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Interview with Sarah Chayes: Danger, Determination and Destiny
Interview with Sarah Chayes: Danger, Determination and Destiny
Interview with Sarah Chayes: Danger, Determination and Destiny
Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter turned aid worker featured in "A House for Haji Baba," describes herself as "tenacious-a kind word for pig-headed." FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot interviewed her by email about her struggle to rebuild, the dangers of her work and the rigors of daily life in a country that "looks like the moon with goats on it."
In the film you say, "I feel like my destiny is bound up with the destiny of this place." What is it about Afghanistan that moved you so deeply?
Afghanistan is a compelling place ... . As for me, though I've been called a war reporter, I'm not drawn to conflict; I am drawn to what happens afterward, to the chaos and promise of societies recovering from war. In fact, the only moment I had a twinge of regret that I wasn't covering the Iraq war was the day Baghdad fell.
I'm also rather spartan in my habits and tastes, and I think it's the ruggedness of this land and its people, their tenaciousness, their refusal to bend -- sometimes to a fault -- that draws me. And in contrast to other places I'd been, notably the Balkans, I felt strongly there were a few people acting in the true interests of their country. I felt I just had to throw my lot in with them.
Chayes walks through Akokolacha seeking Haji Baba, for whom they were building a new home.
How dangerous is it for you in Kandahar these days? We read reports of resurgent Taliban attacks, and a U.S. envoy warned recently that the Taliban may be planning larger attacks. Four people working for a Danish relief group were killed in Ghazni in central Afghanistan, and two members of the Afghan Red Crescent were killed in the same area along the Kabul-to-Kandahar road on which we see you driving in the beginning of the film. Is the security situation deteriorating?
I don't think it's immediately dangerous for me in Kandahar: I'm well known around town, and I'm known to enjoy powerful backing. I am connected with the Karzais [the president's family], and I'm seen, if not as "an American," at least as connected with the Americans in some way. What's important to understand about this culture is that security is not based so much on protection -- on how many guards I might have -- as on the certainty of retaliation should anyone try something. For the moment, I enjoy that kind of deterrence.
In terms of the broader security situation, it's important to distinguish between the conditions for ordinary Afghans and the conditions for foreigners. For ordinary Afghans, while individual liberty is immeasurably increased, the security situation is rather worse than it was under the Taliban. But the threat is not from the Taliban -- rather it's from representatives of the current government. Every conversation I've had with Kandaharis about this produces the same evidence. It is the militiamen loyal to regional power-brokers, or warlords, who break into people's houses, who kidnap people, or rape or torture them for ransom, who shake down taxi and truck drivers, and so forth. These people are in uniform, and ostensibly represent the new regime. And the insecurity they are causing is driving ordinary Kandaharis to distraction -- driving them to remember the Taliban with nostalgia, in fact. Not for ideological reasons, but because of the law and order the Taliban regime brought. Furthermore, these depredations are happening under cover of U.S. support for the regional powers. So as far as ordinary Kandaharis are concerned, the United States is largely responsible for the situation.
Driving the road from Kabul to Kandahar took 15 hours over bumpy and dusty terrain.
Against this backdrop, the Taliban are indeed resurgent. You can distinguish a pattern of increasingly daring actions happening outside the city of Kandahar, in outlying districts of Kandahar province, and Zabul, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces. These attacks are now carefully targeted against Afghans working with the current government (especially those directly loyal to President Karzai and his friends) and foreigners. These attacks are definitely becoming more deadly, although they tend to come in spurts.
Who is behind these attacks?
This is not an indigenous, spontaneous uprising. All of these attacks originate in Pakistan; top Taliban leaders live and organize their activities openly in the Pakistani city of Quetta; the border is for all intents and purposes open. The problem of terrorism in Afghanistan is intimately linked to the regional strategy of Pakistan. The U.S. military fights Taliban members when they can be found in concentrated groups inside Afghanistan. But once they cross the border, they are beyond reach. The U.S. government, by not holding Pakistan accountable for its open support of the Taliban, is in fact contributing to the problem.
