2006.06.18: June 18, 2006: Headlines: COS - Afghanistan: The Third Goal: Intelligence Issues: The Modesto Bee: John Sumser shares Peace Corps experience from Afghanistan

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John Sumser shares Peace Corps experience from Afghanistan

John Sumser shares Peace Corps experience from Afghanistan

Sumser grew to love Afghanistan's barren land and its people. But his service there came to an abrupt end when the country's communists staged a coup and took over. He was accused of being a spy and was taken to a room where he was punched and threatened repeatedly. At one point, one man held a pistol to Sumser's head and said he would be killed immediately if he didn't admit to being a spy. His captors never believed that he was simply an English teacher working for the Peace Corps. "In concrete terms, I was without consequence," Sumser wrote. "No one really knew how many people had been killed in the last week, so one more wouldn't matter very much." In the end, they let him go, and as he walked out of the building, he was met by an official from the U.S. Embassy, which had helped obtain his release.

John Sumser shares Peace Corps experience from Afghanistan

Looking back on Afghanistan: Stan State professor shares Peace Corps experience

Jun 18, 2006

The Modesto Bee, Calif.

Jun. 18--John Sumser, a communications professor at California State University, Stanislaus, was throwing a dinner party after the United States entered Afghanistan in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The talk turned to that country, and Sumser related a story from his time there in the Peace Corps in 1977-78.

"You should write that as an article and we'll print it," said a dinner guest, a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle.

So Sumser wrote the article. It never was printed, but it became the spark that ignited his recently published book, "A Land Without Time" (Academy Chicago Publishers, $17.95).

Although it had been more than 25 years since he lived in Afghanistan, the stories still were fresh.

"I've been telling (the stories) as examples in my classes," Sumser said. "They're rich and entertaining, so by the time I wrote this down, it was more stenography than writing. It was fast."

The Vietnam veteran said he wanted to put a face on the country torn by war over the centuries.

"It was becoming the name of a war or an American problem, like Vietnam," he said. "I wanted it to be the name of the country instead of just a war. I just wanted to show what it was for an American to be there before all this happened, to give a different view of it.

"I started writing it in 2002. More positive views of the nation weren't out then -- 'Kite Runner' came later."

Afghanistan is a landlocked country that has been ruled by everyone from the Chinese to the Greeks. Sumser knows he was in Afghanistan during a unique time of peace as a republic.

"The king had been deposed in 1973. His cousin became the president of the republic. That was overthrown by a coup in 1978 by the internal communists, so that was a relatively short time.

"It was a deliberate attempt on the part of the government to modernize the nation. They had compulsory education for boys and girls. There were women in the workplace, women at the university. They were still covered in the streets, but they didn't have to wear chadras inside.

"You had a main central government and then appointed governors in all the provinces. You could see soldiers periodically -- there would be roadblocks for no reason. You'd come to a roadblock and they'd raise the bar and you'd go on. They didn't stop you.

"There was little sense of a coercive government. There was no centralized oppression, at least for foreigners. There were social restrictions, a lot going on beneath the surface, but people could move around freely."

Sumser grew to love Afghanistan's barren land and its people. But his service there came to an abrupt end when the country's communists staged a coup and took over. He was accused of being a spy and was taken to a room where he was punched and threatened repeatedly. At one point, one man held a pistol to Sumser's head and said he would be killed immediately if he didn't admit to being a spy.

His captors never believed that he was simply an English teacher working for the Peace Corps.

"In concrete terms, I was without consequence," Sumser wrote. "No one really knew how many people had been killed in the last week, so one more wouldn't matter very much."

In the end, they let him go, and as he walked out of the building, he was met by an official from the U.S. Embassy, which had helped obtain his release.

For the next 20-plus years, the country has been ruled first by the Soviets and then by the Taliban.

"It's a real tragedy, what's happened to that nation," Sumser said. "It wasn't a good place in that there's low life expectancy and people are poor. But it wasn't a failed state where people were degraded.

"I don't know what the Afghans will be able to make out of their country. Whatever they become will be very different. Hopefully, it will be good. It's been so savage for 20 years."

The good news, he said, is that the Soviets are gone and the Taliban has lost control, probably for good, because "it is just hard for me to see Afghans as hateful, and hate seems to me to be the basic premise of the Taliban."

He'd like to return to Afghanistan someday to work with an international agency -- maybe the Peace Corps again.

"I would hope to find that there's still friendly people and villages that you could go to and there'd be regional identity. My view from the outside is that (Afghanistan) has been completely destroyed, and I'm hoping it's not."

Most of all, he hopes his book will affect readers in this country. "I want people to know that it was really a harsh place geographically, filled with people who had almost nothing. But they were dignified and reasonably friendly and good, peaceful people. It wasn't just this disastrous breeding ground of discontent. There were things that needed to be changed, but it was a good place."





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Story Source: The Modesto Bee

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Afghanistan; The Third Goal; Intelligence Issues

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