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August 30, 2002
Hollow Victory
Afghanistan struggles out of the rubble.

Paula Bronstein / Getty
An ailing Afghan man lies in his tent at a refugee camp in the village of Estalif.
Kabul, Afghanistan—It takes 10 hours for a Toyota Corolla taxi to traverse the 140 miles of rutted and rock-strewn road from Peshawar to Kabul. At rates of speed that seem impossible in such conditions, the driver weaves back and forth to avoid the worst dangers—hairpin turns on mountain passes with no retaining walls; car-sized holes in bridges marked only by small clusters of stones. Even traveling through this very small corner of eastern Afghanistan eight months after the Taliban was defeated, the vast challenges to reconstructing the country are apparent.

The shelled remains of deserted villages sit next to fallow fields, broad stretches of countryside are contaminated with one of the highest concentration of land mines in the world, and riverbeds are bone dry after four years of drought. Young boys with Kalashnikovs stop cars at random checkpoints. Children and men beg for a thousand Afghanis (the equivalent of two cents) as they do their part for the reconstruction, shoveling dirt into holes in the road.

Meanwhile, intricately painted Pakistani trucks bearing the possessions of returning refugees make their way to the repatriation and welcome center at the edge of Kabul, where the collection of tents looks eerily similar to the refugee camps many left on the other side of the border. Throughout all of these scenes, one rarely sees even the burqa-clad form of the supposedly liberated women of Afghanistan.

In Kabul, the International Security Assistance Force keeps a heavily armed watch while the reconstruction of roads leading to ISAF and U.S. bases, NGO offices and Northern Alliance-affiliated buildings makes steady progress. Cabs filled with foreign relief workers clog the streets. But while the rent wars between these foreign arrivals have driven prices in some neighborhoods to an astronomical $5,000 a month, the average Kabul citizen lives among the destruction that stands largely unchanged since the 1992 to 1996 civil war, when the Northern Alliance last controlled and destroyed the city. In many neighborhoods, if the wires weren’t stolen in the previous war, electricity operates only every other night. Ready access to clean water and proper sanitation are luxuries.

At Malalai Girls School, once one of the premier high schools in the city, the girls are back to school, but most of them are five years behind grade level. The library books were destroyed by the Taliban; the science labs have no equipment; and despite their dark, fully covering new school uniforms, many girls still don a burqa to make it safely home. They and their families fear a repeat of the kidnappings, rapes and forced marriages girls and women suffered the last time the Northern Alliance had control of Kabul. The ominous trucks with dark-tinted windows and no license plates, full of leering, armed Northern Alliance soldiers, do nothing to allay their fears.

Returnees with masters’ degrees as well as their uneducated manual laborer neighbors both complain that jobs are unavailable unless you are Panjshiri, like the former Northern Alliance, or can pay a bribe. As of the end of July, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees was reporting that some 1.3 million refugees have already returned to Afghanistan; another 700,000, he says, will return by the end of this year. From their temporary homes in the windowless cement shells of commercial vending stalls, recent returnees talk of better times in the refugee camps in Pakistan. There, at least, they received some basic help. They wonder if they will have to flee again when the weather gets cold.

Meanwhile, after the assassination of two high-ranking officials in the new Afghan government, President Hamid Karzai’s Afghan Security Force was replaced with U.S. special forces this summer. As of September, the U.S. State Department will take over Karzai’s security for a year. Despite reports of armed conflict between rival warlords and rapes, murders and lack of security in many parts of the rest of the country, the U.S. administration has been one of the prime opponents of an expansion of peacekeepers outside of Kabul, despite the repeated requests of Karzai, his ministers and the people of Afghanistan.

But the stark realities of life in post-Taliban Afghanistan are not dampening the spirit and resistance of the Afghan people. After 24 years of war and destruction, they have grown unfortunately accustomed to the fact that the promises of liberation and rebirth offered by regime after regime—from the Soviets and their Afghan collaborators, to the Taliban and the current government, with its heavy contingent of fundamentalist warlords—have never been realized.

But they still believe, sometimes amazingly, that the average person can make a difference, and there is the sense that everyone feels the excitement of that potential. “The main problem is the level of need the people have,” a nurse working on a mobile health care team in Kabul says. “Whatever we can do, there is always more and more needed. But at least we feel some freedom after the Taliban, and people are happy for that. If we can keep helping and caring about people, then that will be a success.”

Indigenous organizations like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, while they continue to document abuses and advocate for a secular democracy and human rights for women and all Afghans, are expanding their work—teaching literacy courses to increasing numbers of women, running income-generating projects for widows and beggars, and providing food, cooking oil and medical care to the needy.

The group is still an underground organization, and still at risk. But they are optimistic. “In any situation we didn’t stop or decrease our work, even under the most oppressive conditions—Soviets, jehadis, Taliban, U.S. bombing,” one member says. “The goals for Afghanistan may not be achieved in a very short period, but our experience over the past 25 years makes us sure that in the future we will see success.”

Anne E. Brodsky’s book With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan is forthcoming from Routledge next spring.


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