Tell us a bit more about how you live in Kandahar. In the film, we see you in a compound of sorts with other people and various animals, including, I understand, a cow that used to belong to Mullah Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader.
Chayes gets fit for Afghan clothing. She chose to dress in garb suited for an Afghan man. (photo courtesy Eve Lyman)
We have a lovely compound, with a riotous garden behind, thanks to a well we dug last year. Our menagerie includes three cows, so we get fresh milk in our tea every morning, and fresh yoghurt with lunch and dinner. Among the cows is Maura, Mullah Omar's cow, and Aphrodita, a calf born on the premises last year. Her mother's udders were infected, so we had to feed her by hand. Ever since, she sucks on my clothes whenever I get near her. She loves watermelon. There's also Wooly, the ram. I bought him to serve as pet therapy for Big Dog, who suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Then as Wooly grew, he began thinking of Big Dog as his girlfriend. Wooly got tied up once we planted the garden. There are also three birds, one a beautiful white dove.
On the human side of things, we have a couple of guards who watch the gate and tell us who's come to visit, including the stately Bacha, in whose capable hands our nighttime safety resides. There are several drivers who fetch materials and workers for our latest construction project or take our literacy teacher around to women's homes. There's Safi, a young student who helps us keep the house clean and runs errands in the mornings, and a cook. The principals are Abdullah, the engineer; Rangina, an Afghan American who runs our women's programs; and me. We eat on the floor, very simply -- stewed vegetables and lentils mostly, but lots and lots of wonderful fruit, currently pomegranates. We wash our clothes in a user-assisted washing machine (meaning you have to empty the water out yourself and re-fill from the shower); we sit on a toilet rather than squatting over a hole like most of Kandahar, and we take hot showers. But there's been no electricity for the past six weeks or so, so it always takes some effort to put the generator on when you want to charge your computer. We have to keep the generator maintained and filled with diesel. Our engineer is the mischievous good genie of the household, making sure all this happens.
I sleep in a room separate from the main house, with wonderful arches in the wall. I sleep on the ground, on a cotton-filled mattress we had made in the bazaar, and read at night by candlelight. In the summer, when the film was shot, it's 120 to 130 degrees every day, and might get down to the 80s at night. So my room is too hot, and then I sleep outside. In the winter it's down to the 30s and 40s, and there's no heat. We survive with a barrel wood stove in our main room and electric space heaters in our bedrooms. Please God the power gets fixed by the winter!
About the electricity: This is because virtually all the humanitarian aid that has been funneled here has been doled out in very small increments. But there's a major (U.S.-built) hydroelectric dam, which serves two provinces, in a dreadful state of repair -- the turbine's been broken for several months, and it's needed repairs since the time of the Taliban. It needs a couple-million-dollar overhaul. That money could easily be collected from a consortium including the province of Kandahar, the World Bank, and the governments of the United States and India. But while some plans have been developed, no work has begun.
I'm curious about the construction engineer you work with. He was quiet, but he seemed intelligent and dedicated, if frequently exasperated. Does he think you're in over your head? What's his story?
Abdullah, the engineer (hydraulics, not construction) is an extraordinary person, and one of my closest friends on Earth. Apart from being the truest friend you can imagine -- protective, tirelessly thoughtful and helpful -- and a wicked tease, a great mime and dangerously short-fused, he is one of the few people around here who has a moral compass. He was in university when the communists started pulling students out of class and shooting them. He was jailed twice, then drafted for some elite military unit -- of which no member survived -- and escaped training camp in the middle of the night with two friends. He fled to Pakistan while his younger brother fought the Russians; worked for Ahmad Shah Masoud in Peshawar and watched him pocket all the money from humanitarian contracts. He built canals and culverts during the post-Soviet chaos, driving around in his white Save the Children car while various factions shot themselves to pieces around him; was in Uruzgan Province for the arrival of the Taliban and found himself the engineer on a UNHCR- [U.N. Refugee Agency] funded contract to refurbish the Taliban Ministry of Virtue and Vice. In other words, he's been forced to get along and survive in a country not only at constant war, through head-spinning changes in ideology, but also in a community almost entirely devoid of a notion of right and wrong. And to survive in this community, he could not challenge or even openly voice disapproval of what was going on around him -- hence the exasperation.
