Afghans today : Between hope and hopelessness

Ismarai has recently refurbished his shop selling soft drinks on the newly tarred avenue of Deh Mazan in the Afghan capital. Next to it stands a bombed out cinema house with white chalk signs that warn of landmines. Only six years ago, this neighbourhood was in a war zone. Murtaza Omarzai is in his late 20s. He came back to Kabul from Peshawar in Pakistan a year after the Taliban were ousted by US-led foreign troops in October 2001. He wants to leave again, “to the West, or India’’.

“Maybe study further. Get married, settle down. There is little one can achieve here,” Omarzai adds pointing to a shantytown outside his house on the outskirts of Kabul. There is a forlorn water pump for a population of 300. Most people drink from a little trickle in a canal. There is no sanitation, and no education for the barefoot children.

Saajida sits by her small cart-kiosk selling cheap stationary at Deh Afghanan, a dusty transit point in Kabul. She no longer wears the blue burqa. “What do you feel about the changes in the past few years?” “I don’t know whether to mourn or celebrate. I earn little by doing this. But at least I am able to do it.”

Hope and hopelessness are intertwined in Afghanistan. Ask Afghans about the transformation in their lives since 9/11, they admit to as much pessimism as optimism. Here children bear the burden of too much experience in their eyes and no expectations. The youth are often opiated and listless. The old men do the jobs of the young men. Perhaps they are the only ones who had a chance to learn some skills before war broke out in this country nearly three decades back.

Mirza drives a taxi to earn a living. The house is crowded with nearly 40 family members. “They mostly spend the day at home. There is little work,” he explained. “People are not learning new skills nowadays. They earn during the day doing physical labour and menial jobs, and at night, feed their families with the day’s earnings,” says Omarzai.

Kabul’s residents have many complaints: half the city lies in ruins, many still live in tents, thousands cannot find jobs, children go hungry, schools are overcrowded and hospitals dirty, women in tattered burqas still beg in the streets. Despite receiving billions of dollars of international aid, Afghanistan is ranked 173rd out of 178 nations in the UN’s Human Development Index. Only five African countries are listed lower.

According to the UN Population Division, life expectancy in Afghanistan is 47 years at birth. The UNICEF’s 2005 figures project that 25% of Afghan children die before age five. An alarming 80% of these deaths are caused by preventable diseases.

Yet the US, whose support props up the Hamid Karzai government, asserts Afghanistan has made remarkable progress with the help of the international community. A Sept. 27 article on the State Department website claims the Afghan economy is growing at 12-14% a year, making it the fastest-growing economy in the region.

In a 2006 accounting of the results of the multi-billion dollar US aid to Afghanistan, USAID claimed that 7.4 million Afghans have access to improved health care, a paved highway has been completed between Kabul and Kandahar, 65,000 teachers have been trained, 50 million textbooks printed, and 5 million children enrolled in school.

The bald truth is that real change has eluded most Afghans. Adila, a widow in her thirties, works at the Indira Gandhi Hospital for Child Health, the only children’s hospital in Afghanistan, as an attendant. She has had to take permission from her family elders to be interviewed. She does not smile. She is grateful for her job but it gets her a mere 120 Afghanis ($2.4 dollars) a month. She wants her two sons to study. “Can you ask someone to help with a scholarship, vazeefa,” she begs after every sentence.

A recent World Bank report is unexpectedly candid. “In trying to create the space for the Afghan state to develop,” it argues, “PRTs (US funded Provincial Reconstruction Teams) run the risk of undermining it. They should really only exist where security conditions make them absolutely necessary.”

Ameer Hamiddudin lives in Kabul with his family. They have just switched on their generator to be able to watch the hugely popular Indian TV soap Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thee, dubbed in Farsi. His aging father speaks Pushto. Hamiddudin who grew up during the Soviet years speaks Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two national languages, and Russian. His teenage children speak Urdu learnt in camps in Pakistan and the younger kids, accented English.

“I am happy for the return of democracy but we need electricity and educational opportunities, work opportunities,” his son translates for him. “The Russians were perhaps better,” he compares. “They built infrastructure. There were jobs. These days the new system is giving us fancy cars that jam the roads of Kabul, Coke and chips.” —IPS