Amid the Afghan ruins, patriarchs see promise

Recovery: Two men in rural villages believe they can build better lives despite the devastation that surrounds them.

2001 9/11 2002 / One Year

September 01, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SARCHINA, Afghanistan - The grandfather's four cows are skinny, his two goats are lost looking for food, his remaining chickens are too exhausted to offer much chase before slaughter, and his onions will not grow. He buried his 1-year-old grandson under dusty stones on a mountainside he can see from his window, next to another grandson, this one a teen-ager.

The man - Malik Said Rahman is his name - sits on a red velvety cushion, his turban at his side. Dust from his parched fields sticks to his sweat.

He thinks about the drought that is killing his animals and plants, about the lack of medical services and social order that killed his grandsons.

He considers, too, what may become of the rest of his family.

And he says that, yes, he is very happy. As happy as he has been in many, many years.

Others share in that feeling.

Eighty-six miles north and west of Rahman's lonely little village of Sarchina sits another grandfather on his own cushion in a clay-walled shop. He shapes the dirt from the surrounding mountains into pottery.

He and his sons have just finished marking an area next to the shop to which they have begun carrying 40,000 bricks - 10 and 20 at a time - a full four miles to rebuild their home. When he becomes too tired, he rents a donkey. He owns no animals.

He and his family, 13 people in all, returned to nothing but the shop two months ago. The Taliban destroyed everything they had. Then, almost a year ago, he knows, there was terrible violence in New York and Washington. Americans came and, with Afghan help, toppled the Taliban.

But yes, says this man - his name is Abdul Qadir - he is quite content in his village, Kulalan. In fact, he also is very happy.

More schools are open, though many of them lack books. Many guns are in sight, but that is not new. That has long been the way of the countryside.

The two grandfathers cannot be said to be typical of all older men in Afghanistan. Nor can Sarchina and Kulalan be called typical of all the isolated villages of the country. There is no "typical" or obvious "average" in a country where customs differ on every slice of mountainside and where recent history - the past several centuries - consists of invasions, civil strife, assassinations, and war after war.

But the grandfathers know they are typical of the country in at least one sense. Their happiness, and that of other villages around the country, will be determined by common factors: how long the world remembers them, how much the world is willing to help them, how - and if - the country's new government will survive.

Whether it will ever rain again will matter, too.

"Afghanistan can't stand on its own right now," says Rahman, speaking in his native Pashto. "People will still cut each other off at the feet, so we need security and enough assistance so that one man won't fight another man."

Says Qadir, who is Tajik, in his native language of Dari: "America will forget. Everybody will forget, we know. For us, we need to help ourselves while others help us so we can be strong when they leave."

Afghans are Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Aimaks, Turkmen, Balochs, Uzbeks. About a third of the population can read. No Afghan government of the past 20 years, including the American-supported leaders now in Kabul, could truthfully claim to control all 30 provinces.

Even now, the world's aid for such remote places as Sarchina and Kulalan is slow or yet to arrive, with most of the donated money and goods clogged in bureaucracies or dumped in Afghanistan's cities. But Sarchina is to Jalalabad and Kulalan is to Kabul something like what Peoria, Ill., is to Washington: distant in every way, and altogether unlikely to receive any help that exceeds their political importance.

Part of what makes the new government here so fragile and its challenges so enormous, though, is that all but about 5 million of the country's 25 million citizens live in villages far from the capital or Kandahar or Jalalabad or anywhere else that is remotely modern.

And helping themselves is not easy.

Qadir lives along a steep mountainside road 38 miles north-northwest of Kabul - a 90-minute drive experienced while sitting on the splintered wooden floor of a heavy-breathing bus or clinging atop the bus like an aged stuntman as its wheels spin and sputter and often stop dead.

Rahman lives 48 miles east-southeast of the capital, a three-hour drive in daylight across a road so obliterated that it may as well be a riverbed. Forget about driving at night. It is forbidden, not that the police enforce this law. That is left to the robbers, who emerge from behind rocks clutching rifles, feigning the need for a ride.

Rahman doesn't own a car, anyway. He, like Qadir and just about everybody else in their villages, would be as likely to own a spaceship.

`Things can get better'

This is how troubled Afghanistan has been: It became far better off once the United States began dropping 500-ton bombs on it.

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