Yes, he thinks I'm in over my head. He's been telling me to go home from the day I got here. But I think he respects me for not leaving. And for not stealing or lying, even if I'm as blind and clumsy around here as a child, in his view. And I believe he respects me for speaking out in public -- that is, for opening a space for the truth.
Is the landscape around Kandahar as bleak as it seems in the film? I know the mountains and valleys in the north are lush and beautiful, but central and southern Afghanistan look utterly barren, especially along that dusty road you travel from Kabul to Kandahar. How do people manage to keep their clothes clean in all that swirling dust? Where does their water come from?
A view of southern Afghanistan. Only 12 percent of Afghanistan's mountainous and barren land is arable.
Yes -- it's like the moon with goats on it. The earth is a fine, fine powder, and when it's dry, which means almost always, it's like rock. The real rocks crop up suddenly, steeply and craggily. It's about the most forbidding, but breathtaking, landscape I've ever imagined. Last winter we had rain, for the first time in five or six years. Immediately, hard little shoots of green sprouted. It's nothing like lush; it's determined. Things only grow here when irrigated, so in some places you see scruffy orchards and gardens behind earthen walls, but nothing growing wild. No one's clothes stay clean. And you should see the number this place does on shoes.
People get their water either from canals that draw from the Arghandab River, north of here, or from wells, or carezes, which are extraordinary ancient underground irrigation systems that bring water down from the mountains to the flatlands, where it comes up and is channeled into small irrigation ditches. Vertical holes like the mouths of volcanoes allow people to maintain the carezes.
You are an outsider, a foreigner, an American and a woman -- and you dress like an Afghan man. Do people there regard you as strange?
Yes. But I heard a wonderful compliment the other day. There's a joke about an old and holy mullah [religious teacher] who lived in a village and used to help all the people, whispering their names when they were born, marrying them, burying them, helping them with cures and prayers for their children's health and the fertility of their land. One day he told them he was tired, he wanted to move back to the city. They begged him not to go. They said they would build him a house and plant the most beautiful garden for him. But he would have none of it. He had to go. So they killed him and built a shrine to him, where they could go and pray and ask him to intercede for them. Someone said recently: When Sarah wants to go back to America, we'll have to kill her and build a shrine.
In our broadcast story, we see you interacting with a variety of men -- village leaders, a quarry owner, a warlord, laborers and soldiers. What we don't see are women. You seem to operate in a world of men. The women are invisible. Where are they? How do they relate to you?
Chayes with village youth in Akokolacha. The term "Al Qaeda" has become a joke in the village of Akokolacha, a name kids call one another. In their broken English, they say, "He is no good...He is Al Qaeda," then laugh and hit each other, teasingly. (photo courtesy Eve Lyman)
Women are invisible here, Taliban defeat or no Taliban defeat. I'd say 80 percent to 90 percent of the women in Kandahar are still not allowed to leave their homes. So, while I visited women in Akokolacha almost every day I was out there, Brian Knappenberger, the filmmaker, never even saw one of them. It would have been even more unthinkable for him to film them.
We have a variety of women's programs at Afghans for Civil Society, run by the extremely capable Rangina Hamidi. She was born in Kandahar, but grew up in Pakistan and Virginia. She's the only woman of the Afghan diaspora to come back to Kandahar to help her people. She runs our income-generation project, based on the intricate and fine embroidery that is a Kandahar specialty. She visits 20 homes around town each week, giving work to a total of more than 250 women. Sometimes I go with her, so I get a chance to hang out with our women that way. With the help of the people of Lincoln, Mass., and the German foreign ministry, we've now added a health-care component to this program with our visiting nurse Leslie Hale-Warner and a literacy component. It's been a challenge even getting permission to conduct these activities for the women, but inch by inch we're expanding.
We also have a "women's law group," in which six women -- two school principals, a teacher, an educated housewife and two illiterate housewives -- get together each week and discuss first the draft Afghan constitution, and now the 1976 civil code, article by article. It's an absolutely extraordinary group. Our conversations have been wide-ranging and intimate -- sometimes outrageous. We brought the group to Kabul to present their report on the constitution to President Karzai, the United Nations and the constitutional commission. That was a pretty revolutionary trip for all of them.
