Afghan Children What Will Tomorrow Bring?
After more than 20 years of war, Afghanistan's people look forward to freedom and peace.
It might seem strange to call Razma Qasemiar (KAH-sim-yar) a lucky girl. Razma, 12, lives with her parents and two brothers in a three-room house with no electricity, telephone, or running water. On the way to school each morning, Razma passes pickup trucks filled with soldiers who carry machine guns and rocket launchers.
But Razma is more fortunate than most children in Afghanistan. Her family is together, and her father has a job with an aid organization.
Plus, Razma knows how to read. She is lucky to attend school in her hometown of Mazar-i-Sharif (MAH-zahr EE Shah-REEF).
A Country in Ruins
Afghan teens can only dream about the things that kids in America take for granted, such as TVs and video games. After more than 20 years of war and drought, most of Afghanistan is in ruins. Millions of people have fled their homes and are going hungry.
Learning is considered a privilege in a country where up to 80 percent of the population cannot read or write. For more than three years, Razma went to a secret school in a friend's home. The Taliban (TAH-lee-bahn), Islamic extremists who ruled Afghanistan, did not allow women to work or girls to attend school.
Whenever Razma's mother left their house, she was forced to wear a burka (BUR-kah), a garment that covers the entire body, including the face. Because of the Taliban's strict laws, music, TV, and even kite-flying were banned.
Defeating the Taliban
For years, the Taliban provided a refuge for Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian terrorist. U.S. officials say that bin Laden masterminded the September 11 attacks on the U.S. For several years, he has headed a network of terrorists called Al Qaeda (al KEYE-duh).
After the attacks, President Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden and other terrorists. When the Taliban refused, the U.S. launched air strikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.
The air strikes helped Afghan rebels, known as the Northern Alliance, to drive the Taliban from power. In December, after an international conference in Germany, an interim (temporary) government took charge in Afghanistan.
Tracking down Al Qaeda terrorists has proved more difficult. Secret cells (groups) of terrorists are scattered in countries around the world, including the U.S.
Razma has known violence for most of her life. During the recent fighting in Mazar-i-Sharif, she hid in the basement of her house with her mother and younger brother.
Now, life is returning to normal. Razma awakens each day at sunrise when calls to prayer are broadcast over loudspeakers. She prays five times a day, a ritual for devout Muslims.
Razma's school, which reopened in December, is just for girls. The building is in terrible condition. It had been closed since 1998, when the Taliban captured Mazar-i-Sharif. There are no blackboards, desks, or tables. Cardboard covers some of the windowpanes.
Razma's mother teaches Dari, one of Afghanistan's main languages, at the school. She works for free because there is no money to pay teachers.
After school lets out at noon, Razma
attends a private English class. Many young Afghans are eager to learn English, especially after years of isolation from the outside world.
In her free time, Razma skips rope with her cousin or plays with her only toy, a stuffed rabbit. Razma has no idea what the Internet is, and she has never heard of Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez. She knows little about the September 11 terror
attacks, only that something terrible happened.
As a girl in a conservative, male-dominated society, Razma spends a lot of time at home, helping her mother with household chores. She is now learning how to cook traditional Afghan foods such as mantu (dumplings), kofta (meatballs), and palow (rice pilaf).
Work is a normal part of life for kids in Afghanistan. But many young Afghans spend the entire day doing grown-up jobs. Children work as farmers, cooks, shopkeepers, and even soldiers.
Abdullah, 13, works full-time as a locksmith with his father, Awaz. (Like many Afghans, they use only one name.)
"We work here from sunrise to sunset every day," says Abdullah.
Because they are too poor to pay rent for a shop, Abdullah and his father wait for customers on a dusty street corner in Mazar-i-Sharif.
"If Abdullah went to school, I wouldn't be able to feed my family," says Awaz.
Together they make about $6 per day, barely enough for Awaz to support his wife and nine children.
Each morning, Abdullah and his father walk to work, about an hour away. Abdullah stays behind and runs the business when his dad goes off to repair a lock. Father and son take only one day off a week.
Abdullah would love to play soccer with his friends, but his family doesn't have enough money to buy a ball. Besides, he has little free time.
A History of War
Afghanistan's people have known war for most of the past 20 years. In 1979, the former Soviet Union invaded the country.
For 10 years Afghans fought the Communist forces. The U.S. supplied the anti-Communist Islamic fighters, known as mujahedeen (moo-JAH-hed-deen), with $3 billion worth of aid.
The mujahedeen finally defeated the Soviets in 1989. After the Soviet troops pulled out, the world forgot about Afghanistan. But fighting continued among Afghan ethnic factions (groups). There are about 20 ethnic groups in Afghanistan, and many have their own language and culture.
By 1998, a group of mostly Pashtuns, who became known as the Taliban, had seized power in 85 percent of Afghanistan. The Taliban followed an extreme form of Islam, and enforced strict rules of behavior.
How do Awaz and Abdullah feel about the war in their country? Hammering away at a broken key, Abdullah says, "The Americans are here to find Osama bin Laden. They're looking for him because of the September 11 attack."
Thinking about the future, Awaz says he wants his son to do more than fix locks.
"If the situation gets better, I'll be able to send him to school," says Awaz. "If a person is uneducated, it's as if he were blindfolded."
Awaz, whose father was a farmer, started working at age 12 and never learned to read or write. He and Razma's parents are hopeful that the defeat of the Taliban, and international aid, will give their children new opportunities.
Razma's father doesn't want his daughter to wear the burka when she gets older. "I don't like the burka," he says. "In other countries, women can reach for the sky. But in our country, they are under the veil."
He encourages Razma to follow her dream to go to medical school and become a doctor. "If there is peace," says Razma's mother, "maybe she will have a bright future."
they are under the veil."
He encourages her to follow her dream to go to medical school and become a doctor. "If there is peace," says Razma's mother, "maybe she will have a bright future."