Dreaming of Afghanistan past while fearing for Afghanistan present

September 6, 2021 5:19 am

Diana Karlin teaching debate in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy of Diana Karlin).

Five times I landed at the Kabul airport. Before touching down, I saw women doing what I was doing — pulling a headscarf out of a bag.

I experienced natural trepidation: Would I get through the immigration and identity card processes, pay a baggage helper appropriately to get me where I needed to go, find my contacts in a distant parking lot? It went more smoothly than anticipated, with most of the chaos ensuing from competition to transport my baggage and traversing a crowded path to the parking lot. It was a picture of calm compared to the chaos and death the world is now witnessing at the Kabul airport.

Between 2010 and 2013 I worked on an IFES — International Foundation for Electoral Services — project to develop university debate programs. The project’s Afghan founder spent much of his early life outside the country as a refugee. Upon returning, he wanted to prepare the next generation of leaders and find a way to resolve differences with words, not weapons.

We used British Parliamentary Debate as the vehicle. For those familiar with U.S. competitive debate, this bears little resemblance. There are two teams on each side, and the topic is announced 30 minutes before. Debating was in English, the third or fourth language for many students.

I met with many former refugees who returned with high hopes for Afghanistan’s future. The president of a new private university participating in the program studied in the United States and was the only person I met who knew where Kansas was. He and other university leaders were committed to women’s education, and one-third of university students and participants in the debate program were women.

Changes and threats

I saw major changes over three years: more schools at all levels, expansion of free media, more businesses, expanded electricity, better infrastructure, women driving, and very few burkas but many leggings and tunics.

The times were changing. Afghan IFES staff recalled days of underground school for girls during the Taliban era and Kabul in the 1960s, when miniskirts, fashion week, and public smoking were common.

However, there was always an element of fear. The Taliban were never far away. Armed guards were in the car or armored vehicle as I sat in the back, with my headscarf pulled low over my brow to hide my foreign features. There was razor tape atop the high walls outside the house where I stayed, bars on my windows, a steel door at the bottom of the stairway, bars alongside the stairs, and two safe rooms. Armed guards were outside the house 24/7.

After I unpacked the first time, I was handed a large envelope with my name on the front. Inside was a single sheet of paper with the numbers 1, 2, 3 and spaces between them. I was directed to write three questions about myself with answers, seal it and place it in a safe. Answers could not be found online. I used the name of my sister’s hamster and two other equally innocuous questions that I don’t remember and aren’t in my journal for fear of being found.

This was my proof of life file in case I was kidnapped. Only I would know the answers.

In 2016, two American University of Afghanistan faculty were kidnapped; they were released three years later in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban. In 2014, a terrorist attack on the university left 21 dead and many injured. The last national debate tournament I ran in 2013 was held at AUAF. The previous year we canceled a music performance as part of the debate festivities because the Taliban had attacked a wedding in one of the provinces where there was music and dancing. During my last trip, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb on a city street in front of an Afghan government official’s car.

A few days later, a mile from the house where I stayed, the president’s palace was attacked. Someone said to me, “Welcome to everyday life in Kabul.”

Fear and chaos

As I watch the news and read opinion pieces trying to assess blame for the unfolding crisis, I agree there was no good way out, but there had to be a better way. Friends ask if I am hearing from Afghans. I am, every day.

A few nights ago I dreamed I was in Kabul working with rescue missions. I woke up and found a message from one of the debaters asking for help getting out. This was not the first nor the last. I receive information from current and former aid workers and journalists who are sharing all their intelligence on ways out and current conditions. I pass along links that are helpful. It feels like so little in the face of such desperation. Now ISIS-K adds to the fear and chaos.

I was not surprised by how rapidly Kabul and the government fell. I was hearing from friends for at least two weeks about government troops in the provinces laying down their guns. I was also hearing about the fear women had and how men in their families were guarding their houses to protect them. With all of the progress I saw during my time in the country, I also saw 50-room “Poppy Houses” springing up as a reminder of the drug trade and overall corruption.

I watched Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan politician and women’s rights activist, give several interviews over the past two weeks. Images returned of her judging at a national debate tournament with her two daughters at her side so they could see their possibilities. That year, six of the eight finalists were women. Positive energy and hope were high.

Partially because of what they learned through the debate program, many of the students found jobs with the government, radio and television, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations. They were invited to speak at the United Nations and in Europe about youth leadership. Many received scholarships to study in the United States and other countries. Several, who were interpreters for the United States, received SIVs — special immigration visas — as early as 2011 because they were targeted.

Even with the Taliban seemingly lurking around every corner and threats to those who helped the United States, there was hope in the country exemplified by Koofi and my students. As I watch, what creates the most pain is witnessing the death of hope. It is replaced with fear of a known past likely to become the everyday reality.

Hopes and help

I took off from the Kabul airport five times. Each time, I enjoyed people watching and free Wi-Fi in the international airport gate area. I went through four levels of screening, starting outside the airport gates in a hut where a woman patted me down. I felt reasonably secure.

Today, no one approaching the airport has that luxury. And as we mourn the deaths of U.S. military and Afghan civilians, hope for safe passage died for many, including friends whose visa work was completed the day before the attack.

Friends ask what I am doing to help. Along with making connections, my husband and I are contributing to organizations that support Afghan women and help with refugee resettlement. We’ve offered to house refugees. For those who have also watched hope die, I encourage you to do the same. Three agencies in the Kansas City metro are designated by the State Department to receive refugees: Jewish Vocational Services, Catholic Charities and Della Lamb Community Center. In Wichita, the International Rescue Committee does so.

It is painful to know that we cannot save all Afghans from what may come, but we should do our best to provide a new source of hope for those who can leave.

This was originally produced by the Kansas Reflector which is part of States Newsroom, along with the Daily Montanan. States Newsroom is a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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Diana Carlin
Diana Carlin

Diana B. Carlin is professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University. She taught a speechwriting course at the University of Kansas and a course on presidential speechwriters for KU’s Osher Institute. She has also taught courses on women and politics at the University of Kansas and is co-author of "Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced," and book chapters on Martha Washington, Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.