Amnesty International just released a depressing report on the status of women in Afghanistan, arguing that little has changed -- especially outside the capital, Kabul -- since the infamous days of the Taliban. According to Amnesty, "The criminal justice system is too weak to offer effective protection of women's right to life and physical security, and itself subjects them to discrimination and abuse. Prosecution for violence against women, and protection for women at acute risk of violence, is virtually absent." Is the reality for women still that grim?
Yes. With the exception that now some women -- with their husband/father/brother's permission -- can work, and several thousand girls are in school. We just completed a baseline survey on women's conditions in Kandahar. We found, for example, that a large proportion of women here suffer from clinical depression. None can make any decision without the express permission -- ijaza -- of a male relative. And as far as violence is concerned, I think every single woman in Kandahar is subject to domestic abuse. Even to talk about it with them is to increase their risk of suffering more abuse.
Located just outside the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Akokolacha's once mud-brick houses, elegantly rimmed with tall walls containing small farms, were completely destroyed by bombing.
The film documents your relentless efforts to rebuild the village of Akokolacha, outside Kandahar. You completed the home of the village elder, Haji Baba. What else have you and Afghans for Civil Society been able to accomplish?
We did rebuild all the destroyed houses, and the village mosque, and a hand-pump well. We also refurbished the grounds of a famous mausoleum that is a favorite picnic site for Kandaharis. We have developed several women's programs and hope next year to open a women's center, which would include a public bath, a clinic, literacy classes, a day care center and public transportation for women.
We have a sister-school project, which links a dozen U.S. schools to six counterparts in Afghanistan. With the help of U.S. students, we have been able to provide 48 wooden desk and chair sets (built by local craftsmen on our premises) to two different schools; we have equipped a number of classrooms with carpeting and fans as well as school supplies, and we are building a classroom building. We plan to launch a library project -- a program to provide each of our sister-schools with a library and books and materials to stock it.
In the meantime, we are setting up a children's library in our office open to all local kids. We hope to start reading/drama groups soon. We already hold poetry contests once a month in our office.
With vital support from the Carr Foundation, we are also launching an independent radio station, run by Isma'il Timor, who opened the radio/television station in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1989. It's a first experiment in truly independent radio in this part of Afghanistan, and we are approaching it in a very gentle fashion. I am being rather hands-off, offering advice on program content and style, the equipping of the studio, and so forth, but we all really want this to be a local product.
You strike me as a rather fearless person -- barging in where angels fear to tread, especially in your confrontation with the warlord, Governor Gul Agha Shirzai, and his soldiers. You condemn warlordism as a huge obstacle to reconstructing and developing a modern Afghanistan. President Karzai's government just banned warlords from taking part in politics, saying no one with a private army can run for office. But warlordism seems endemic to Afghan society. What are the chances it can really be overcome?
Sarah Chayes in Akokolacha. (photo courtesy Eve Lyman)
I don't think warlords are endemic to Afghan society. The vast majority of the people detest them. The warlords originally came to power by means of the approximately $1 billion a year the United States was pumping into the anti-Soviet war, via Pakistan. The Taliban threw them out of the country with little trouble. They only came back thanks again to U.S. largesse in the fight to topple the Taliban. They would be gone now were the central government in Kabul a little more decisive and were U.S policy more clear-cut.
As it is, the American use of these men, and copious payment to them as proxies in the fight against the Taliban, gave the warlords a foothold from which they could easily consolidate their power. As an example, the province of Kandahar pulls in some $10 million a month in customs dues. As of August 2003, only a total of $2 million had been sent to the central government in Kabul. With $10 million a month, it is easy for a governor to impose an almost totalitarian rule. Warlordism can be overcome, but only by opposing power with power, by standing up unambiguously and implacably against the warlords, not by negotiating with them in the perennial Afghan dance.
