One Cup of Tea

“Some questions cannot be answered,” my new friend says, when I press him as to what he would advocate as the way forward in Afghanistan. “I am bewildered, dismayed,” he says, “in that things are not going in the right direction for the people of Afghanistan now.”

He worked in the Afghan government for several years, wanting to help rebuild Afghanistan, but resigned his position when he finally lost any shred of hope that the government could ever function in a way that would benefit the Afghan people. He describes the Karzai government as a mafia, both in its organizational structure and its actions. Because of such statements, I must keep his identity secret so as not to place his life at risk. I will call him Mahmoud, but that is not his name.

I have met only a few people so far, but all are unanimous in their contempt for Karzai and his government. One man said, “Karzai is the worst president in the history of the country.”

Mahmoud asks, “Why has the US, knowing very well who Karzai is, kept him in power? Why did the US continue to support him following the fraudulent elections? Why has the US allowed war criminals to run the country?”  He points out that some of those in the highest positions of power in the government have committed known atrocities, such as cutting off women’s breasts.

We are having tea together in a courtyard restaurant secluded by high walls. Mahmoud pauses while pouring more tea into his cup. “Americans think they can win in a vacuum, because they have more guns,” he says. The “vacuum” to which he refers is the absence of attention to all the other aspects of the conflict—including pervasive government corruption, the power and criminality of the war lords and their incorporation into the government, and the lack of community development in a country devastated by decades of war.

The Afghans I have met these first couple of days believe that the only reason the US is in Afghanistan is because of the country’s strategic location, between Iran and Pakistan and bordering China and several republics of the former Soviet Union. With bases located in Afghanistan, the US can more easily “project power” and engage in “kinetic military actions,” as the latest Pentagon jargon has it. Just yesterday the New York Times reported that the US is negotiating a new agreement with the Afghan government to allow US bases to remain in Afghanistan for at least ten to twenty years after 2014.   While the US claims the war is to help the Afghan people and defeat the Taliban, the people I have spoken with here see little evidence of a humanitarian goal, and through its military tactics, the US is creating enemies faster than it can kill them. As was true of the Iraq war, this war most likely continues for a number of reasons.  Kathy Kelly wrote last year:

“There is no simple answer or brilliant conspiracy theory that sums up exactly why the United States is at war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. War profiteering, energy resources, the Trans-Afghan pipeline, strategic geo-political positioning and even the narcotics trade may all play a part. But whatever the case, it is clear that the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan have become a football to be kicked about by the powerful players in world politics.”

Driving to Charahi Qambar Refugee Camp

Another new friend, to whom I am giving the pseudonym Mohammed, drives me to the refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul where we will find some of these human footballs. Kabul was built for 500,000 people but now has a population of four million, I have been told. Many of the city streets on which we drive are unpaved, consisting of nothing more than hard- packed dirt. To navigate the ubiquitous potholes, drivers constantly move from lane to lane, including into oncoming traffic lanes. I see only one traffic light in our half hour drive, and that one is not functioning. If there are any rules of the road, they elude me. Driving here is a skill that takes nerves of steel.

Small, open kiosks, huts really, line the road for miles, showcasing all kinds of wares and food. Far more men than women are out shopping and walking on the streets. Of the women I see, only a few are wearing burqas, although all cover their heads, as I am also doing.

Mohammed and I are talking and he is perhaps paying insufficient attention to the road when he suddenly pulls aside and exclaims, “Oh, no, I have to get out of the way. I am too close!”  Three US army trucks have come up behind us, and all the cars must move to the side of the road. “If we get too close, they will shoot us,” my friend explains. He tells me that many people in Kabul have been shot for driving too close to such trucks. This is something I knew was common in rural areas, but I am surprised to learn that it also happens in the middle of Kabul.

We drive by the US army base, which is surrounded by a mud wall perhaps 20 feet tall with rolls of barbed wire on top. Mohammed wants to show me how huge the base is, and we drive for miles, following the mud wall.

As we approach the Charahi Qambar Refugee Camp, Mohammed explains that it is home to about 1,200 internally displaced people who have fled here seeking safety. Mahmoud had told me in the morning that there are some four million Afghan refugees in neighboring countries, many of them living in huge camps in Pakistan, but that these countries no longer accept refugees. Hoping to leave the country and find safety, Afghans have applied in the thousands for visas to all the embassies in Kabul, he said; but there are no countries that will give them visas.

Outside the refugee camp, I notice piles of mud brick beside the road .  Mohammed tells me that refugees make these bricks by hand and then sell them as a way to make a little money; mud is the one commodity that is in abundance.

Refugee Camp Showing Brick Factory

Charahi Qambar Refugee Camp

Living conditions in this camp are incredibly primitive. People live in hovels. When the refugees first arrived, they were given tents by aid agencies. After a while, the people built mud walls and placed the tents over the top to serve as roofs; these “roofs” leak when it rains. Open sewers run through the camp, and you step over them to move around.

Walking Through Charahi Qambar Refugee Camp

We stop to visit with one family, consisting of nine people who fled Helmand Province south of Kabul and have lived in the camp now for four years. We walk into their “compound”– three small, one-room mud huts surrounding an open area, a kind of courtyard.

Inside the Family Compound

The children are bringing in rocks in a wheelbarrow.  The patriarch of the group tells us that they will crush the rocks and then mix the resulting pebbles with a couple of bags of concrete they have just been given by an aid agency; he will then be able to build a toilet for the family. He tries to get day labor work to support the family, he says, but that is difficult to find. Otherwise, he has to rely on food aid provided by international agencies, which is inadequate to feed his family. He apologizes profusely that he is unable to offer us, his guests, a cup of tea, but he has none. This is clearly shameful to him.

The family came to Kabul to save their lives. One daughter, whom I meet, lost an arm to a bombing raid, and an uncle lost a leg before they fled. The family cannot go home, as it is too dangerous, and anyway, they no longer have any home to which they could return. At least the children can go to school here, I am told.

Girl Injured by Bombs, Inside Her Home

This is the saddest place I have ever seen.

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