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A generation lost

Afghanistan's children have grown up amid war and Taliban rule. Many, like tea server Malyar Khan (above), work to support families. With peace, they dream of better lives, starting with an education.

By Text by Scott Baldauf / December 10, 2001


They are the faces of a lost generation - young Afghan students and soldiers, laborers and illiterates and dreamers.

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Many, like Zergai, a 14-year-old tailor, are crucial breadwinners for their families. Some, like Muhammad Karim, age uncertain, are battle-hardened fighters, more familiar with an assault rifle than a mother's caress. A few, like 17-year-old Miriam, are returning to school for the first time in five years, with firm plans of attending college.

By some estimates, more than 40 percent of Afghanistan's 26 million population is under 15. Many grew up with no safety net, no family structure, no schools. The one thing that ties this young, lost generation together is the hope for a lasting, stable, broad-based government that represents all of Afghanistan's many tribes and ethnic groups.

After 23 years of war, hope is finally a reasonable option. With the strict Islamist Taliban government all but gone, the international community is talking of pumping billions of dollars of aid into Afghanistan to rebuild schools, factories, roads, and cities, and to remove the detritus of war. Already, life is returning to something close to normal, with schools reopening and women taking their children to market for the first time in five years without fear of harassment by religious police.

For young adults, the new atmosphere is irresistible. Many now talk of their futures, instead of their fates. Here are their hopes and fears, in their own words.

Kushan is 18, and a star student in his 12th grade class at Nangarhar Lycee, a school in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. "During the Taliban, I didn't get in trouble," he says. "We didn't permit our brothers to work against the law. We must all obey the law. It was not a time for enjoying ourselves, or listening to music. We were thinking only of our country. Every night, we were watching TV or reading the newspaper, and seeing the problems of Afghanistan. I remember seeing a picture of a young Afghan boy in Peshawar [Pakistan], sitting next to a bakery and begging. It was not a time of happiness for us.

"Now, I feel lucky to be here in school. But if Afghanistan creates a broad-based government, it will be able to do something for all the people. In our country, they were spending all the money on fighting, not on education," he says.

Muhammad Karim doesn't know his age, but looks about 18. A mountain boy from the eastern province of Laqman, he's a fighter with the militia of warlord Hazrat Ali, who took control of Jalalabad two weeks ago. "I've had a Kalashnikov since childhood. I've never been to school, but I feel some tears, because I love school. During the [1990-'92] regime of Najibullah, I tried to come down to the cities to go to school, but at that time, there were a lot of mujahideen [resistance fighters] in the city and they didn't let us in. We tried several times, but we failed. Now, the gun is part of my life. I personally don't like the gun. It is my dream to quit the gun and when the broad-based government comes, I want to have another job. But I think that I have experience with the gun, so maybe I will get a job in the army."

He pauses. "I saw something on TV that there are a lot of jobs in the world."