My dream with journalism is to travel to the frontiers and send their stories to breakfast tables thousands of miles away. Join me for my first chapter, in Afghanistan, summer 2006. These are my letters to you.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Stepping off my Yak

After two exceptional months in Afghanistan, the time has finally come for me to board a plane to carry me back to another planet.

Tomorrow a flight will whisk me from Kabul International, climbing steeply as a precaution against the many CIA-supplied Stinger missiles that remain unaccounted for in the country, and take me as far as Dubai, where I plan to have dinner with a friend in the shocking bright lights of this other-worldly Arab metropolis. From Dubai I will fly to London, where I will have two days and perhaps a pint and a pasty. On Aug. 9 I will return to Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

I would like to thank each of you for your encouragement and support. It has been a great pleasure to write these letters over the past two months. They have given me reason to live this experience deeply, and the sense of accountability to observe Afghanistan accurately and compassionately. I know this is a place to which I will return in the future, to tell more of its people's stories, I hope.

Before I sign off altogether, I have a couple last tidbits to add.

Yesterday I met with a member of the extremely secretive Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA. Karim showed up to our interview on an old bicycle. He is a poor man, with white hair and crinkles around his eyes when he smiles. In his immaculate shalwaar kameez, he could be anyone taken off the streets of Kabul. But in another life, he is a Maoist and a RAWA organizer. Because RAWA members are rarely authorized to speak with the media - our meeting was arranged through a secure source - Karim began by giving me a message from headquarters.

"It is vital," he told me, "that you write down exactly what I say and not a word more. If you give the wrong information it will have severe consequences for RAWA."

Karim has reason to be cautious. This 30-year-old underground activist organization has seen its founder assassinated by a branch of the KGB, had its protests attacked and recently been followed by government spies. With false names, clandestine meetings and hidden cameras, the organization has all the elements of a John la Carré novel. But its members can only wish their dangerous realities were fiction.

Using secret cameras, RAWA filmed a number of atrocities during the Afghan civil war and the Taliban's five year rule. Many of the people connected to the crimes now hold positions of power in the government. RAWA is seeking to hold them accountable. As an organization, it draws its ideological foundation from the Maoist school, which is considered heretical by many in this Islamic society.

"Afghanistan is an Islamic society, but it also has scholars and intellectuals," Karim told me. "When people are educated, they are interested in these ideas. Idealism is common everywhere, and it's just the same in Afghanistan. Throughout the world it's always been a struggle between idealism and materialism."

Before he turned into the corridor, and disappeared "like water into the ground," Karim took me by the hand and looked me deep in the eyes.

"For the union of the people," he said. "Even in America."

* * *
Today is my last full day in Afghanistan. I will probably go out for a kebab and a fresh almond ice-cream to commemorate it. But before that I have another interview scheduled. This one is with Youssaf Khalil, a principal advisor to Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, the famous warlord of the Afghan civil war, who disappeared without a trace into Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Provinces after the fall of the Taliban. The last time I was in Kabul, in 1995, it was Hikmetyar's shells and planes that shook the city at night. I am told Youssaf Khalil is leading a peaceful life now, and teaches at a university. There are even reports that he has become a gynecologist. Regardless, we may have a small score to settle...
Until the next time I see you all, khoda hafez from Afghanistan.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Driver, Seven Bakers and a Man with a Gun

Khalid is a 22-year-old driver. He is clean shaven and looks young for his age. He studies economics at Kabul University and learned fluent English while he was living in Pakistan, escaping the Afghan wars. Whistling over the rutted Kabul streets in his taxi late one night, we got to talking. I asked him what he wanted for his future. His answer sounded tired for his otherwise youthful banter of girls and parties.

"In this country you can't decide what to do, or do what you decide. You just have to live it and see what happens. It's not like a stable country in the West where you can choose your profession and just do it."

Now he earns a living by driving around a taxi for foreigners, late at night when all the local ones have retired. Development workers and journalists pass his number around at Kabul bars: "This guy's good," they say, eating chips and spilling drinks. "Five bucks, and he'll take you anywhere in the city."

I asked Khalid what he would want if he could have anything, if Afghanistan were a stable country like the West. He didn't hesitate at the question.

"I'd like to be a teacher," he told me.

The truth of Khalid's statements can be seen in the long queues outside the Iranian embassy every morning. The typical third-world 'brain-drain' is something not entirely relevant to Afghanistan. Afghans are some of the proudest nationalists in the world, and although millions fled the country during the 25 years of fighting, millions returned when the Taliban were ousted and the faintest hope of a peaceful future glimmered on the horizon. Now, however, as the security situation remains tenuous, as jobs are scarcer and scarcer to come by and as rents in Kabul have skyrocketed due to an inundation of wealthy NGO workers living here, many are looking to return to their lives as refugees.

"Tehran is the finest city in the world," one old man told me, eyes flaring behind thick glasses. He had spent 14 years there as a furniture maker. "It is clean, it is advanced and you can earn 20 times there what you earn in Kabul!"

* * *

I spent yesterday morning in a bakery down the road from the Open Media Fund office where I work. I had been buying naan from the place for weeks and grew to like the family of bakers who worked there, seven days a week, 15 hours a day. I brought my camera and shot two rolls of slides as the seven brothers went about their work.

One man formed the dough into rough balls, then chucked them up to another who dusted them with flour and threw them to his brother who spread them into a rough circular shape. This man then tossed it to another, who printed a grid design in it with his fingernails. The bread was then passed to a man with his arm bandaged from fingers to shoulder and blackened by smoke. His job was to spread the dough on a firm pillow, then reach into the cavernous clay tandoor oven in front of him and slap it on the sides. After a couple of minutes of cooking, another brother scrapes the loaves off the clay with two long iron rods and tosses them to the front of the shop where they are brushed with milk and piled in steaming stacks.

The make about 2,000 loaves a day. The wheat that goes into the bread comes tumbling down into the country from Turkmenistan, in huge sacks on the back of a Russian truck. After years of war and persistent drought, Afghanistan cannot even provide enough wheat to feed itself.

The night before I was talking to a security guard outside the office, from Badakhshan province. He was telling me about his life as a soldier.

"For five years I fought with Massoud," he told me, tapping the cheap Chinese copy of a Kalashnikov draped across his lap. "Before that, I was 13 and throwing rocks at the Russians."

As we talked, a helicopter beat across the night sky above us. It flew with no lights so as to not be shot down.

Today at the office, the dining table was bursting with conversation about the government's plans to create a new Vice and Virtue Department. During the Taliban times, this Orwellian, special police force zipped around the capital in the backs of Datsun pickups, looking for anyone violating their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.

Women were beaten for wearing high-heeled shoes, or going out of the house without a male family member escort. Men were beaten for beards that weren't fist-length or longer, or for being caught with a music cassette.

The government claims the new department will not use violence as one of its means to spread a knowledge of Islam. I talked with spokesperson Mohammed Sharif Robati about it at the Ministry of the Hajj and Islamic Affairs.

"It's not at all like the old one," he told me, between two vases bursting with fluorescent plastic flowers. "This one will not have a whip or a fist. When we see someone smoking, we will shake them by the hand and tell them they are foolish for wasting their money and hurting their health."

Nevertheless, Afghans are worried that the revival of this institution might bring about a reversion to the draconian hell they endured under the Taliban for five years. One of my colleagues is not about to see that happen. He has an AK47 burried in the floor of his room in case the Taliban try to return.

"This country has a future," he told me once, looking up to the Afghan map above his desk. "I'm telling you it has a future. And if the Taliban try to come back to Kabul, they're going to have to cross a thousand dead bodies to get here - including mine."