Tall, lanky, cheerful and confident, Esmatullah easily engages his young students at the Street Kids School, a project of Kabul’s “Afghan Peace Volunteers,” an antiwar community with a focus on service to the poor. Esmatullah teaches child laborers to read. He feels particularly motivated to teach at the Street Kids School because, as he puts it, “I was once one of these children.” Esmatullah began working to support his family when he was 9 years old. Now, at age 18, he is catching up: he has reached the tenth grade, takes pride in having learned English well enough to teach a course in a local academy, and knows that his family appreciates his dedicated, hard work.
When Esmatullah was nine, the Taliban came to his house looking for his older brother. Esmatullah’s father wouldn’t divulge information they wanted. The Taliban then tortured his father by beating his feet so severely that he has never walked since. Esmatullah’s dad, now 48, had never learnt to read or write; there are no jobs for him. For the past decade, Esmatullah has been the family’s main breadwinner, having begun to work, at age nine, in a mechanics workshop. He would attend school in the early morning hours, but at 11:00 a.m., he would start his workday with the mechanics, continuing to work until nightfall. During winter months, he worked full time, earning 50 Afghanis each week, a sum he always gave his mother to buy bread.
Now, thinking back on his experiences as a child laborer, Esmatullah has second thoughts. “As I grew up, I saw that it was not good to work as a child and miss many lessons in school. I wonder how active my brain was at that time, and how much I could have learnt! When children work full time, it can ruin their future. I was in an environment where many people were addicted to heroin. Luckily I didn’t start, even though others at the workshop suggested that I try using heroin. I was very small. I would ask ‘What is this?’ and they would say it’s a drug, it’s good for back pain.”
“Fortunately, my uncle helped me buy materials for school and pay for courses. When I was in grade 7, I thought about leaving school, but he wouldn’t let me. My uncle works as a watchman in Karte Chahar. I wish I can help him someday.”
Even when he could only attend school part-time, Esmatullah was a successful student. His teachers recently spoke affectionately about him as an exceptionally polite and competent student. He would always rank as one of the top students in his classes.
“I am the only one who reads or writes in my family,” says Esmatullah. “I always wish that my mother and father could read and write. They could perhaps find work. Truthfully, I live for my family. I am not living for myself. I care for my family. I love myself because of my family. As long as I’m alive, they feel there is a person to help them.”
“But if I had the freedom to choose, I would spend all my time working as a volunteer at the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s center.”
“I wish that one day we’ll be able to end war.”
—Esmatullah Asked how he feels about educating child laborers, Esmatullah responds: “These children shouldn’t be illiterate in the future. Education in Afghanistan is like a triangle. When I was in first grade, we were 40 children. By grade 7, I recognized that many children had already abandoned school. When I reached grade 10, only four of the 40 children continued their lessons.”
“When I studied English, I felt enthusiastic about teaching in the future and earning money,” he told me. “Eventually, I felt I should teach others because if they become literate they will be less likely to go to war.”
“People are being pushed to join the military,” he says. “My cousin joined the military. He had gone to find work and the military recruited him, offering him money. After one week, the Taliban killed him. He was about 20 years old and he had recently been married.”
Ten years ago, Afghanistan had already been at war for four years, with U.S. cries for revenge over the 9/11 attacks giving way to unconvincing statements of retroactive concern for impoverished people who are the majority of Afghanistan’s population. As elsewhere where the U.S. has let “no fly zones” slide into full regime change, atrocities between Afghans only increased in the chaos, leading to the maiming of Esmatullah’s father.
Many of Esmatullah’s neighbors might understand if he wanted to retaliate and seek vengeance against the Taliban. Others would understand if he wished the same revenge on the United States. But he instead aligns himself with young men and women insisting that “Blood doesn’t wipe away blood.” They want to help child laborers escape military recruitment and ease the afflictions people suffer because of wars.
I asked Esmatullah how he feels about joining the #Enough! campaign, - represented in social media by young people opposed to war who photograph the word #Enough! (bas) written on their palms.
“Afghanistan experienced three decades of war,” said Esmatullah. “I wish that one day we’ll be able to end war. I want to be someone who, in the future, bans wars.” It will take a lot of “someones” to ban war, ones like Esmatullah who become schooled in ways to live communally with the neediest of people, building societies whose actions won’t evoke desires for revenge.