It felt like ages since I had last visited the extraordinary country of Afghanistan. I had first come in 2005 in order to immerse myself in a deeply Islamic society. I wanted to experience the conflict firsthand, to understand the people and the war, and to distance myself from Britain. Back then, I stayed among locals and ventured forth into the bazaars. I liked it that way. But on this most recent trip, I was not allowed to wander out alone. My friend Zabi Shahrani—a bright young Afghan who speaks six languages fluently—told me straight out: “I will not let you walk alone in the street.” To some people, that demand may have seemed oppressive. To me, it was a balm. Like all my Afghan friends, Zabi said he would lay down his life for me. Elsewhere in the world, such an offer might have been a meaningless gesture. Here, it was real.
The first day I arrived, I had heard the sound in my hotel in Shahre Nau, a deep thump, and shivered. I recognized it immediately. It was not until later, however, that I learned what had happened. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a leading figure in the Afghan peace process, had been killed at his house. A representative from the Taliban, pretending to visit Rabbani at his home for peace talks, had hugged him in greeting. The embrace triggered a bomb hidden in the Talibani’s turban. Rabbani was not the only person to die; four innocent bystanders also lost their lives in the attack, and many others were wounded. I had been waiting for Zabi and others to meet me at my hotel and then head to Macroyan, in the north of the city, for supper and to meet with their families. In light of the bombing, that was now impossible. Some roads were closed, others jammed. Still, no one flinched. They simply shrugged their shoulders. It was just another attack on innocent victims in the war-torn capital of Kabul.
As Zabi and I strolled among the shattered buildings and gazed on the thin, worn Afghan faces, there seemed no discernible improvement in conditions during the time I had been away. In fact, they had deteriorated. The city was fragile, traumatized, like a wounded animal. There were still the ever-present Afghan soldiers guarding the entrances to many streets and buildings. Mounds of rotting rubbish still lay on the sides of the roads. Street children wove among traffic like silver fish, risking their lives to sell chewing gum for a few afghanis. At Quarga, families escaped the mayhem to picnic beside a calm blue lake, a brief respite from the foul smog that destroys the lungs of anyone who dwells too long in the city. Men with leathery skin still sold melons as big as boulders at the roadside; as usual, there seemed to be no one around to buy them except the odd underfed sheep and shaggy goat.
Wherever we walked, I could see no evidence of progress, only the occasional inert-looking construction project. Where had all the billions in aid money gone? Zabi was unequivocal in his answer to that question, and everyone else agreed. Some of the money had gone to the ministers, who pocketed it for their own ends. But most had gone back to America, they said, nodding unanimously. Everyone struggles in harsh conditions here. They don’t care who wins the war. All they know is that it is never-ending. The Afghan people were convinced that American leaders were perpetuating the war for their own purposes. The way it worked was well known, they said. American construction companies were awarded contracts worth millions. They would subcontract the work to Afghans for paltry amounts and pocket the difference. The U.N. cash pot was funding their army, and the Americans exploited it. Why was it that their own soldiers were earning only a fraction of what a U.S. soldier earned in a year? It just didn’t add up.
Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s most powerful warlord, sits at the heart of the government. Nothing would change while Hamid Karzai was in power, he advised me when I tackled him over the question. Where was President Karzai now? He was away in America, buying businesses for his retirement, said the general. What was needed was a real leader to unite the Afghan people, a great man who could command their confidence. Given less than a year and the backing of the government and his army of 20,000 soldiers, the general was convinced he would easily defeat the Taliban. There were only a few thousand of them. But even when the Taliban had been defeated, it was important for the stability of the country that foreign troops continue to hold some military presence there. If they withdrew entirely, there would be bloodshed and anarchy among the tribal groups.
Zabi and I were on our own mission. We were visiting orphanages and state schools to give books to the children. Eighty percent of the adult population in Afghanistan is illiterate, and half the children have no schooling at all. The teachers are struggling against impossible conditions. In the schools, there are hardly any books and not enough classrooms. The few classrooms themselves are bare and empty. There is no paper to draw n or write on. Teachers work for poor wages. They say the government doesn't care, but they keep on going because they believe education above all things is the key for their future. Adib Khan, the principal of Ghulam Nabi Charkhi school in Tapa e Nader Khan, gives his own wages to keep his school going. He showed me a garden that he had planted and that he nurtures out of the dry, hot dust. The garden was, like him, a desert flower. The principal at Alauddin orphanage was particularly desperate. “The books you give us are beautiful,” she said, “just what we need. But you have to understand our first priority is survival.”
It was a sobering thought. The children needed milk, bread and biscuits, school bags and shoes. How could they read if they couldn't eat? But it was not just their bellies that needed feeding—their minds and hearts did, too. In some ways, they were like all children everywhere. They were well behaved in class; outside it they were very naughty. Yet many of these children were alone in the world. Some had lost their entire families in the war. They didn't understand what the fighting was about. They didn't know who was fighting whom or why. One little boy had been found by one of the teachers that morning, wandering in the street. He didn't say anything, and when I asked him his name he looked at me with Bambi eyes, smiled, and ran off. There was hope there, I thought. At least I had to believe it.
At Rasool Amin orphanage in Khushal Khan, none of the children knew where England was, and they had never heard of London, but they knew all about the war, and they had memorized all the diagrams from their "what to do in the event of an attack" lessons. As I spoke to the class, some of the children rose to their feet and stayed standing out of respect for me. As I begged them to sit down, I wondered if that would ever happen in my country. I told a girls' class that in England, all young girls were educated and went on to make their own lives. I told them that no matter what objections their fathers raised, they should do all they could to keep going with their studies. Their country depended on them being strong. Yes, the girls said softly, they would try. It was the most I could ask of them.
The plane into Kabul had been empty apart from a few foreigners who had vanished into their high-security compounds and were nowhere to be seen in the streets of the city. On the way out, it was a different story. Chaos reigned in the four rounds of security checks at the airport as hordes of people rushed to flee the country. In the women's area, tiny old ladies bent over plastic bags of fruit for the journey of a lifetime. They had been saving for years and were leaving Kabul in search of a better life somewhere—anywhere but here. But it was the ones I had left behind that my heart most went out to. As the plane took off I gazed down at the mountains, noble and unflinching like the strong, brave people who hold firm in their shadows.
Magsie Hamilton-Little is author of Dancing With Darkness: Life, Death and Hope in Afghanistan. All profits go to littlebooksafghanistan.org, which gives books to the most vulnerable and deprived children of Afghanistan.