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.

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

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."

Ibn-I-Amin is a 12-year-old laborer at a cotton gin in Jalalabad. He earns 35 Pakistani rupees (57 cents) a day, working from 5 a.m. until 4 p.m., taking armfuls of de-seeded cotton from the machine and shoving it into bags for sale. He wears a checkered scarf over his mouth to keep out the cotton dust. "It's difficult to work here. There is too much dust. When the machine is running, it is hard to breathe.

"I went to school until I was 10, but then I quit school because of poverty," he says. "My father pushed a hand-cart, carrying goods in the market, but now he's sick and cannot work. When I was in school, I loved English, but I can't speak it now. If my father is able to work, I will go back to school."

A visitor asks Ibn-I-Amin what child-workers in the cotton market do when they aren't working. "We play cricket and tease each other," he replies.

Miriam is a 17-year-old student at Jalalabad's Girls' School No. 2. She veils her face, according to tradition in this conservative city. But Miriam is assertive with her opinions, and ambitious with her goals, including college. "Apart from going to school, there is not much change to our lives now that the Taliban are gone," she says. "Even though it is not required, I still wear a scarf, because it depends on one's family, and it depends on one's conscience.... I don't want to be showing my face to strangers.

"Because of the current situation, we cannot go out of the house. It is not peaceful for us," she says. "We are afraid of the future. Once before, these rulers were here, they were tested, and we saw what they did before the Taliban came. Now we are afraid."

Shafiqullah is a 12-year-old tailor's apprentice in the central bazaar area of Jalalabad. "I've been learning the trade of being a tailor for a year now, and it takes three years to become a tailor," he says. "I've never been to school, but after some time maybe I'll learn the numbers and learn how to read and write. I get paid about 50 rupees (82 cents) a week, and if I learn more and work more, I'll get more. Usually we work from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., but right now it is busier, because people are making special orders for new clothes for the Eid holiday [marking the end of Ramadan]. So now, we are usually working until 2 o'clock in the morning."

Zia-ur Rahman, at 22, has been a proud mujahideen for a dozen years. He helps guard a checkpost on the western outskirts of Jalalabad. "For five years, I fought jihad against the Taliban, and all that time there was no school in my area, only fighting. I see no chance for myself to get educated. I just want to fight for the cause of Allah.

"It's compulsory to serve two years in the army, but after that, I could be a shopkeeper or a farmer. The people who get educated, they will rule Afghanistan. The people who didn't get educated will just keep security of the country from foreign aggressions."

Omed Shah, 14, has sold knives on the sidewalk in the central bazaar since he was 6. "I like my job, because it is my family's business. I can count to 100." As he starts to demonstrate his counting skills, a fight breaks out on the street between two moneychangers.

"When I see other children in school, I'm sad, because they are learning and I'm not," he says. "Maybe, when the economic condition of my family is better, then I will go to school. I want to learn everything the other kids learn."

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