October 7, 2012, Kabul, Afghanistan. At 5:15 a.m., the main street outside the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s (APV) apartment is quiet, and the first weak rays of gray light filter down through dusty, polluted air. In the distance, the hulking brown mountains circling the Kabuli plain emerge ominously from darkness. After yesterday’s dust storm, a thin brown film covers everything: windows, the shop stall roofs where children fly kites in the evening, bicycle seats, burlap sacks protecting fruit and vegetable displays, doorknobs, throats, the leaves of trees. Early bicyclists and pedestrians make their way. A man pushes a wheelbarrow, and a black horse pulls a hooded rider and an empty wooden cart. Twenty minutes later, the first street vendors appear, blowing on their hands in the cold, and seating themselves on stools. They sit directly across from our apartment, and lift handfuls of thick, peeled carrots out of 40 kg. sacks. Hunched over, they grate the carrots into two rising, orange pyramids. All day, among the pervasive grays and browns and blacks of this neighborhood, these mounds of carrots are sunrise and sunset on the main drag.
That is how the day that marked the start of the twelfth year of the US-led military occupation of Afghanistan began in our cramped corner of Kabul. It ended with a two and a half hour skype phone conversation between young Afghans and a group of young American veterans of the war in Afghanistan. In between, it consisted of interviews with young Afghan men about the effects of war, their expectations for the future, their hopes.
Ali, a high school student, told us, “War has many effects on our lives. For example, I cannot study. When I try, I start to think about people in other provinces where there is fighting. We in Afghanistan haven’t seen a lot of love. We have seen a lot of violence.”
Another said, “In my own opinion, war has no positive results. It does not build our future. The weapons harm the environment. War does not give us any hope for the future. It doesn’t give a good start for the new generation. I am always thinking about how other countries improve a lot, and it upsets me that my country is not improving.”
In late 2006 during the height of what was called the Iraqi Displacement Crisis, and again in 2009, I visited Iraqi refugees living in Amman, Jordan. Most of the people I met wanted to be resettled – to Australia, Europe, Canada, America. Young, single Iraqi men were the refugees with the least chance of being resettled. Like most of the estimated two million Iraqis who fled their country, these young men had none of the legal rights that come with citizenship. They entered Jordan under short term visas that expired ad left them exposed. Most importantly, they had no legal right to work, and so what employment they found was off-the-books and typically backbreaking, work no one else wanted to do. With the law against them, they were preyed upon by employers who paid them slave wages, and reneged on agreements with impunity. At work, they were on constant vigil for police who, acting on a tip, might raid the business, arrest them, and have them deported to Iraq. They described this situation in terms of loss and emptiness: “What hope is there for me? What options? I am losing my youth, and no one cares. No one even knows about it.” Stretching before them the future lay dusty, colorless, and unchanging, and often the heat of a barely contained rage could be felt burning beneath its surface.
Afghan youth, like their Iraqi refugee counterparts, look and hope for opportunity. “I don’t know what will happen, in the future,” a young Afghan said, “but I know our people need to stand together, insist on our rights, and to say we are humans, like others. Hopefully, like the people in Egypt insisted…I hope the people of the world will change their mind about Afghans. And people will insist that Afghanistan change its practices.”
Yesterday, in Kabul, I visited a young Afghan man named Mohammad. We met at a park a kilometer from the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s apartment house. Mohammad is two months from completing a two-year, electrical engineering program at a small city college, but instead of rejoicing, he summed up his prospects by saying, “I have no sponsor in Parliament, and I do not come from an important family with money, so I cannot get a spot in the one university in Kabul with a program in electrical engineering.”
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Young people in Afghanistan are not oblivious to the shortcomings of their government, or their educational and political systems. On the contrary, they are all-too aware of the corruption and greed. “We have many problems in Afghanistan,” Issa said this morning. “The country is run by a few families.” The practice of giving out university spots on the basis of connections and bribes is but a single facet of the problem, and one salient example of the roadblocks young people confront here. In a straightforward fashion lost on no one here, the fact that the official government of Afghanistan is an American puppet means simply that the U.S. is supporting these corrupt systems and practices.
Untreated trauma, loss, and psychological stress all add to the challenges of building a future for young men in Afghanistan. Afghans tell us, “After thirty years of war, every family has lost loved ones. “Always,” one young man said, “they are thinking about death, remembering their losses.” Raz, a local university student, described a U.S. drone attack in his home village in neighboring Wardak Province. The attack killed his brother-in-law, leaving “my sister a widow and her young son fatherless. My nephew, of course, asked ‘what happened to my father?’ What could they say, that a computer killed him?” When the family went to the NATO office and asked, “Why are you killing us?” they were told they’d receive monetary compensation, per NATO policy. “Afghans,” he said, “are sick of this. We reject the idea that you can put a monetary value on any life, least of all a loved one. Our family rejected the money.”
In a typical stump speech, this one before a veterans group, Mitt Romney recently promised to maintain military spending, if elected. “Liberty,” he said, “is tied to a strong military.” But whose liberty?
During the conversation with the American vets, Farhad said, “Ask anyone and they will tell you that foreign military actions and foreign interventions are destroying our country.” And Ghulamai added, “It is called ‘Operation Enduring Freedom,’ but where is the freedom?”
As in the textured conversations with Iraqi refugees, the picture young Afghan men paint also has a dark side. Mohammad told me, “Students go through twelve or fourteen years of school and there are no jobs, no opportunities. So they return to their villages and join the Taliban.”
Another young man said, “Because of the war it is hard for people to find work. A family sits together and one person asks another, ‘Why didn’t you bring bread?’ People feel stress, high stress, and this is a cause of violence.”
After our skype conversation, the American veterans prepared for a morning fire circle, a ritual of remembering those lost in this war, both Afghan and American. Here, as night deepens in Kabul and we prepare for bed, the echoes of Afghan voices can be heard asking: “When will the sun set on war and foreign intervention? When will it rise on employment, sovereignty, opportunity – on freedom?”