Magsie meets Gen Abdurashid Dostum
Monday, 30 November -0001

The end of innocence

As the Afghan war enters yet another year, Magsie Hamilton Little heads off the beaten track to tell the heartbreaking stories of the brave women and children caught in the crossfire

Written by Magsie Hamilton Little

It felt like an age since I had last visited the extraordinary country of Afghanistan. I had firscome in 2005 to immerse myself in a deeply Islamic society. I wanted to experience the conflict first hand, to understand the people and the war, and to distance myself from Britain. Back then, I stayed among locals and ventured forth into the bazaars. I liked it that way. But on this most recent trip, I was not allowed to wander out alone. My friend Zabi Shahrani – a bright young Afghan who speaks six languages fluently – told me: 'I will not let you walk alone in the street.'

To some, that demand may have seemed oppressive, but to me, it was a balm. Like all my Afghan friends, Zabi said he would lay down his life for me. Elsewhere, such an offer might have been a meaningless gesture. Here, it was real.

On my first day back in the country, while settling into my hotel in Shahre Nau, I heard a deep thump, and recognised the sound as a bomb blast. Only later did I learn about the incident – the assassination of Berhanuddin Rabbani, a leading figure in the Afghan peace process. A representative from the Taliban, pretending to visit Rabbani at his home for peace talks, had hugged him in greeting. The embrace triggered a bomb hidden in the Talibani's turban. Rabbani was not the only person to die; four innocent bystanders also lost their lives in the attack.

chaderAn Afghani in her chaderi

I had been waiting for Zabi and others to meet me before heading to Macroyan, in the north of the city, to visit their families. In the light of the bombing, that was now impossible. Some roads were closed, others jammed. Still, no one flinched. They simply shrugged their shoulders. It was just another attack on innocent victims. As Zabi and I strolled among the shattered buildings and gazed on the thin, worn Afghan faces, there seemed no discernible improvement in conditions during the time I had been away. In fact, they had deteriorated. The city was fragile, traumatised, like a wounded animal.

Mounds of rotting rubbish still lay by the roads. Street children wove among traffic like silverfish, risking their lives to sell chewing gum. At Quarga, families escaped the mayhem to picnic by a calm blue lake, a brief respite from the foul smog. Men with leathery skin still sold melons as big as boulders at the roadside. Wherever we walked, I could see no evidence of progress, only the occasional inert construction project. Where had all the billions of aid money gone? Zabi was unequivocal in his answer and everyone agreed. Some of it had gone to the ministers, who pocketed it for their own ends. But most of it had gone back to America, they said, nodding unanimously.

Everyone struggles in harsh conditions here. They don't care who wins the war. All they know is that it is neverending. The Afghan people were convinced that American leaders were perpetuating the war for their own purposes.

General Abdurashid Dostum, Afghanistan's most powerful warlord, sits at the heart of government. Nothing would change while Hamid Karzai was in power, he told me when I tackled him over the question. Where was President Karzai? He was in America, buying businesses for his retirement, said the General. What was needed was a real leader to unite the Afghan people. Given less than a year, with government backing and his army of 20,000 soldiers, the General was convinced he would defeat the Taliban. There were only a few thousand of them, easily located.

But Zabi and I were on our own mission. We were visiting orphanages and state schools to give books to the children – 80 per cent of the adults in Afghanistan are illiterate and half the children have no schooling. The teachers are struggling against impossible conditions. In the schools, there are hardly any books and not enough classrooms. There is no paper. Teachers work for poor wages. They say the government doesn't care, but they keep going because they believe education, above all, is the key for their future.

kidsPupils at Ghulam Nabi Charkhi school, whose principal donates his own wages to ensure its survival

Adib Khan, the principal of Ghulam Nabi Charkhi school in Tapa e Nader Khan, gives his own wages to keep his school going. He showed me a garden he had planted that he nurtures out of the dry, hot dust. It was, like him, a desert flower. The principal at Alauddin orphanage was particularly desperate. 'The books you give us are beautiful,' she says, 'just what we need. But our first priority is survival.'

It was a sobering thought. The children needed milk, food, school bags and shoes. How could they read if they couldn't eat? But their minds and hearts also needed feeding. They were like children everywhere: wellbehaved in class, but naughty outside. Yet many of them were alone. Some had lost their entire families in the war. They didn't know who was fighting whom or why. One little boy had been found by a teacher that morning wandering in the street. He didn't say anything and when I asked him his name he looked at me with Bambi eyes, smiled and ran off. There was hope there, I thought. I had to believe it.

At Rasool Amin Orphanage in KhushalKhan, none of the children knew where England was. They had never heard of London, but knew all about the war and they had memorised all the diagrams from their 'what to do in the event of an attack' lessons. As I spoke to the class, some of the children rose to their feet and stood out of respect. As I begged them to sit down, I wondered if that would happen in my country. I told a girls' class that in England, all young girls were educated and went on to make their own lives. I told them that, no matter what objections their fathers raised, they should do all they could to keep going with their studies. Their country depended on them being strong. 'Yes' the girls said softly, they would try. It was the most I could ask of them.

schoolMagsie joins children who need books-and food

The flight into Kabul had been filled with Westerners who had vanished into their high-security compounds and were nowhere to be seen in the city. On the way out, it was a different story. Chaos reigned at the security checks at the airport as hordes of Afghans rushed to flee the country.

In the women's area, tiny old ladies bent over plastic bags of fruit for the journey of a lifetime. They had been saving for years and were leaving Kabul in search of a better life – anywhere but here. But it was the ones I had left behind that my heart most went out to. As the plane took off I gazed down at the mountains, noble and unflinching like the strong, brave people who hold firm in their shadows.

Dancing With Darkness: Life, Death And Hope In Afghanistan by Magsie Hamilton Little (Max Press, £8.99) will be published on 7 February. All profits go to Little Books Afghanistan – – a charity that donates books to Afghanistan's most deprived children.

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