This week Jo Meacham writes of her experiences in Afghanistan.
We took a trip to a pro-coalition village on the outskirts of Kabul. The village was large by Afghan standards—about 20,000 people. We were escorted by the Mayor and the senior member of our security detail—an Afghan National Army three star general. The General spoke English very well and he and the Mayor had a wonderful time flirting with us western girls.
Our Chaplain arranged this trip so that we could deliver school supplies. I asked the interpreter if the would take money as a donation for the school and he replied that they would only do so for the mosque. Through the interpreter, the Mayor told us that the most important thing for this village is heir mosque. The people of the village have a dream to rebuild it and are hoping the Americans will help. He explained that the single act that will win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is to build mosques, not schools. The people will build their own schools.
Nevertheless, they were grateful for our gifts and they gave us a tour of the village. Having its own perimeter and security, the village seemed relatively protected, and the people don’t like the Taliban. However, that doesn’t mean the Taliban won’t try to intimidate them. All of the teachers were female, and mostly Afghans. We were instructed not to share pictures of the teachers on public websites, because the Taliban will try to kill them if they found their identity. We heard that in southern Afghanistan the teachers are actually too scared to teach.
The school was an all boy’s school that was opened to girls a few years ago. There must have been 1000+ kids of all ages. We were delivering to the younger girl’s class rooms, which were separated and gated from the older girl’s classrooms. The boy’s classrooms were across the compound. The older girls and the boys looked on sadly, but with excitement, as we delivered bag after bag (500 of them) to the little girls. The little girls were between the ages of about 6 to 10 and mostly well behaved. The teachers rule with an iron fist….we saw one teacher beating them with a stick because they were rushing forward to get a bag. The girls didn’t talk at all, just stared, and liked to shake hands. The wanted to touch me and get their pictures taken. They were smiling from ear to ear, until they saw the camera. Although they wanted their picture taken and loved to see their picture on the screen, they didn’t smile for the camera.
After we delivered the bags, we took a walk in the village to a day care facility. We got to play with the kids, aged 2 or 3 to about 6. We took lots of pictures and the ANA general was really cutting up with us, laughing, joking and playing. It was just us, the kids and the day care teachers (all female). The kids were giggly and in awe of us. From there, we went to where the babies are…yep, I held a baby. He was 8 or 9 months old and adorable, and kept looking at me and smiling and giggling.
Following that, we went to a room with the ANA guards, the General and the Director of the daycare. The Director told us the story of the day care, through an interpreter. There are about 100 kids every day, with three teachers. Most of them have parents that work…yes, their mothers work. They are in day care from 8 am to 5 pm, which sounded just like it is at home. The Director said that she needs more teachers, better facilities and money. It was a plea for money, but the interpreter told us that any money should go to the mosque…I don’t think the Director realized that he was saying that. She was really wonderful and we could tell that she was very proud of her day care, and excited for our visit. She also fed us tea and some cake.
One of the ANA soldiers sat next to one of the girls in our group—a blond, which is very unusual in Afghanistan–and asked her to be his wife. We all laughed. Then I turned to the General, who was sitting next to me, and said something like “will you be my second husband”? He cracked up and that set us all giggling.
After that, we went to the crumbled mosque. There were only walls–no ceiling or floor. The interpreter told us that the females in the group could not enter, and that we were going to take a group photofrom the outside. The men would go in after the photo was taken. But, when we got to the entrance, the Mayor invited us in! So, we took the group photo inside the mosque. I stood next to the Mayor and another military woman stood on the other side of him. The Mayor was very taken with being surrounded by us, so we started goofing off with him. We put our arms around him and pretended to kiss him, and he pretended to be embarrassed (he did turn red) and giggled like a little boy. He enjoyed himself immensely. I do have photos of this, but alas, I cannot post them because his life is already in danger
I am really taken with this country. Its beauty is very much like Nevada and the people are amazing (just like Nevada!). I can’t imagine living with the hardships that they live with. I can’t imagine having a foreign military force come walking through my neighborhood, and bringing gifts of things that I only dreamed existed. I can’t imagine thinking that if I accept this gift, I am a target, yet I still summon up the courage to accept it. The General, the Mayor, the Director and teachers of this village do imagine a better life, and found the courage to try to make it happen. Thank God they can imagine it, because their children are counting on them.
Our interpreter pointed out that the average life span of Afghans is 45 years. This means that 80% of the population doesn’t know what it was like here in the 60s and early 70s, and so can’t imagine anything different. All they have known is war, poverty and despair. The Director and the Teachers aren’t old enough to remember, but the Mayor and the ANA General are. This village is their vision, and people in this village are starting to believe that something greater is possible.This counter insurgency operation is succeeding! We must stay the course to make sure that their vision is carried out–not ours. Their vision starts with a mosque and we must see that through. (Of course, we can still send school supplies!)
During our visit, in the most private moments, we reduced the Mayor and the General to giggles. We gave them a break from their hard life. Imagine that! To me, this is a stunning and wonderful thought, and it makes me giggle.