Listening to the Voices of Afghans

The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers Have Their Say by Steve Clemens. April 2011

Hakim, the founder and mentor of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), lives very simply. He attended a Methodist boarding school in Singapore as a youth but didn’t see the faith put into practice. He has read both Gandhi and Noam Chomsky and their ideas and values permeate much of his life. One would never hear this from Hakim himself but when the AYPV boys were on a Skype conversation in December, they talked to Hakim’s parents who live in Singapore and learned from his mother that Hakim was “sometimes number 1 in his medical class”. He learned English while in school. He worked as a public health doctor and came to work in a refugee camp in Pakistan 8-9 years ago. While there, he met many of the Hazara refugees from the province of Bamiyan, Afghanistan and when they were ready to return to their homeland, Afghans like Hakim’s friend, Mr. Feda (who now works for the Ministry of Education in the Afghanistan government) drew him to accompany them. In the ensuing years he has become fluent in Dari (the local language and one of Afghanistan’s two national languages), an eastern version of Farsi or Persian, based on the Arabic alphabet) and taught at the university in Bamiyan, the capital city of the province located about an 8 hour drive through mountain passes northwest of Kabul.

55 multi-ethnic students signed up for his weekly workshop three years ago but after a semester the students concluded that “peace was impossible” (within their lifetimes) but they wanted to stay engaged. Hakim raised the possibility of “love”. Would any of you be willing to try to live together for one semester? 16 said yes; Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and 2 Turkmen. They dressed in all white and did a walk for the International Day of Peace. They publicized a statement as a multi-ethnic group that “we want peace”. This created talk and questions within the broader community but it also created some concern for religious leaders - Hakim was the foreigner, some of the students were Sunni while most of the Hazaras are Shia. Hakim and some of the youth went to all the youth councils of each village asking that young people come together voluntarily to work for peace. Because they offered no money, there were no takers.

After working with the college students he concluded he would need to work with even younger-aged youth to share his commitment to Gandhian-style nonviolence. We went to various villages in the province to ask elders if they would help select some young boys and girls for him to participate with in the peace programs. (Unfortunately we were not able to meet any of the girls/young women who are peace volunteers in Bamiyan because the conservative cultural mores do not allow them to leave their home areas unescorted by their fathers or other older male family member. Hakim tells us that some women in Bamiyan are allowed to go to the bazaar “only once a year”, a 25 minute drive downhill, but many will never see Kabul, an 8 hour drive from their homes. Once they get married, they usually don't leave the province. They must wear full burkas whenever out of the home.) His “volunteers” came from different valleys and different tribal youth councils. They’ve been together now for about two years. Hakim’s goal is to introduce new thought; working to break a cycle of violence and revenge that is deep in the culture. He claims it is the #2 value. However, the #1 value is hospitality and if people focus on that and broaden the groups one extends hospitality to, the revenge value fades into the background.

He encouraged the AYPV to help build a peace park in Bamiyan despite the skepticism of the adults, most prominently, Bamiyan’s female governor (the only female governor in Afghanistan). They were told they could “apply for a grant from USAID (the State Department’s Agency for International Development) for $10,000; they discovered the application was only available in English. When they told her they could not only do it, but would do it without government funds, she allowed the project to go forward, saying “let it be” (assuming it might not work out but why not let them try.)

After two years, they have planted trees and grass seed. They have created and sold a book (entitled “A Book of Questions” and published by Operation Mercy) to raise the funds needed. They’ve put up signs reading “Why Not Love?” and “Why Not Peace?” and, although vandalized twice, they’ve been re-painted and now there is a beautiful green patch in the city.

The boys embarked on a public 7-day vigil, hoping to get a statement delivered to President Obama when news came that US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry would be coming for a visit. The ambassador told them he would deliver the statement, “Reconciliation of Civil Hearts” (which can be found on their website at: but they have never heard any response back from the US White House. The Bamiyan young people, mostly Hazara but also including some Tajik and mixed-race young adults also made some hand-made gifts (100 cell phone pouches made from scrap leather) and sent them to Pashtun young people in Kandahar in the southern part of the country as a gesture of reconciliation and intentions of peace. (Abdulai and his older brother, Khamad, fled to the mountains 11 years ago after the Taliban killed their father. The Taliban who killed his father were Pashtun.) They followed the gift with a phone call to the Pashtun young people; the response they received back was, “I can’t believe that there can be such love”.

