Again and again in this isolated Afghan province, when visiting Afghan people in their homes or when talking with members of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), we have heard this message: “We want to know the people of the world, and we want the world to know that we are human beings, not animals.”
On our first night in Bamiyan, we joined the AYPV at a restaurant on the main street in town. The restaurant, unlike those I am accustomed to visiting, served groups of customers in separate, rooms. So we walked down an alley, around the back of the restaurant, up a steep flight of metal stairs to a narrow landing which opened onto several small, windowless rooms. Inside one of them we arranged ourselves as comfortably as possible on the floor and along the walls, eleven Afghan youth and three Americans.
At the outset of the conversation, fourteen-year-old Ali asked us, “How do Americans know we are bad?” The question burst out of him, without preamble, as though he’d been carrying it for years, waiting for this opportunity. He followed it with a statement: “We want Americans to know we are not animals.” Later, while he held my arm and walked me home in the dark, I asked Ali about this belief regarding American perceptions of Afghan people. “Why else would they bomb us?” he said. There wasn’t anything more to say.
Today, two days later, we again gathered for a shared meal, this time in twenty-year-old Moh’d (short for Mohammad) Jan’s home, in a village outside Bamiyan. We piled into a van, and drove out over rocky, pitted, unpaved mountain roads, following the fickle course of a narrow river. High, red-rock cliffs loomed above us, and wherever there was flat land, it was cultivated. “Would you like to leave the car here and walk to my home along the river?” Moh’d Jan asked. We readily agreed.
Stenciled on nearby rocks in the Dari language were words warning people that the hills above are laced with landmines. We left the road and followed a creek lined with willow and cottonwood trees, along the edge of cultivated plots – apple orchards, potato fields being harvested, swaths of thickly-sown, bright green pea plants – the autumn sun pouring into the valley with sweet abundance, as though time had stopped and it would always be like this.
Half an hour later, we were greeted by Moh’d Jan’s brother, Tooryalai, a tall, handsome Tajik man in a long white robe, who welcomed us graciously into their home and seated us on mats in a large, rectangular room with colorful pillows lining the walls. Outside, young children followed us into the house with their eyes.
Moh’d Jan served us: whole wheat bread in long, large, oval, unleavened loaves that we tore with our hands, platters of homemade wheat noodles that Moh’d Jan’s mother had labored over, fried potatoes, local apples, and bottles of orange soda. “If you weren’t vegetarian,” seventeen-year-old Faiz whispered to me, “we would have gone fishing this morning.” Faiz lives in the same village, and is treated as a part of Moh’d Jan’s family.
Moh’d Jan’s mother joined us. “In 1998,” she told us, “violence came to this valley.” At this time the Taliban were sweeping through the north-central part of the country, trying to expand their control. The families who lived here were forced to flee in the winter, in deep snow and deadly cold, in the dark. And in their desperate attempt to escape along steep and dangerous mountain tracks, some perished from exposure, others died after falling off the side of a trail into a ravine. “We were terrified . . . I carried one of my children on my back the whole time.”
After this account in which his mother was clearly upset, Tooryalai cut the tension in the room by joking, “War is the only time Afghans wonder why we have so many children. You have to put one on a donkey, one on your back, one on your shoulders . . .”
Like many others at the time, the family fled on foot to Kabul, 175 kilometers away, seeking refuge. “Did anyone help you?” Kathy Kelly asked.
Her question was greeted with wry laughter. “There were so many refugees that no one paid any attention to us,” Tooryalai said.
“How did you survive?” we asked.
“We organized ourselves to sell things,” Moh’d Jan explained. “We worked as street vendors and in the market, and we used the money to buy flour to make bread.”
The family lived like this in Kabul for four years. During much of this time, their home in the mountain valley outside Bamiyan was occupied by a political militia – “not the Taliban, but the militia of a political party called ‘Party of One.’ They treated the house and the land well.”
In town, over the last three days, we have met Afghan people who work for the Afghan government, who work in private construction building barracks for U.S. military personnel, who operate radio stations, who are business owners, who teach at the university. Some of them contend emphatically that a U.S. troop withdrawal would be a disaster, ushering in a return to Taliban power and abuse and the prospect of civil war. In every case, they see the issue through a narrow lens – for example, through their ethnicity (“they will slaughter the Hazara people again”) or through their job security (“they will shut down the university” or “if the U.S. leaves, I will not be able to do this media work.”). At times, we have been met by looks of silent derision for even asking whether the U.S. should withdraw. Most disturbingly, some of these people have stated unequivocally and dispassionately that it is good when the U.S. military kills people. “Most of them are Pashtuns,” one person said. “They should be killed.”
During the meal at Moh’d Jan’s home, we heard something else. Toward the end of our conversation in his home, Moh’d Jan said,
“Even though we had to flee our homes for four years, and it was terrible not being able to give people a proper burial, having to leave the bodies with just a few rocks on them, we are thankful for this time of relative peace. But we know that there are people in other provinces which are in conflict, and things there have not changed, have not improved for them.”
When asked about U.S. troop withdrawal, families we’ve visited have told us, as Moh’d Jan implies in his statement, that they want peace for all of Afghanistan.
And today when we asked his family “What should we tell people when we return to the US?” we heard the same proposition we have heard from people in other villages and on more than one occasion from members of the AYPV.
“Tell them,” Tooryalai said, “ to come to Afghanistan and make friends.”