Reflections from home
One thing that I have observed in the Canadian (and other) media is the negativity which tends to run through the reporting of events in Afghanistan. I’ve mentioned before these discrepancies between what I see and hear, and what I read. On this last trip to Kabul I noticed a few things that bode well, I believe (and hope), for the future of the country.
On the flight across from Istanbul I found myself sitting next to a young Afghan woman. We started chatting, and she told me her name was Nadia and she was travelling from Helsinki. In 1997, in resistance to the Taliban regime, she had left Kabul with her parents, some of her siblings, and her four month old son. They had gone to Iran, where they registered as refugees. In 2001 she had discovered that there was no school open to her son in the refugee camp where they were living, so she applied to the IOM, the International Organization for Migration, to be resettled in a third country. She was one of the 15,000,000 (yes, fifteen million) IOM-assisted migrants and refugees between its founding in 1960 and 2005, the latest year for which I could find data.
With the help of IOM Nadia and her son moved to Finland. She enrolled him in kindergarten, and spent a year learning Finnish. I once worked with a group of Finnish colleagues in Kosovo and one of them told me he had learned Albanian, so now he knew “two of the most difficult languages in Europe.” After a year of studying the language, Nadia enrolled in the University and trained to become a teacher. For the past 8 years she has taught kindergarten, in Finnish, at a Helsinki school.
Her son, now 17, has decided to join the Finnish army, and so Nadia has decided to return to Kabul. She did make one earlier visit, in 2009, when she came for a wedding and stayed for four days. But now she has decided to come back and try living in Kabul for a year.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I would like to start a kindergarten school,” she said. “In Finland they have many teachers helping their children, but in Afghanistan not so many. I will live with my brother in Kabul and try to start a school for the street children.”
I don’t know whether or not she will be successful, but the very fact that she is willing to try seems, to me, to be a positive thing.
A second thing I noticed was the growing amount of Afghan produced food on the streets. There were melons from Kunduz (“the best melons in the world!”), pomegranates from Kandahar (“the best pomegranates in the world!”), and almonds from Uruzgan (“the best almonds …”), among other produce. The cook at the guest house was keen to show us that many of our meals were now made from all Afghan products – indeed, he said, one of the problems is that many international buyers from Dubai, Pakistan and elsewhere are going to farms early in the spring, and buying the whole crop for export before it is even grown. At the little kiosk in the departure lounge at Kabul airport one can buy bags of Afghan almonds, but they are three times the price of California ones! Afghanistan used to be self-sufficient in food, and was famed for its many high quality fruits and nuts, and perhaps this is a sign that things are once again on the upswing.
Third, there is the amazing number of children, and the growth of technology. According to the World Health Organization, 46% of the population in 2012 was under 15 years of age (http://www.who.int/countryfocus/cooperation_strategy/ccsbrief_afg_en.pdf). Data from USAID suggests that in the past decade, 20 million mobile phone subscriptions have been made, and that 88% of the country now has cell phone coverage (http://www.usaid.gov/where-we-work/afghanistan-and-pakistan/afghanistan/survey-mobile-technology). Although the government’s own figures show that about 40% of school aged children are not enrolled in school, there has still been an increase from 1 million students in 2002 to 8 million now, with all the concomitant challenges for infrastructure, resources, teachers, and so forth.
If we consider these data together, it implies that Afghanistan in 2014 is a very different place from what it was in 1996, when the Taliban took control of Kabul. Nearly half the population has grown up with access to cell phones, to social media, and to an awareness of the outside world.
I think that the next few months are going to be a crucial time. There is the presidential election in April, and the withdrawal of foreign troops over the year. The election will be a strongly contested affair, and it will be important that international observers are present to testify that a fair and transparent process has been followed. The troop withdrawal will reduce the number of visible targets on the roads, as military convoys will presumably be reduced, and this may reduce the number of VBIEDs and other incidents. People are still concerned at the possible negative outcomes from 2014, but there is also a sense that there are potential positives ahead. The people with whom I spoke are all tired of the fighting, of war. There is an opportunity coming, I believe, when Afghanistan could turn the corner on the mayhem of the last 40 years. One can but hope.
On my way back from Kabul all the planes left on time. There were no delays, no extended stop-overs, no cancellations. The security controls were brisk and efficient, and we made good time through the checkpoints and in to the terminal. In Istanbul I had time between planes to go for a coffee in the lounge. The same two young men were at the desk. They looked at me and broke into big grins. One stood up and stretched out his arms.
“My brother! You’re back! How long will you stay with us this time?”