I mentioned to the boys that I met Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame at the Kabul airport and our conversation shifted to education. Abdulai, the AYPVer with the best English says, “The one thing we need to be educated in is to stop the killing of other humans; this is even more important than literacy.”

The boys don’t see the use of money as a measure of how “internationals” can help us. [Greg Mortenson is reputed as saying if we had 241 fewer US soldiers as part of this present “surge”, he could “build 241 schools” which would have a much more lasting impact.] But the AYPV boys said, “$241 million in the present system will still end up falling into the hands of corrupt people, the already rich and powerful”.

Hakim tells us this much money and power “will corrupt even an angel”. He told us that Greg Mortenson comes across to him as impersonal. [They were introduced to him via email numerous times but, so far, have only been met with silence.] The boys said, “it is better for an illiterate shepherd boy to learn it is not kind to kill another than to become an engineer. The people who flew their planes into the NY towers were all ‘educated’.”

In illustrating the culture of corruption, Mohamed Jan told us that at a college entrance exam, the teacher administrating the test was accepting bribes, giving students the answers in exchange for money. “The whole system is rotten. Young people must rise up like they have in Egypt.”

Zikrullah told us he learned nothing in school between the 2nd and 7th grades because his teachers were not properly trained. He still couldn’t read, so he dropped out of school and was selling pens and cigarettes as a vendor in the bazaar to support his family. His participation in the 7-day vigil helped convince him to go back to school and so he has returned to the 2nd grade, determined to learn how to read!

Although a lot of money has been poured into schools, Hakim tells us, “USAID has been unable to monitor how (and where) it is being spent.” Abdulai adds, “Money cannot solve this problem.” The average pay for a teacher is $120 US/month but the more important value seems to be learning English so one can get paid as a translator and make much more money than teachers. The translators are hired by the US and ISAF militaries or by the “private contractor teams” for a lot of money because they will be targeted by the Taliban. Other translators are hired for less money (but certainly much more than teachers are paid) by other international NGOs. The boys tell us that many of the teachers are unqualified and have gotten the job by paying bribes.

Several of our new friends tell us that the Hazara ethnic group (the third largest in the country after the Pashtun and Tajik groups) were particularly targeted by the Taliban during their reign of terror from 1996-2001 because the men have little facial hair, tracing their ancestry back to the Mongol invasion of Genghis Khan. The fundamentalist Taliban insisted that all men wear beards and all women be fully covered in burkas or be treated as infidels. Since the Bamiyan province is predominately Hazara in ethnicity, they were often the target of Taliban zealotry and anger.

The boys take turns telling us their stories as Hakim translates. Mohammed Jan, at age 20, is one of the three older young men. He tells us he always wanted to have a group of friends with a shared sense of humanity and found this with AYPV. He wanted a group where he could address “the things that irritate me a lot” and found he could do this with them. A Tajik ethnically, he tells us, “We must try to stand up to fight corruption.”

Abdulai, age 15 is the one most fluent in English. He tells us his father was killed by Taliban 11 years ago and he and his older brother had to run away into the mountains when he was just 4. Khamad, his older brother and also a member of the AYPV is now 20 and tells us, “The killings must stop. Afghans must stop killing.” He says he “lost his mind” after his father was killed and still continues to struggle with trying to regain it. He runs a potato chip factory and hired 14 year-old Zikrullah to work with him when he isn’t back in school learning to read. Abdulai tells us that he was initially doubtful about the AYPV program. He was cynical. He thought, maybe it is a lie. But as he conversed with the various internationals through delegation visits like ours or over Skype conversations, he concedes, “peace may be possible”. Many, many times he “gives up”, he tells us, but the group “drags him back”. The visiting delegations have “sealed his heart” that peace may be possible. He was amazed, saying, “Who would want to come and see a bunch of nobodies in Bamiyan?” But, he says, “Peace must include action, not just words.” Zikrullah adds, “We’ve been fighting for so many years and all it’s gotten us is bloodshed.”

Faiz, at age 22, is the oldest of the AYPV young men who have traveled to Kabul to meet us. His parents died when he was a young boy and told us his brother was dragged out and shot at a close range in front of him during the war. He would like to bring “true justice” as one of the reasons he joined Hakim’s group. He bought 5 sheep with a small business loan, fattened them up, sold them and took out another loan. He now has 12 sheep and 6 new lambs.