We wanted to air your story, in large part, because it often feels as if Americans have forgotten about Afghanistan, moving on to the next war in Iraq. Is that the way it feels in Afghanistan? Do Afghans feel abandoned by the United States? Richard Armitage, of the U.S. Department of State, recently visited Afghanistan, promising that Washington would deliver $1.2 billion in aid. Do Afghans expect to see that money?
Afghans don't expect to see much of any money any more. But they do say that as long as the United States or other foreigners are controlling disbursements, maybe 20 cents on the dollar might get to the people. If Afghan officials control disbursements, most Kandaharis tell me, no one will see a penny.
The problem with international assistance is not only one of quantity, it is also one of how aid is delivered: through what channels (warlord or other), according to what kind of master plan (if any) and to what kind of projects.
The problems I have seen have been an overemphasis on very small projects that won't be much of a loss if they fail, but that by the same token don't make much of a difference to the people. Big projects, like the hydroelectric dam, are deemed too large to tackle right away -- but then the whole economy of two provinces is crippled, with serious political repercussions. Just the other day, a man stopped in the street opposite our car and began to harangue us about electricity. "If you don't help us," he shouted, "we don't want you here."
Instead of repairing the Kajiki Dam or the road to Kabul, most of the international money has gone to the likes of a hospital wing here, or a school there, or one or half a dozen culverts. All worthy enough projects -- but really ones that small organizations like ours could have undertaken. There has also been almost no attention to concerted capacity-building, except for the Afghan national army. There have been no real efforts to train civil servants, on a national or local level, in the rudiments of management, accounting or administration, which is necessary to begin to counter the power of the warlords.
Much of the big money that is finally being allocated gets slurped up by the huge "Beltway bandits" -- U.S. contracting companies that get millions of U.S. aid money, then hire international NGOs and Afghan companies to do the real work on the ground. And those who do that work usually regard it as a profit-making venture. It's as though many see the suffering of the Afghan people as an economic opportunity.
Please also note that the $1.2 billion is largely going for the costs of U.S. military presence and only secondarily to the training of the Afghan national police and army. There's not much for big economic reconstruction jobs.
Brian Knappenberger has fashioned a very strong report for FRONTLINE/World about you and your work, and he has also produced a much longer documentary, Life After War. What was the experience like for you, being followed around by a camera crew?
Brian is a wonderful person and a very serious journalist. He was an absolute pleasure to have as part of our crew, as was the infinitely sensible and sensitive Anton Gold, the soundman. Sometimes we got into some pretty heavy debates about the degree we were or weren't taking the villagers' concerns seriously enough. Sometimes Brian thought I was imposing too much of my own views, and sometimes I thought he was a bit green and, not having gone through the previous one or two rounds with the villagers, was swallowing too much of what they told him. All of these questions were hashed out around the dinner mat, and it added immeasurably to the value of the project to us. About the camera: As Brian promised, you get used to it and don't really feel its presence after a while.
Still, it's often uncomfortable to see yourself for the first time on the screen. What were your thoughts when you saw Brian's film? Did he portray you accurately?
I was a bit horrified at first, largely because it's always been my credo that the journalist is not the story. I hate the constant use of the first person in magazine reporting, for example, and on the otherwise excellent BBC. And somehow, though I knew I was the vehicle for this story, I had not really registered that the movie was about -- me. So that was a really hard one to take at first. The second shock came when I saw it at the Baltimore film festival, with Brian and Qayum, and saw what a harpie I was! I really forgot what we had gone through to get that village built. I must say Brian did an absolutely bang-up job. And if anything, he showed me as more genteel than I really am.
Any further reflections on the life-changing decision you made to leave journalism and become an aid worker? You've taken on a herculean task. Do the frustrations of your work ever make you want to rush back to reporting?
The frustrations and bursts of outrage and disillusionment are beyond description. But so is the elation, at times. I have absolutely no regrets. This is by far the most interesting and moving thing I've ever done in my life. I'm not entirely sure what objective value my presence here holds for Afghans, given the broader context of local and international politics that I can't really affect. But sometimes I feel that just the willingness to be here with them -- to go through it with them, when I don't have to -- means something.
As for how long it will last, it's hard to know. It's hard to imagine doing anything else. But that's how I felt about reporting.