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Rebuilding Akokolacha

Why America must get more involved - not less - in Afghanistan

By Sarah Chayes / December 10, 2002


Former National Public Radio correspondent Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan in October 2001 to report on the war. When the fighting - and the news assignment - was over, she sensed her responsibility was just beginning. Feeling a growing need to stop talking about conflict and start doing something about it, she stayed to serve as field director of Afghans for Civil Society, a non-profit group in Baltimore.

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Engineer Abdullah and I clambered about the wreckage of this parched village last June, a knot of elders and a gaggle of children spilling over the uneven ground. It quickly became clear that we would never know what the village had once looked like.

"I had seven rooms here," one turbaned elder with a wolf-like face asserted. "And a bathroom adjoining every room."

Abdullah and I looked at each other, then at the 10 square yards of mounded debris we were standing on. The mansion the man was describing was what he wished he'd owned, and I told him as much. The visit went on like that. No one would tell the truth about a neighbor's house, for fear of scuttling his own chances of getting a castle from the foreigners who had inexplicably arrived to rebuild the village.

The Akokolacha project has proved to be an extraordinary microcosm of the wreckage that is Afghanistan, the obstacles in the way of laying new foundations, and the key role the US has played and still plays - for good or for bad.

The parched village of Akokolacha abuts the Kandahar airport. It was smashed half to rubble a year ago when Al Qaeda forces - holed up in a bloody last stand - were pounded by US bombs. Villagers returned to find 10 of their 30 houses heaps of broken mud bricks, the desert wind softening the edges.

Last spring, the nonprofit development organization I'm helping to run appealed to the people of Concord, Mass. (where I gave a lecture) and others we approached personally for money to reconstruct Akokolacha's ruined houses. The response was breathtaking - $18,000 in private donations to build a symbolic bridge between a small American town and a crippled village in Afghanistan.

By September, we'd held several shuras - or council meetings - with the villagers. Top of the repair list were houses rendered truly uninhabitable by the bombing - we weren't doing cracked ceilings. The villagers wanted to start with the mosque and the house of a crotchety, feisty elder called Hajji Baba. Least popular was our decision to build standard houses for everyone: three rooms, a veranda, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The decision was a result of the impossibility of getting good-faith descriptions of the houses that had been destroyed.

At first, I was hurt and offended by the villagers' attitude. Abdullah has remained so. He's run rebuilding projects for 20 years and has seen boundless permutations of ingratitude, theft, and corruption. He's bitter about those of his people he feels dishonor the rest. Akokolacha's residents disgust him, and he shows it.

I'd been describing Afghanistan to friends as a society suffering from collective posttraumatic shock. Now I was seeing the reality behind the metaphor. For a quarter century, Akokolacha inhabitants have been deprived of a future, of the wherewithal to think ahead, to husband resources for later wise investment. Their destiny - appalling suffering or sudden bounty handed out for no apparent reason - has come down upon them arbitrarily, usually at the hand of outsiders. So what matters is right now. And the villagers were trying to leverage as much as they could get right now.

I learned to deflect their complaints and requests with bluff repartee. And so, despite some nagging internal misgivings, I informed them of the dimensions of their future standard houses at the shura.

Hilarious old Hajji Baba, who is toothless and wears dark glasses with one lens poked out, balked. First he insisted he didn't want a house at all unless the rooms were seven meters long. Then he tried to bargain down to six. We'd agreed on five, and we were sticking to it. We told Hajji Baba we wouldn't force him to have a house and we turned to someone else's. He caved and told us to get cracking - and he was on it like a hawk, complaining and adjusting and pitching in, and cackling and throwing tantrums. Every time I'd show up, his pout would crack into a smile; he'd let me kiss his dirt-caked hand and tease him, and he'd grudgingly agree that the work was OK.