Wednesday, May 21, 2008

After the dawn calls to prayer

Landry woke up and went out with his cameras in the pre-dawn darkness. As he left home, I could just hear the calls to prayer begin, first the trickling sounds from the mosques far away, then closer and closer, until the muezzin across the street from our house roused our neighbors for their wake-up splash of ablutions.

After the morning prayers, the sky started to brighten at 3:50 a.m., twilit by the sun as it climbed toward the mountain peaks that ring Kabul. At 4 a.m., the nearly full moon set behind him, and at 5:05 a.m., dawn peeked her rosy fingers over the mountain ridges.

This is a digital collage of five images Landry took the same morning.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The sweet here and now

Basmina, an adorable little street urchin who begs in front of my office, has been a little brightness that greets me each day at work. I've seen her perched up in a tree as she plays with her brother. I've given her leftovers to quench her hunger. I even go outside and pretend to be a grumpy old lady now and then when the kids are shouting loudly on the street. "Yar! Yar! Yar!" I mimic their voices. "Why are you making so much noise?" Basmina laughs at me.

This morning when I arrived at work, Basmina and her younger brother ran up to say hello. I pat her head, noting that she cut her brown bobbed hair and now looks like a "bacha" -- a boy. She flashed her toothy smile, her brown freckles dotting her cheeks. Clutched in her left hand was a mini-bouquet of various weeds and grasses: She and her little brother were walking down the street picking the weeds because there are no flowers. I breathed in her warm smile again before heading in to work.

About a minute later, as I was settling into my desk, I heard her screaming. I headed outside to play the curmudgeonly old lady again, prepared to pretend to yell at the kids, but Basmina wasn't there. Her little brother was standing there looking rather forlorn, surrounded by several adults, as an SUV sped away. "What happened?" Basmina had been hit by the SUV while picking her weeds. The vehicle was taking her to the hospital. I looked at the spot where I had left her on the sidewalk next to my office, and her bouquet of weeds was lying there where she had dropped them.

I went to visit her in the hospital. She had a splint from her foot up to her waist. Her femur was broken. She screamed in pain and cried aloud, but spilled no tears. She begged me again and again for water. The doctors said no water, perhaps a rupture in the abdomen. I told her the IV saline was special water. She pleaded with me to go home. I told her she needed to stay in the hospital. She speaks decent English, enough to beg from foreigners on the street, and in her wounded, confused daze, she turned to me -- wanting water, wanting to go home -- and accidentally blurted out instead, "One dollar!" Even with her broken femur and the bleeding pain in her abdomen, we had a brief giggle. I leaned close to her, touching my cheek to hers, so that she could hear my breath as I tried to fill her with a slow calm.

She was a good girl today. I had her small hand grab my thumb and told her to look me in the eyes as doctors inserted the IV. Despite the pain she was in, I managed to get her to smile at me more than once. I went back to work, then returned at 5 p.m., about eight hours after the accident, and she had just been wheeled in for surgery. I worry that she lost too much blood. I worry that in a country like Afghanistan, the operation will go awry. I worry that she will not heal well in this war-torn, impoverished country and will be handicapped forever.

I only knew Basmina from our brief encounters, but today I felt so intricately linked to her. In the longed-for before, I saw a bright and happy young girl with the possibility, no matter how dim, of a decent future. Later, as I tried to keep up her spirits in the hospital, her tiny little frame on the hospital gurney, I grieved deeply. Basmina was the drop that made me overflow.

As these events tossed about my head all day, I learned that Basmina means "fragrance." I don't have any pictures of her. I took for granted that her freckles and smile would be there to greet me tomorrow.

Monday, May 12, 2008

When life becomes unbearable

This Thai woman was imprisoned for 7 years in an Afghan prison for drug trafficking. She could get out if she paid a $6,000 fine, which she can't afford. She cries every time I meet her. She doesn't speak much English, but she has learned Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi, during her time in prison. She has pleaded with me to ask Thai authorities to transfer her to finish her sentence in a Thai prison.

She is miserable and has started to hurt herself. Last week, she cut deep gashes into her hand and foot. She says she also tried to overdose on painkillers. When I first met her this winter, she was suffering from the bitter cold. The second time, she had shaved her head because she caught lice. This time, the cuts.

To pass time, she strings tiny colored beads, transforming them into decorative covers for pens, cigarette boxes and lighters, as seen in this photo. She tries to maintain her sanity with the beading projects, but her mental will is failing her.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Punishing the victim

My latest story tells of women who dare to flee and complain about rape or domestic abuse, and are then jailed themselves, accused of adultery. Most Afghans believe that a woman who has run away has inevitably committed adultery because they assume she has fled to be with a man. Therefore, the Afghan justice system often charges women runaways as adulterers.

This article caused much heated debate as I reported it. Several Afghan men I spoke with (including an Afghan guy who is a human rights lawyer) insisted vehemently that it is illegal for a woman to leave home without permission from her husband, even though several other lawyers and legal experts said it was not illegal. The government has even printed a pamphlet that details women's and girls' rights, including snippets like "It is wrong to sell your daughter to settle a murder dispute," and "Running away is not illegal." Hundreds of these pamphlets were printed, but they have not been distributed because some government officials believe that the "running away" bit will encourage girls to run away.

Many Afghan men I spoke with, including lawyers, believe that more Afghan women are running away and seeking divorces because of women's rights that are being peddled by the pesky international community.

Read the story here.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

What kids play with when there's no electricity

The cemetery and grounds around the Sakhi shrine in Kabul are a popular picnicking area on Fridays. There are a few ferris wheels, this one run by the guy in the red vest. Electricity is scarce in Afghanistan, so this ferris wheel is actually powered by him. He spins it by turning the turquoise wheel, similar to how a wheelchair works.

In the Asheqan wa Arefan neighborhood, we ran into this guy with the white scarf on his head, who carts around his portable merry-go-round! The kids climb into the seats and grab onto the black steering wheel in the center to turn themselves round. Another self-powered ride.

Poles are another useful form of electricity-free entertainment...

as are paper airplanes.

We asked this girl what her doll's name was, and she said it was "doll." When I suggested Najiba or Massouda or Shafiqa, she nodded her head yes to each one. She then settled on Najiba. We met the little bunnies on our way up to the Kabul wall.

They are just about 100 meters away from their house, which overlooks the city.