Ali, 16 years-old, works as a “donkey water-fetcher”. He has two donkeys and is well known as the boy who fetches water. He charges 25 Afghanis (about 50-55 cents) for 2 containers of water hauled from a spring and can transport 4 containers per donkey on the one hour round trip. His two uncles were killed in war and tells us all the news on the radio is about killing. It is tiring; you hardly hear about peace. With this group he has a chance to hear about peace and less negative things than killing. He recently participated in a “donkey demonstration”: people in his village decided to demand that the local government make clean water available. They had a parade of donkeys marching near the provincial Governor’s office. He leaves at 3 AM to take his donkeys into the mountains and does 6 round trips per day. He also uses his donkeys to haul firewood for fuel from mid-summer until winter.

Ghulamai, at 13 or 14 (many don’t know their exact age as record-keeping is difficult with a largely illiterate population in the rural areas), is the youngest of the group. He tells us that the peace program was a good way for him to make friends. Amer Shah, 15, tells us that Ali was the “preacher” who convinced him to join the group.

Mohammad, the 35 year old van driver for the week was hired by Hakim because he was the only one contacted who did not raise his price when he was told that he would be driving around “a group of international visitors”. (Hakim expresses his disgust at the other drivers who try to take advantage of foreigners. “I challenge them to be true Muslims and only charge the going rate but all but Mohammad wouldn’t comply.”) He first met the AYPV boys when he drove them to the inter-ethnic peace march on Thursday, March 17th and as the boys tell their stories to us six days later, he tells them he wants to join their group. The boys joyfully embraced him and said of course they’d love to have him be part of their movement.

One of the boys observed, “What are the roots of terrorism? Hate, poverty, lack of understanding, discrimination and prejudice, misuse of religion. None of these roots can be stopped by war.” When asked what they think will happen if the US troops leave, one boy says it might mean the Taliban would agree to negotiate and leaves the opportunity for reconciliation. Another tells us yes, civil war may break out. Yes, people may be killed –but people are being killed now! If the US/NATO leaves, it gives the Afghan people the ability to work things out – we must be left alone. Someone says if Americans fear that all Afghans are wild and might become Talibs, this is not true. There is intense hatred and pain toward the Taliban. He wanted to reassure Americans that the people of Afghanistan will not accept the Taliban as leaders again; they may try to take power by force but the people will fight back. (From my own reading of Afghan history, many people accepted the Taliban in 1996 because they were fed up with the corruption and thievery of the warlords, not anticipating the brutal oppression that would follow until too late.)

Our delegation was not able to schedule a meeting with Ramazan Bashardost, a dissident Member of Parliament before I left (he did meet with other delegates the following week) but we were told his position is to ask the US to leave with transitional security being provided by the United Nations. He also advocates a transitional government led by international bureaucrats for 2-3 years, monitored by the UN, after which elections could be held because he feels no Afghans will trust any of the present leaders. As part of this process, warlords will have to be brought to justice and reparations must be sought from them. The AYPVers have also met with Malalia Joya who they said “goes straight to the truth” of the situation. She is very angry but also very committed, telling the boys to “never give up hope” but they should also be prepared “to be killed”. Are you ready to die for nonviolence? - is the question put before all of us. One of our international delegates reminds us that courage is when love takes over reason. Courage is when you control your fear enough to act. Courage is to speak one’s truth by following your heart – it is not naïve, nor is it silly. It was a sobering conversation.

Hakim tried to apply for a US visa to bring a few of the young men to the US but they were denied. He attempted to apply at the US Embassy in Kabul but was told he could “try again in 3 or 4 years from your own country”. Former State Department official Ann Wright has advised Hakim on some avenues for re-application. He desperately wants to amplify the voices of Afghan people around the world but it is extremely challenging as “only 3% of the Afghan people have access to the internet”. And within the country, virtually all the Afghan radio stations have been bought up by USAID, so their voices aren’t heard very often at home as well. They are voices Americans need to hear.

Day 6: Tough Questions Without Easy Answers

A Day of Tough Questions With No Easy Answers: Day 6 in the War Zone by Steve Clemens

The conversation actually began the afternoon before. The seven of us who traveled to the Panjshir Valley had hurried back so we could attend a session on transitional justice followed by a meal at the home of our speaker. I confess I was somewhat drowsy for the PowerPoint presentation by Yonos Akhtar and a younger spokesperson (whose name I failed to record) from Physicians for Human Rights. Talk of amnesty laws vs. prosecution of war crimes made me reflect on our own situation back in the US. How does on balance the need for justice and accountability against the other compelling need to “move forward” and not wallow in the past?

