Publication Date: Friday, May 31, 2002
Council member returns from trip to Afghanistan
Council member returns from trip to Afghanistan
(May 31, 2002)
By Bill D'Agostino
The city's buildings have no glass in their windows, no doors in their entrances. The children's hospitals do nothing more than serve sugar water to extremely sick kids. One 13-year-old girl is in jail for having a boyfriend her family didn't like.
But somehow, Council member Rosemary Stasek was surprised to see, the people in Kabul are happy. "There were so many weddings," she said. "Literally, everywhere we went on Saturday, there were weddings." Last week, Stasek returned from a 15-day tour of Kabul, Afghanistan, as part of a trip organized by the San Francisco-based human rights organization Global Exchange.
The people in Kabul are jubilant, Stasek hypothesized, because the oppressive five-year rule of the Taliban had finally been squelched by the invading Americans.
Now that she's returned, Stasek said she will "have very little patience" with people who, in her estimation, overstate the disruption caused in the country by U.S. bombings. "All we did was rearrange rubble," she said.
During the long five years of the Taliban regime, public music was banned. Art depicting the human form was destroyed. Girls were not allowed to attend school. Stasek saw how much things have already changed.
For instance, Stasek visited the National Museum in Kabul, where Taliban soldiers had torn the faces off of paintings and knocked body pieces off sculptures. In the museum, she saw, administrators saved parts of the sculptures in a metal box, hoping to reattach them.
Her touring group also witnessed schools, meeting girls who were returning to class after five years of being sheltered at home. Despite not having desks or books in their packed classrooms, the students "are so excited to be in school."
Although it was extremely hot in Kabul, Stasek wore a head scarf while she was there, in accordance with local custom. One of the last days she was in the city, she accidentally forgot it. "I felt completely naked," she said.
During the 15 day stay, Stasek and the group were minor celebrities, pursued by the local media, awash in nightly parties.
They even met Afghan interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, who impressed Stasek. "I lost track of how many languages he spoke," she said.
Stasek, speaking on behalf of her group, asked Karzai about the role of women in the country's reconstruction. He gave a "very political answer," saying that they key is to get women back in the educational system and the economic system. "Women will find their place," Karzai reportedly told Stasek.
Despite not being satisfied with Karzai's answer, Stasek felt it was important to ask the question, since it let him know that the topic was essential to her and the other visiting Americans. "A question communicates in both directions," she said.
On her trip, she was accompanied mostly by Afghan-Americans in their late 20s, returning to their native homeland for the first time since they were young children.
On the airplane to Kabul, one woman from the group looked out the window and told Stasek she could remember the mountain they were flying over from when she was six years old, fleeing over them to leave the country.
One of the most important stops for Stasek was women's jail where 19 women, including one 13-year-old girl, were being held. All of them were there because their families disapproved of the boys they dated. The group told Karzai about the young girl when they met him; later in the trip, Stasek heard the girl was scheduled to be released.
Stasek hopes to help the rest of the women get out of prison. The bigger problem is not getting the political pressure on the government to have them released, but finding a place for them to go once they are out. One women told Stasek that she was "better off here than at home" because of her fear of her family.
One organization, started by a German woman, is building women's shelters in the country; Stasek hopes to set up a nonprofit in the U.S. to aid the group, so Americans can get a tax write-off if they want to donate.
Stasek already misses Kabul and would love to return to Afghanistan to help the women from there, but since she doesn't know Farsi, "I'm focusing on what I can do from here."
Although she now has a better sense of how to help the people of Afghanistan after her trip, she admits that Kabul is not representative of the rest of the country.
The future of the country, Stasek said, will start to be formed in June, when a grand council, or loya jirga, will select a transitional government.
It is then, Stasek worries, that the citizens' exuberance might be tempered. "I don't know if I'm hopeful or not," she said. "There's an entire generation of men who know nothing but war. There are so many pressures against peace."
To see other photos from Stasek's trip to Kabul, visit her website: www.stasek.com/afghanistan.