Kids of Kabul: how are teens in Afghanistan faring amid war, poverty, and drought?
Marizia Shatob, 13, walks to school each day with a white scarf around her head and a book bag slung over her shoulder. Her classroom, which is located in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, is barely furnished. In it, you will find dilapidated wooden desks and a battered chalkboard. There, Marizia and more than two dozen other gifts study math, science, history, and literature.
Until recently, such a scene was unimaginable in Afghanistan. From 1996 to 2001, this nation of nearly 33 million people was ruled by the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group that prohibited education among girls.
Then came September 11, 2001, when AI Qaeda terrorists launched deadly attacks on the United States. Afghanistan refused to turn over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was thought to be hiding in the country. As a result, U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban.
The U.S. helped to install an elected government, led by President Hamid Karzai. After decades of war against Soviet and Taliban forces, Afghans began to rebuild their country and enjoy more freedoms. Today, Marizia is one of about 2 million Afghan girls who are at last able to attend school.
Limits to Schooling
But Afghanistan's troubles are far from over. The Taliban has been battling back and now controls much of the country. The 32,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, along with 50,000 others from an international coalition, struggle to contain them.
In the fighting, the Taliban have managed to erase some of the progress achieved in Afghans' education. More than 600 schools have been forced to close, say officials. This prevented about 300,000 students from attending school last year.
Islamic militants have also burned down schools, thrown acid on girls' faces, and murdered female students and teachers.
Despite these threats, Marizia is determined to continue her education. "I want to attend university one day and study medicine," she tells JS. "These attacks will not stop me from going to school."
Marizia says that most Afghans oppose the Taliban and their extreme interpretation of Islam. "They don't practice Islam," she says. "Banning girls from going to school is not Islamic. They just want to destroy the country."
Marzim Nikzad, 12, is a seventh-grader at the Satara Public School in the Shashdark neighborhood of northern Kabul. She too has a negative view of the Taliban. "The Taliban don't want girls to study and receive an education," she says. "They want girls to be illiterate and shut in the house."
More U.S. Troops?
Last year was Afghanistan's most violent since 2001. According to one United Nations estimate, 1,145 Afghan civilians were killed in the first eight months. These included 52 children who died when rebels attacked a school. U.S. bombs killed 60 more children during one August battle with insurgents (rebels). In all, about 395 of these civilian deaths came from U.S. and international coalition air strikes.
The year 2008 was also the deadliest for coalition troops there, with an estimated 294 killed in combat. Most of the fighting took place along Afghanistan's southeastern border with Pakistan (see MapSearch, p. 10). U.S. drones have fired rockets aimed at militants on both sides of the border. Pakistan's government objects to attacks on its soil. But U.S. officials that the strikes are necessary because Al Qaeda and bin Laden are using the area as a sanctuary.
U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to send up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Critics argue, however, that the U.S. is in danger of getting enmeshed in an endless war in the country's forbidding mountains. They also warn that militants driven from Afghanistan will just go to nuclear-armed Pakistan, further endangering that country's fragile peace.
Obama's pledge has sparked debate among Afghans about the place of the U.S. military in their country. "I'm not happy they're here, because Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people," says Marizia. "They came to bring peace, but they've killed many civilians."
Sayeed Ahmed Zaki, 14, is in the ninth grade at the Habibia School in south Kabul. He believes that Obama's plan will work. "I'm optimistic Obama will bring peace to the country with his promise of more U.S. troops," he tells JS. "The insurgents are targeting and killing civilians in suicide bombings. The U.S. troops are not targeting civilians."
Afghanistan is a poor, largely rural country. Illiteracy, particularly among women and girls, remains high. More than two thirds of Afghans over age 15 cannot read or write.
Outside of Kabul, few areas have electricity and many lack clean water. The capital also has its share of problems. Sayeed's family receives only five hours of electrical power once every three days. Unemployment is high, and crime in the city has risen. The streets are filled with women, children, and older men begging for a living. Many of them are among the 5 million refugees who have returned to Afghanistan in recent years.
