Afghan child Afghan children left to their own devices

Los Angeles Times,
May 4, 2000
By Robin Wright

KABUL: Mazar Uddin is a 6-year-old with a head of dusty hair who was deposited at the Alla Auddin Orphanage more than a year ago. His mother, a young widow, left him at the rundown compound in the war-ravaged Afghan capital because she could no longer afford to keep her four sons, especially those who couldn't work. Mazar, the youngest, was the first to go.

Allauddin is the only refuge for children in Kabul. It may also be the world's only orphanage where most children have at least one living parent.

But poverty is rampant in Kabul: Up to 70 percent are unemployed, and a mid-level civil-service job pays about $10 a month. Allauddin has been so overwhelmed with orphans, nearing 800 and counting, that it had to move Mazar and more than half the younger ones into a renovated compound in the ruined half of the city.

"Renovated" is a relative word in Afghanistan, however. Uddin shares a bed and filthy blanket with a larger boy in a small room with 38 other orphans. A putrid stench in the hallways comes from bathrooms without running water, because the vintage generator that powers lights and water pumps recently broke down. Medicine is too expensive, so waves of maladies sweep through the concrete-floor wards; one child recently died of measles. Meals consist of bread and tea for breakfast, rice for both lunch and dinner. Dried milk once provided by a foreign charity is long gone. When asked what the kids do to play, Mazar replied with his own question, "What's a toy?"

Allauddin is a microcosm of Afghanistan after a generation of conflict: abandoned, primitive, fending for itself against numbing odds. A second generation is on the verge of being lost: Tens of thousands of Afghan children are doomed because virtually no one with the power or means to help has even bothered to notice.

Children kept by their families aren't so lucky, either. Under the searing Central Asian sun, kids as young as 5 spend their days throwing dirt in rocky abysses along the axle-tearing, muffler-busting, windshield-cracking road to Kabul. The 110-mile stretch takes more than six hours to traverse. Kids hope drivers will toss out a few afghanis, a small fraction of a cent, since the afghani recently plummeted to 75,000 to the US dollar. Few do. Other children flog old Pepsi cans filled with water from the muddy Kabul River to travelers stopping at checkpoints.

In Kabul, nearly 30,000 kids are estimated to survive by brazenly begging or scavenging through garbage and war ruins.

Afghanistan is going back in time, and Afghan warlords aren't the only ones to blame. Once their Cold War rivalry ended, both superpowers simply packed up and left the country to the monsters and the monstrous conditions they helped create. The United States bears as much responsibility as the Soviet Union for this nation's unravelling.

Politically, most of Afghanistan is controlled by semi-literate and narrow-minded Taliban who were educated in a neighbouring country's 'madresahs,' or religious schools, in the 1980s, a time when Islamic zealots were seen by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as the force to counter communism in Central Asia.

Widely welcomed when they captured Kabul in 1996, the Taliban have since failed abysmally to improve life on any front. Life is far more repressive than during the Soviet occupation, with ruthless religious police in souped-up pickups patrolling for shopkeepers who don't close down during prayers, for curfew breakers, and for women with improper dressor girls attempting to go to secret schools - since female education is banned.

But the opposition is no better. The Taliban emerged in the mid-1990s because the diverse mujahideen factions who forced the Soviet retreat in 1989 went to war among themselves. The Soviets left the capital intact. The mujahideen came in and destroyed it, leaving behind mines in homes and public buildings that still kill civilians, including scavenging children.

After the Taliban ran them out, some mujahideen factions regrouped in the Northern Alliance that now controls 10 percent of the country. The latest spring offensive signals their determination to return, but few Afghans believe the alliance will hold together in the unlikely event it should retake Kabul.

The bottom line is that neither the Taliban nor the Northern Alliance represents hope for either peace or stability.

-Dawn/LAT-WP News Service (c) Los Angeles Times

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