CHRIS ALLEN: Afghanistan Journal — Between Two Extremes

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with two universities in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there. This is the last of the blogs I wrote in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a difficult country to write about. It’s tempting to focus on the difficulties here — the violence and the threat of violence, which is almost as oppressive as the violence itself. The poverty. The corruption. The bleak prospects. All of those are evident from afar by anyone who only listens to media reports. All of those are evident, too, from close up, by driving through the streets, by talking to people one meets.

It’s tempting to focus on the optimism of many Afghans and make the story some sort of sentimental paean that sounds hollow and formless, ignoring the harshness of life so many Afghans experience every day.

Somewhere in between is the right tone, and I don’t know if I can find it. It’s not exactly in the middle of those two artificial poles. It’s probably somewhere toward the bleak end, but I’m not sure just how far.

I was talking to a staff member for the University Support and Works Development Project, the agency that’s administering our grant to work with Kabul University and Balkh University in Mazar-i-sharif, and I asked him what he thought Afghanistan’s future looks like. He tried hard to move it toward the positive end.

“The thing is, Muslims believe everything is in the hands of God,” he said as we stood in the small garden atop a nine-story building.

The historic Blue Mosque.
The historic Blue Mosque.

We had just hosted a dinner for our Balkh University colleagues, and dessert was served in the garden. It overlooked the huge, historic Blue Mosque. We were not allowed to visit the mosque out of security concerns.

“So Muslims have to be optimistic,” he continued. “They have to believe that God is looking out for them. Otherwise, we would all climb over this rail and fall to our deaths. There would be many suicides.”

In fact, the suicide rate in Afghanistan is tragically high. In 2014, the Ministry of Public Health reported that suicide was the second highest cause of death in Afghanistan in the 15-to-29-year age group. That’s the very group our grant is aimed to benefit — young people, people just getting their education and starting their careers. It’s higher than murders and war deaths combined, to put it into context.

You want raw numbers? More than 800,000 Afghans commit suicide each year, in a country of 30 million people. There is a suicide every 40 seconds.

“Reliable data on suicide in Afghanistan is scarce,” the MoPH reports said. “A large proportion of Afghans suffer from mental health problems such as depression, a major risk factor for suicide. Gender-based violence, substance abuse, trauma and stress relating to conflict as well as displacement, poverty and continued insecurity around the country also increase the risk of suicide.”

The majority of suicide victims are women.

The MoPH says the lack of help for the mentally ill is one of the reasons for the high rate. But the fact remains that Afghans are killing themselves at an alarming rate.

a3My colleague was trying to be positive, and yet he also had to bring up the fact that thousands of people still flee Afghanistan in hopes of making things better for themselves and their families.

They pay $5,000 or $10,000 to smugglers. They risk crossing the Iranian border (Afghanistan, if you haven’t looked at a map, is landlocked, and the only way to the sea is through Pakistan or Iran) only to push off from the shore in leaky boats hoping to get to Turkey, where there is no real guarantee of refuge or relief.

Some of them will die along the way, perhaps shot trying to cross a border. Others will drown when their boats capsize and sink. Some will reach land only to be turned back. Many will languish in refugee camps with little food, inadequate water, poor health care and no privacy. Few, almost none, will realize their dream

So, I still can’t find that point.

One of my dinner partners that night talked about the number of young people who go abroad to study and then return home to try to make the country better. It’s the young people, he said, who are the best hope for his country. They are the ones who can overcome the terrorism, the tribalism and the corruption.

And yet they are the ones killing themselves. If you are constantly swimming against the current, how long is it before you finally surrender, turn around and do what’s necessary to keep your family safe and fed?

Is there a large enough swell of young, educated people to turn the fortunes of Afghanistan? Will they stay and make that effort? Where is the in-between point?

Of course, so much of this also depends on what all the countries who meddle in Afghanistan do. Pakistan and the U.S. are the biggest meddlers, and there’s not much real hope either of them will leave Afghanistan to itself any time soon. Iran is also a player in this, a longtime partner-antagonist. Afghanistan buys most of its electricity from Uzbekistan, so there’s another player, although more like a supplier than a wanna-be conqueror. But electricity is a powerful lever if Uzbekistan ever decides to use it.

Fruit and vegetable vendors are up before the sun rises to lade their donkey-drawn carts or old pick-up trucks with their fare for the day and set off to their stalls.
Fruit and vegetable vendors are up before the sun rises to lade their donkey-drawn carts or old pick-up trucks with their fare for the day and set off to their stalls.

Afghanistan is full of honest people who work hard. Teachers strive to teach, from primary school through college. Their resources are limited, but their dedication is deep. Shop owners open their stores every day. Fruit and vegetable vendors are up before the sun rises to lade their donkey-drawn carts or old pick-up trucks with their fare for the day and set off to their stalls. Builders and welders, butchers and truck drivers all work to make a living for their families, and many earn $100 or less a month. Businessmen and women, many dressed quite sharply, although sans tie for most men, open their offices for various enterprises.

There are hardware stores, shoe stores, clothing stores, restaurants, barbers, hair dressers, carpet shops, electronics stores, grocers, pharmacies and more.

It should be a stable and growing economy. Everything points to an upward turn. But the multiple layers make it a much more complex matter.

In the early morning, as stores open, shopkeepers are outside sweeping or washing the dust from the sidewalk in front. But the battle against dust is futile because the roads are bad.

Kids run along the street on their way to school. The children will sit in a classroom with straight-back desks, pocked cement floors and walls — and few resources. But they are there, learning to read, to do math, to acquire the skills to improve themselves. And their teachers are there, too, doing what that can to make it possible.

The less fortunate children wander among the bumper-to-bumper traffic holding out small packets of tissue or bubble gum, wafting smoking pots made of tin cans or offering to clean the windshield with greasy, filthy rags, all begging for change. Many of them haven’t been educated, won’t be educated. They are among the uncounted casualties of decades of conflict and instability.

Afghanistan has survived the British, the Soviets, the Americans, the mujahideen and the Taliban. It is battered, weary, bruised and suffering. But it does survive, and proudly so.

I’m just not sure where between the two extremes it lies.

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