Adding to these hardships, a severe drought has destroyed crops and livestock across large parts of the country. Near one quarter of Afghans face food shortages this winter.
The country's most profitable crop is the poppy, which is used to produce most of the world's supply of the drugs opium and heroin. Corrupt government officials, the Taliban, and local warlords all benefit from the illegal drug trade.
Afghans generally support President Karzai because he is viewed as an honest leader. "But he doesn't have enough support from others in government," says Sayeed's classmate Waris Ahmed Faizi, 14. "There are too many corrupt officials. Karzai can't improve the country alone."
Everywhere, Afghan parents worry about their children's safety and their ability to get a good education. "My great hope is that my son will have the opportunity to study outside of Afghanistan one day," says Nazir Mohammed, Waris's father.
A Special Sport
Despite the obstacles, daily life in Afghanistan remains lively. Kids in Kabul shoot marbles on the streets. They play soccer on dirt fields and volleyball in dusty lots, and keep flocks of birds as pets.
Students go to school from Saturday to Thursday. Fridays are a holiday, in observance of the Muslim day of prayer. On that day, many Afghans cast their kites skyward. Kite fighters battle with sharp wires or string coated with ground glass, trying to cut their opponent's line and send that kite fluttering away.
"Kite fighting is a special sport in Afghanistan," 12-year-old Saeed Adris tells JS. The Taliban once banned the pastime, but it is again widely practiced.
Saeed's father, Khaila Adris, owns a kite shop in Kabul. Kite fighting survived the Taliban, he says, and he predicts it will outlast the country's current crisis.
"The situation here is bad now," Adris says. "But many people are still buying and flying kites."
Words to Know
* coalition (n): a temporary alliance of countries, political groups, or persons.
* drone (n): a pilotless craft operated by remote control.
* fundamentalist (adj): rigidly following basic principles or religious ideas, often marked by intolerance.
* sanctuary (n): a place of refuge or protection.
A moment of peace
Like many Afghans, Samine uses only one name. At age 15, he is far behind in his schooling. He has had to go to work to help support his family. JS spoke with Samine outside a mosque in Kabul.
I come to this mosque because I like to feed the pigeons. They keep coming back because I feed them. Birds are peaceful creatures. I become very relaxed when I'm around them.
Mg father is a truck driver, but he doesn't have a job now. I go to school these days and work sometimes to help mg family. I want to be a butcher like my grandfather. It's a respectable profession, and there's always work. --Somine, 15
Think About It
1. What are some of the difficulties that kids in Kabul face every day? How might they compare with an average American's?
2. Why is it significant that girls are going to school in Afghanistan? How might educating more girls and women affect Afghanistan's future?
About the Author
James Palmer is a freelance reporter and photographer. He has covered stories in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and several countries in Africa. Palmer tells JS that his job is "not simply to report the news, but to reach out to people most affected by events in order to witness, document, and express their hardships, bravery, and aspirations."
The Iraq war has dominated the news since it began in 2003. But the war in Afghanistan, launched two years earlier, may prove to be an even greater test of American will and purpose. This article introduces readers to the Afghan people and the hardships they have suffered from decades of war.
Afghanistan has a long history of invasion by forces and cultures from beyond its borders. In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great invaded it to expand his empire. For centuries before Europeans discovered a sea route to India, the only way to reach the silks, spices, and other riches of India was overland through Afghanistan. More recently, the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979 and occupied it until 1989.
* Meet the Press
Imagine that you are the President of Afghanistan being interviewed by a reporter. Given what you know of Afghanistan from this article and map page, how would you answer these questions?
* How did life change for many Afghans after the Taliban were driven from power?
* What problems are occurring on your country's border with Pakistan?
* Should tire U.S. send more troops to Afghanistan? Why or why not?
* If you could ask U.S. President Obama for one thing (other than more troops) to help your people, what would it be and why?
* "Afghanistan and the War on Terror" (background, a chronology, student voices, and other features) is at pbs.org/newshour/indepth_coverage/asia/afghanistan.
* For information and a slide show on Afghan children and their country, as well as puzzles and lesson plans, go to embassyofafghanistan.org/kids.html.