, if things were a little different, I might be the one fighting over a sewing machine, and the old woman might be looking at me, feeling a mixture of sadness and disappointment.

Ed. note:  You can read more about Connor O’Steen’s experiences in Afghanistan in his prior installments, linked below.  Also, check out Russ Wellen’s take on educating engineers instead of terrorists.]

Installment 1: Dogs, generals and orphans

Installment 2: The hard-working orphans of Chaghcharan

Installment 3: Nasim’s story: making and unmaking terrorists

Installment 4:  Afghanistan, Ghowr Province: an opium village

Installment 5:  Replying to questions and local democracy in Jawzareen

Installment 6:  Having visions with Mohammed

Installment 7: Poisoning dogs; orphan teamwork; getting poisoned

What to do: blow myself up or study engineering at Caltech?

7 replies »

  1. Was wondering where you were. Good to have you back. You deserve credit for your efforts to introduce improvements to what remains, year after year, one of the most God — or Allah — forsaken places on the earth.

  2. Connor,

    In 2005 my unit (USMC) was responsible for the Provinicial Reconstruction Team in Bamian. I remember we helped (along with the Kiwii’s) open a school house there. It is a big yellow building. Is it still there?

  3. Bob,

    Just so you’ll know, Connor isn’t always in a place where he has access to the Internet. So, if you don’t get an answer soon, it’s almost certainly because he hasn’t seen your question.

  4. “And of course, she was right. It isn’t in the Quran, and if the mullah actually knows Arabic and can read it in addition to reciting it (a slim chance, for mullahs in rural areas), then he knows that too. In fact, his statements had nothing to do with Islam, and had everything to do with power. The mullah is a very wealthy and influential man. By bringing in our programs and providing a source of income for others, we undermine his standing in the village. Islam in this scenario, like many other religions at many other times, serves a means to a self-serving end. He attempted to maintain his own position by making the villagers feel morally ashamed of working with us. I’m happy to report that, at least for the time being, his efforts haven’t been successful.”

    I am glad his efforts thus far have come to nothing too!

    Very illuminating paragraph. Thanks.

  5. Bob-

    Yeah, actually! Every time we drive to Jawzareen we see it. As far as I know it’s used, although I can’t guarantee that. The PRT in Bamyan has done a lot of great work, probably because the security situation lets everyone get out of the compound more often than in Ghowr or any of the southern provinces. We did an assessment of a village called Angaran (not included in the letter because it’s kind of tangential), and the PRT is building a school up there also. Needless to say, the PRT in Bamyan does a lot more than driving around in convoys and looking menacing. It’s a positive development.

    One thing that I don’t understand though is the PRT’s security protocol at their base, and maybe you can shed some light on this, Bob. Members of the PRT frequently jog and run races up the large hill that’s maybe half a mile away from their base (including women, who wear short shorts, much to the delight and shock of the local populace). They do this without weapons, any kind of protection, and outside of any security measures. However, to visit the new administrative buildings that are closer to the PRT, they have to go out in full gear with rifles. Is this a hole in the security, or am I missing something here?

    Russ and Elaine- Thanks for the compliments, I always appreciate them. I think public debate about “radical Islam” would be a lot better if we could acknowledge that the vast majority of it is at its very heart a power struggle. As a case study, I would look at Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: Islamic Revolution was never as important to him as being the man who holds the reins.

  6. Conner,
    I haven’t been there in a few years, (although the better things go in Iraq, the better my chances of going back to Afghanisatn) so I can’t speak for the current PRT folks, but I can offer this plausible explanation.

    Soldiers carry their weapons for two reasons, security and accountability. It’s possible that the area is safe enough for PT (physical Training) and the unit leaves the weapons back under guard. However once the “work day” begins they carry them at all times to maintain a 100% accountability.

    The blog is great and it ties in well with my Labor Day weekend reading choice “The Kite Runner”. That book, too, alludes to the fact that Radical Islam is, at it’s heart, a power struggle.

    Take care, and God Bless!

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