I have joined public vigils at the Federal Courthouse in Minneapolis and at the University of St. Thomas Law School over the past several years demanding prosecution of Americans who paved the way for practicing torture on those detained in the tumultuous years following the September 11th attacks. Certainly part of my passion has aspects of retribution and anger at how the general public was manipulated and abused by the fear-mongering by politicians for political gain - but most of all, I feel that if Cheney, Bush, Yoo, Delahunty, Rumsfeld, Rice, and others aren’t held accountable, it will be easier to cross those illegal and immoral thresholds again and again. Since these perpetrators (or should I say perp-e-traitors?) are now out of office and at least some of the post-9-11 paranoia has subsided, I don’t feel an imminent threat of these policies being re-instituted although Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo still is glaringly unfulfilled.

However, there seems to be a palpable fear among the older and more middle-class Afghans we met with – a real fear of a resurgence of the Taliban and other brutal warlords if the US pulls out too precipitously. After the presentation, Yonos said he would transport us, four or five at a time, to his nearby home for the dinner. En route, he told me he wants the US Military to remain (he didn’t say for how long) because otherwise the Taliban would return and oppress them again. I listened respectfully, allowing him to express his fears and concerns. After a five-minute ride down several streets that were really no more than alleys, we arrived at his home, removed our shoes, and were ushered into a long, narrow room where our dinner was to be served. The long, carpeted room had no furnishings other than art on the walls and a TV set at the one end. He brought in a local musician who played the dauyab, a 3-stringed instrument, and sang while we waited for Yonos to fetch the others. We waited for almost an hour before others arrived and were told we missed a very lively (and at times heated) discussion amongst those who had remained after the meeting. One of the more outspoken Afghans, Liah Ghazanfar Jawed, Director of the Solidarity for Justice Foundation asked if the conversation could continue so we walked over to her offices the next afternoon.

One of the critical concerns raised by the transitional justice coalition surrounds what they feel is a culture impunity throughout the entire country with little to no acknowledgment of the victims’ suffering or of past crimes. Karzai signed an Amnesty Law (for acts committed during the civil war) in secret and the lack of transparency greatly troubles this group. They claim many of the warlords that populate his cabinet should be prosecuted for war crimes. Accountability, not amnesia, for past and present crimes is a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan, they said. Some in the group appeared to be open to a Truth and Reconciliation process similar to that in South Africa but only if specific crimes are acknowledged as part of the process. There can be no peace without justice. “We don’t want a peace with these (known) criminals walking around”, especially those given powerful positions in the government.

However, the most contentious issue seems to be how, politically, can this process of accountability, reparations, and healing happen with the constant threat and fear of the Taliban regaining control? For many of these middle class Afghans (who, in all likelihood also benefit, at least indirectly, from the billions of US dollars flowing into Afghanistan for both the prosecution of the war and for the supposed re-building under the counter-insurgency strategy), there is grave concern of (another) rapid US pull-out reminiscent of what happened in early 2003 when Afghanistan was dumped for the new center of the war, Iraq. So they voiced a strong support for US troops to remain. [How long and under what conditions was more vague.] The AYPV boys, on the other hand stated clearly they wanted all foreign troops out as quickly as could be done “responsibly”.

Both the US and Australian peace delegates responded with a warning: beware of the fox guarding the hen house. The Afghans, desperate to have a strong counter-force to a possible resurgent Taliban had ascribed all sorts of honorable intentions to the US intervention – women’s rights, democracy, human rights, … The Americans countered that perception by citing US interests in securing a pipeline through Afghanistan for oil and natural gas, regional hegemony (especially to counter threats from Iran), empire-building, and political payback for US weapons manufacturers as less noble reasons. Donna observed that when an Australian soldier is killed in Afghanistan, it is front-page news back home. But, she continued, we hear nothing in our media about Afghan victims. The justice I seek, she said, is to value all the victims. US delegates expressed their pessimism that the US military might never leave.

Hakim pointed out what he thought was the foundational question that must be addressed in this discussion: Is peace and justice brought about with and through military means? Peggy noted that recent studies have reported that when the US increases the number of troops, the number of Taliban also seems to increase which indicates the strategy doesn’t work. A number of analysts have observed that whenever civilians were killed by US or ISAF military action, particularly by Hellfire missiles fired by pilot-less drone aircraft from miles above the intended target, an exponentially larger number joins the resistance or insurgency.

Kathy Kelly was asked by Hakim to respond to the concerns raised. She said, “We do have a great deal of cynicism but we’d like it to be tempered with love – but we know that the people who have been in charge in our country have been ruthless and they have tolerated tremendous bloodshed and starvation and terrible destruction of our environment in war after war after war.

