Ill-equipped for peacetime

Afghanistan: Tens of thousands of men and boys, who know no life but fighting, lack education or skills to make their way without war.

War On Terrorism

November 29, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Mighal Khan is stumped. Someone has just asked him his age.

"I don't know, I lost count," he says with a smile and a shrug. "I've been fighting in the wars for 24 years, and right now I really couldn't say how old I am. But I think maybe it's around 40."

It is a common phenomenon among Afghan males. Handed a gun and pushed to the front even before they're old enough to shave, thousands upon thousands of young and middle-aged men know only the occupations of war and killing.

They now face the prospect of peace with scant literacy, few employable skills, shattered families and only the vaguest idea of what they'll do once the fighting stops.

Khan is typical of these men. One of 30 soldiers in a unit from Nurestan, a rugged area in the snow-capped mountains northeast of here, he says his future depends "on what the government wants me to do."

He cannot read, nor can most of the others in his unit. Their commander, Abdul Lateef Nahzatyar, is the only one with a college education -- from a small Islamic university in Pakistan. He at least recognizes the predicament they now face.

"What can they do but fight?" he asks with a shrug. "Whatever our country needs, we'll do that. But for now it's unclear what our jobs might be."

Abdul Ghafar, who commands about 90 men from Kabul province in a ragtag mortar and artillery unit for Northern Alliance forces, started fighting at age 14. He's now 27, he says, one of the few in his unit who is certain of his age.

Before the war he was learning to be a mechanic. He says he has stayed in practice, but not all his skills will be adaptable to peacetime. "I can fix tanks, mortars and cars," he says.

But even that won't be easy. While preparing for an attack a few years ago, he was trying to dig a mine out of the ground with a knife. The mine blew off his right thumb and forefinger. He is right-handed.

"Any task provided by the new government, that's what I'll do," he says, expressing a sentiment common around here.

What if the government can't provide a job? "Then I will open a shop."

Does he have the money to do that? He shrugs.

"Maybe I can be a helper with one of the NGOs. Or I can sell food by the side of the road. I'll do whatever I have to."

A soldier behind him, listening in, thrusts forward his own right arm. His hand is gone. He, too, doesn't know his age, but thinks it is "about 30."

"I started fighting at a very early age, even before I could grow a beard," he says.

His father was a farmer, growing wheat, potatoes and onions, but their fields are fallow now, ruined by three years of drought.

"I don't know what I will do," he says. "As long as there is peace, I will be content to just go back to my village and do nothing."

At a military checkpoint blocking the wide boulevard leading to Kabul's presidential palace, 19-year-old Eidi Mohammad guards the way from his seat behind a metal table. Arrayed across the table are a Kalashnikov, an aging grenade launcher and a machine gun mounted on a tripod, with a belt of ammunition curling to the table.

"I know how to use them all," the baby-faced Mohammad says proudly. He is a four-year veteran of combat. "I was very happy living with my family when I was 15," he says. "But when the Taliban came they took us out of our houses. We were hit with gun stocks and with sticks, women too, and they told us to hand over our guns."

Mohammad's father was a brick mason, but he wants more rewarding work.

"I want to have my own shop," he says. "Maybe a small one at first, selling cosmetics. Then someday a big general store. I'll borrow the money I need to get started from my friends."

Are his friends employed?

"No. They don't have any money, either."

Mohammad began seeing death up close before he turned 16, and sometimes he still dreams about the worst moments of combat. He doesn't think that will be a problem in his future.

Long lines at the waiting room of psychologist Abdul Nadery would seem to argue otherwise.

"We see 30 to 40 patients a day," Nadery says. "The number has been increasing since 1979 [when the Soviet army invaded]. Most of them are war stress patients.

"Some have lost their families, others have become addicted to heroin, opium or hashish. Before the fighting started, you saw very little drug abuse."

But you will not hear doctors around here speaking compassionately about "post-traumatic stress disorder" or even the cruder term "shell shock." No one wrings his hands and talks of dispatching grief counselors to local schools.

The attitude even among people such as Nadery, trained locally in psychology, is that a few months of peace will be all it takes to cure everyone's fears and anxieties.

His bigger concern is that the hospital still has no electro-shock therapy equipment, which he and several colleagues seem to believe will be all they need to handle the more stubborn cases.

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