My husband Michael and I are among a rare group of individuals who have been fortunate enough to have lived and worked in Afghanistan. In 1971, after graduating from Marian College in Indianapolis, we were invited by the Peace Corps to teach English in Afghanistan. At that time, Afghanistan was a remote, mysterious mountain kingdom. In fact, in the West so little was known about the country that we were able to find only a handful of texts on it. So we arrived for our two-year commitment to Afghanistan knowing very little about it and even less about its diverse tribal population.
After a year working in the country, I wrote home to friends:
Afghanistan is the land of Khans and camels, caravans and Kouchis. Afghanistan, bordered by China and Russia to the north, Iran to the west and Pakistan to the south and east, is a land-locked country, and according to a U.N. survey, the second most underdeveloped country in the world. Our jobs don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the needs here.
“The country is comprised of about 20 different tribes, including the majority Pushtoons, as well as Tajikis, Uzbekis, Turkmen, Hazaras, to name a few. Each speak their own language, but most also Pussto, the language of government and trade, and Farsi, a dialect of Persian.
“Michael and I both teach English at a United Nations-funded technical boarding school, one of the best schools in the country. It is an English-medium high school, so the students have real incentives to learn the language. (English is the third language of the country, although in the north, Russian is gaining a foothold.) The students, 86 boys and men, will be Afghanistan’s future telecommunications technicians. Attending school at the Telecommunications Training Center is their chance of a lifetime to improve the economic status of themselves and their extended families. Only about 10 to 15 percent of the population is literate. The young men want to do well and bring honor to their family.
“I am in the rare position of being the only woman at the school. As a result of purdah, the Moslem practice of completely veiling women, women are not a viable part of the society. I am a novelty at the school, but the students are very polite. The administration and the rest of society in general, however, are not quite so receptive. The administration seems to not know how to respond to me and I am often a target on the streets. Few girls are sent to school beyond third grade and none of the schools, except Kabul University, is coeducational. Most marriages are still arranged, often while the girl is still a child. Life is harsh; life expectancy is sort. Child mortality rates are high.
“Our school is outside the city limits of Kabul, the Afghan capital. Transportation there is sporadic so we commute daily by bicycle. The Kouchis, the nomads of Afghanistan who freely cross Russian and Pakistani borders without regard to modern border laws, are camped outside the gates of the school during the warm months, since there is access to water there. With their camels, Kouchi rugs and tents, and flocks of sheep and goats, they make a colorful sight, one fast disappearing from even Asian countries.
“Shopping here is a real challenge. You can find almost anything—if you know where to look. There are separate bazaars for everything from watermelons, to kitchen utensils, to used clothing, to Persian carpets, much like the open-air markets in Europe. But everything—from a pound of tomatoes to a thousand pounds of wood—must be bargained for. Bargaining is part of the social structure of the society.
“This is a land of contrasts—from the foothills of the Hindu Kush in the north, made famous by Genghis Khan, to the deserts of the south and the ruins of Qala Bist, a city completely destroyed by the same Mogul raider. Most of the mountains are barren and nearly impassible, but the valleys between are worth a difficult trip, frequently made atop a rickety bus. It is a dangerous way to travel, but provided a marvelous view. Kabul is slowly modernizing: a few restaurants and good hotels, 24-hour electricity, a couple of newspapers, a water system, several cinemas showing mostly Indian and Iranian movies. But most of the provincial towns are still without electricity. Water is carried from the town well to the homes, laundry is done in the local stream with a stick and stone. The Moslem year is 1351 and indeed most of the sights could come from a medieval history book. There is almost no farm machinery, although 90% of the people are farmers. Water buffalo do the heavy work and inter-village trading is done by camel.”
Re-reading this letter from 30 years ago, I am amazed by how little things in Afghanistan have changed, except that the country is now poorer. The average per capita income is less than $1000 per year. The fragile infrastructure has been destroyed by 10 years of war with the Soviets, seven years of civil war, and five years of rule by the fundamentalist Taliban. The women are even more dehumanized from the strictures of Taliban rule; less than 15 percent are literate. The delicate balance of nature has been devastated by millions of land mines and three years of unrelenting drought. There are millions of displaced persons, five million more in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, more than one million orphans, half a million amputees, two million widows, and much of the male populations under the age of 15 has been annihilated.
The rich culture of this part of the world—home to Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam, a thoroughfare of the Silk Route, part of the empires of Alexander the great, Genghis Khan and the Moguls—has been decimated. How lamentable that these magnificent creations of human history, which took thousands of years to construct, can never be restored or reclaimed. Afghanistan is a country in enormous pain and drowning in its sorrows. The women left there cannot feed and clothe their children and the men left cannot support their families.
But perhaps something good can still come from this death and destruction. Events since Sept. 11 have served to put Afghanistan, and indeed the whole Middle East, on the map. Thanks to the power of television, the plight of the Afghans is brought into our living rooms each night. If we watch any television at all, we are now more educated about this part of the world than we ever expected to be. Most of us can speak with a degree of authority on Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Pushtoons, and the Northern Alliance. Taliban, al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden roll off our tongues as if the terms have always been part of our vocabulary.
Sadly, the people in New York can empathize with those in Afghanistan who have lost loved ones in the past 23 years. I am only hopeful that all this tragedy and devastation has not been in vain.
Hopefully, the challenging work of rebuilding and rehumanizing the society has begun with the establishment of an interim government. If the western world continues to provide emergency relief to the thousands of displaced Afghans, helps to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, encourages the various tribes to cooperate, and supports these nascent endeavors with the funds necessary to achieve these ends, the country may yet have a chance to build a stable, prosperous and terrorist-free future, a goal which would be in the best interests of the entire world.
(Michael and Elana Hohl received their M.Eds from Xavier in 1977 and 1978 respectively. They served in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan from 1971-1973. They currently have two children attending Xavier—Sarah, a senior, and Adam, a freshman.)