KABUL, Afghanistan – American pundits moan about the longest war in U.S. history – as the Afghanistan conflict rumbles into its 17th year – but I doubt many of them really know what it’s like to be here, walking among the war’s forgotten people.
They don’t know what’s it like to wake up every morning not knowing if this is the day you are going to be killed or injured by a suicide bomber, bullets from insurgents, a roadside bomb, or a drone strike intended for the Taliban or ISIS leaders.
I’ve been working as an interpreter and living in Afghanistan for the past eight years, and I am witness to daily, ceaseless suffering. As one Afghan said on a toloNews telecast about the bloody attacks on civilians by ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups: “I wish it was four or three times a year. I wish it was twice a month. I wish it was once a week. But now it’s three times a week.” Like the explosions of which he speaks, those words reverberate inside my head.
How do people cope with this constant threat of devastating violence and tragedy?
Many Afghans end their own lives out of sheer hopelessness.
“The number of lives lost each year (in Afghanistan) through suicide exceeds the number of deaths due to homicide and war combined,” said Dr. Rik Peeperkorn, the World Health Organization representative in Afghanistan. “Every 40 seconds another family loses a loved one to suicide.”
As social structures crumble, drug use becomes rampant.
When I was growing up in Afghanistan, illicit drug use was taboo. Anyone accused of it would bring shame on his family. But after decades of protracted war, those strong social values collapsed.
Bribery, disrespect for the law, spying for foreign agents and drug use have become the norm. A large portion of the population is addicted. A U.S.-funded study estimates 3 million drug users in Afghanistan, up from 1.6 million in 2012. Opium production in Afghanistan rose 43 percent from 2015 to 2016, reaching an estimated 4,800 metric tons, according to the latest Afghanistan Opium Survey figures.
Amid deteriorating economic and social conditions, Afghans flee their country en masse. Their refugee numbers rank second in the world only to Syria’s. In 2015, over 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, with 176,900 seeking asylum that year, according to European Union data. More than half of such Afghan requests have been denied, meaning that tens of thousands of people could be stateless or returned to Afghanistan.
Those who stay home live under constant threat of becoming victims of war, kidnapping and other crimes. We do have a few well-to-do Afghans who have benefited from the war economy; they live behind high concrete walls erected to protect themselves.
With the change of seasons, Afghans await the Taliban’s annual spring offensive, but this year, spring came early. On March 8, gunmen dressed as doctors stormed a military hospital in Kabul, killing more than 30 and wounding dozens.
Andrew Bacevich wrote in The New York Times that the Afghanistan war “has earned the distinction of having been forgotten while still underway.”
President Trump’s inaugural address made no mention of Afghanistan, nor did his remarks at his well-received speech before a joint session of Congress. “For the new commander in chief,” Bacevich wrote, “the war there qualifies at best as an afterthought — assuming, that is, he has thought about it all.”
But the U.S. can’t do much. Its military might turn back the insurgency; if Afghans are left alone, bordering neighbors stop interfering, and peace returns to this land, they are hopeful they can rebuild their country.
Despite all the calamities, life goes on. People get married. Girls go to school, eager to learn as they sit in windowless rooms to protect them from Taliban bullets. Afghans cling to hope.
April is National Poetry Month throughout much of the world. I would like to tell you that we are writing poems of optimism. Sadly, the following is a piece of a poem by Michael J. Monteith, an Israeli, that more accurately speaks for the forgotten people of Afghanistan:
What right you have to kill my children,
What right you have!
What right to blow us all apart.
My little babies, my little babies.
One minute sitting here,
Never knowing that you were sneaking toward us,
Hiding your bomb, strapped to your leg.
What right you have!
Now I scream in my sleep.
I feel the blast about my ears,
I feel my hair pulled off my head.
Burning, smells of coffee and cordite.
My little Ahmed, cries and sobs my name.
My hands are wet and red;
I cannot see,
I cannot find my babies.