And … we have to have tender hearts but tough minds; when the United States is trying to assure that all its soldiers here get fed – and they are fed – some of them complain that they are too fat now, it means many, many trucks of supplies have to go … and we know that the US has to pay for passage to get these trucks through and this money goes to the pockets of these same warlords that we say we are fighting against. And we know that it is costing $1 million per year for one soldier, $2 BILLION every week – who is getting that money, where is it going? It’s not going to the right hands. Its not going to help assure that the structures you are working hard to preserve will be supported.

Because I was in Iraq 27 times, and I’ve been with mothers, holding their babies, starving – none of those mothers went home with their babies – none of them. 500,000 children. And the United States government does not care. We fasted for 30 days under George Bush every summer; we tried every trick in the book, and they devastated Iraq, they broke it. We have a history of genocide and we don’t want it inflicted on other people. We want to tell the truth – to ourselves. And then we want to ask you to forgive us and hope we can go forward in friendship.”

By the end of our two-hour conversation, we realized we weren’t that far apart. Our Afghan friends wanted to hear their pain about the victims that are too quickly forgotten and their real fears about another civil war occurring if the US pulls out too quickly; the peace delegates wanted to be sure the Afghans didn’t mistakenly ascribe too noble intentions to the military intervention by the US and other international forces. The AYPV young people want the spiral of violence to end. All of us sensed the pain and destructiveness of war and the evils of unchecked and unaccountable power. We had come to Afghanistan to listen and learn. There are no easy answers once the dogs of war have been unleashed.

Day 7 in a War Zone

The Faces of a New Afghanistan: Day 7 in a war zone by Steve Clemens. March 24, 2011

She is an unveiled, defiant young woman. He is a filmmaker still recovering from his kidnapping 6 ½ years ago. She told me this morning, only half in jest, that she plans on becoming the President. He, at only 15, has known the pain of losing his father but is still willing to stand up to the intimidation of much older adults.

What Zahra, Basir, Shahrbanoo, and Abdulai have in common is a commitment to peace, acts of courage, and, yes, they are all tired – tired of living in a nation of fear, corruption, violence, ethnic animosity and gender discrimination. One turns 30 in a few months, another 20 next week. At 23 and 15, the other two belie their ages with hard-won wisdom. All four took the gutsy step of protest in the streets of Kabul on Thursday, March 17th with 35-40 others, draped in bright turquoise blue scarves and holding banners reading “Today we make a resolute stand for a peaceful tomorrow”, “The citizens of Afghanistan say No to war”, “We wish to live without wars”, and “Warmongers, do not turn our houses into war bastions!”

Some are members of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV); others belong to organizations that have aligned themselves to the AYPV, despite the enormous distrust many Afghans feel for their fellow citizens. These 4 collaborate together hoping to find ways to encourage each other in what is an admittedly lonely struggle – at least for now. While their elders sit in fear of the return of the Taliban, these young, energetic activists want their nation to move forward, not merely crouching in fear or wallowing in corruption.

Each of the four had 25 committed peacemakers from Germany, Australia, and the US travel with them for a week, listening to them, weeping with them, and smiling and hugging one another; peacemakers from four continents sharing stories and food, lighting candles to remember the victims of war. One of the International Peace Delegates, now in his 80s, had marched in the Deep South of the US in the days of the Cold War – a march from Canada to Cuba – and was there for the birthing of the Civil Rights movement. Two other internationals were so young that they couldn’t remember the first Gulf War in 1991, just a year older than my youngest son.

Abdulai laughs easily but he also carries a deep wound. It was the strength and courage of his older brother, Khamed Jan, who carried his younger brother up the mountains to hide from the Taliban who had killed their father. Like any 15 year-old who experienced such a traumatic loss, Abdulai has moments of anger and times of despair but when he was scolded by adults who told him he is naïve and unrealistic for advocating that negotiations to heal Afghanistan’s ethnic rivalries must also include the Taliban – at least lower-level Talibs – he quickly reminds the adults that he has already had a cup full of pain and wants the cycles of hatred, vengeance, and revenge to end.

Knowing a little of how hard it is for any woman – let alone one who openly defies her extremely patriarchal culture – one of the Americans asks Zahra if she’d consider moving to India, Pakistan, Iran, or even the U.S. to give her some breathing room, a safer space, from which to operate. No, this is my country; I am an Afghan woman was her response. I could see in her sad eyes and drooping shoulders as she let down her natural defenses to tell us how tired she was. We listened, our hearts breaking at her pain – yet strangely celebrating the strength of this young woman at the same time. She had invited many people to join her in the peace march in the street last Thursday who said they’d come but then didn’t answer her calls on the day it was happening.

She is trying to bring change to Afghanistan but says she sees little change - she doesn’t witness good results. She tried politics for a couple of years but was disgusted with the fraud and corruption. People accept them just because of money, she observed. Although she likes some of the ideas of Dr. Barshardost, a Member of Parliament, she is not sure about his strategy. But she still sees it as too much talk and not enough action. “He should do, he should Act. People are tired of speaking, they want to see action. Barshardost hands out money (to the needy) but he should help with real development.”

“I’m tired; I don’t know how I can accept this situation. I want to work for peace but I worry that I am alone. I can’t find more people who have the same idea. When people are hungry, how can I say to them that you should work for peace? When they are jobless, how can I ask them to take a political stand? They can only think about food and work.” Then one of the internationals tells her that the recent uprising in Egypt didn’t happen overnight. It was people just like you working behind the scenes for years – even we didn’t see how fast the change came.

Basir, a photojournalist, told me he awoke from a nightmare a few nights ago, fearing he had a hole blown into the back of his skull, waking up with a premonition that it might be best for him to lay low today. It might be a wise decision since he had a similar dream the night before the Taliban kidnapped him in 2004. Although it has been more than 6 years since that event, he told us he is more concerned about his physical safety in the past year than anytime before. He told us that suicide bombers could strike anywhere. Although his beautiful photographs grace many of the walls at the Open Society office, greeting us every morning with his colorful images, most of his work is at the 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center, the place where we held the candle light vigil for victims of war several days ago.

Basir tells us the story somewhat matter-of-factly, as if keeping his emotions at arm’s length, he won’t have to be re-traumatized. He was traveling with two other photojournalists and he doesn’t give us the details of the kidnapping or how long they were held. The female filmmaker was shot by the Taliban and she remained lying on the ground, the Taliban assuming she was dead. I wasn’t clear on where she was shot but in moving away from her, allowed her to escape and survive. Meanwhile, the Talibs held Basir and the other photographer, hoping to exchange them for prisoners held at Baghram’s prison on the sprawling Air Base. During this ordeal, one of his captors became sick and Basir helped him. This captor was sympathetic to them, telling them what was going on, the hope of the prisoner exchange.

However, it became clear that neither the US or Karzai governments were interested in a prisoner swap and so Basir was told by this man that they were to be killed the next day. The man he helped indicated that he was powerless to release them and was sorry it had come to this. As they were on the move to the area where they were to be executed, the Talibs got word that another group of their comrades had just ambushed and killed “an international [soldier] and an Afghan soldier.” His captors, elated with the news lit a fire, and began dancing and celebrating. With the forewarning about their planned execution, Basir and his friend used the distraction of the celebration to escape.

So when Basir tells us seven years later that “things are much more difficult now”, referring to suicide bombing attacks that can happen “anywhere”, it may be a sign of hyper-vigilance as a result of post-traumatic stress or it can be just a realistic evaluation of the depression and fear engendered after decades of war and senseless violence. Basir and my other three friends have not known any extended periods of peace in their lifetimes – yet they are still willing to embrace us, visitors from the country which has armed both sides of this on-going tragedy.

Shahrbanoo is being mentored as a filmmaker by Basir and also acted in one of his films. She and Zahra “escaped” to Kabul – leaving their very conservative, prescribed-roles, rural homes (without their parents’ knowledge or permission. [Their parents have followed them, moving to Kabul.] Basir serves as an “older brother” in picking them up and riding with them to the office. Never knowing who is watching, and with so many rigidly conservative men ready to pounce on any women brazen or foolish enough to travel unaccompanied by a male family member, having Basir or Asif accompany them is a helpful and prudent thing. I’m drawn by their lively spirits and their ready laughter with us but also know the deep well of pain they carry with them. They obviously draw support from each other.

For their future, for the future of their country, this war must end. They are very clear to us: Get the US troops out as quickly as can as be done responsibly. They don’t want to see the Taliban fill the political and military vacuum that could be created with too quick a withdrawal but the present reality must change. Karzai and his cronies may be hopelessly corrupt – but with courage and insight, these young people are getting ready to lead a new Afghanistan. It is a privilege to have listened to them.