Photo by Hakim/Afghan Peace Volunteers
Responding to knocks at the gate, I open the door of the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ “Border Free Center” in Kabul. I happen to be the only person there. Two women quickly step inside. My heart sinks, guessing that they hope to get on the list of seamstresses who will be hired to manufacture heavy blankets to be given, free of charge, to refugee families in desperate flight from Afghan provinces outside the U.S.-pacified “Kabubble.”
I know these two women are not going to get on the list, which has just been finalized, and perhaps they know it, too. But here they are, trying anyway. They have walked for hours. The younger of the two women begs me to help them feed their children to whom they can give nothing but stale bread. The older woman shows me a festering wound on her ankle. It should be seen at a hospital . . . most likely, it never will be. She smiles as she strokes my hand, through tears, seeming to understand how sorry I am. And how useless.
Suddenly, they both sit down. The older woman beats her breast and cries openly. Then my friend, young Sonia, returns from a social work visit she’d been conducting in the neighborhood. I try to explain to her why the women are sitting in the courtyard. Sonia understands. Gently, carefully, she approaches the women and explains that the lists have already been made. Somehow, she persuades the women to leave, and with great dignity and respect she escorts them beyond the gate. Returning, Sonia finds a quiet place apart from me, from which she later emerges with tear-stained cheeks and red eyes.
In Kabul, I have often encountered women who walk long distances, desperate for help and clutching a rumor or a hint that the place where I stay might offer them work or sustenance. My friend Hakim and I ruefully call them “the women who won’t go away.”
When in Kabul, I’ve sometimes awakened to find a woman sitting cross-legged next to me, patiently waiting for me to recognize her and care about her and her children. Harsh conditions in Afghanistan cause women to age quickly, and it’s often impossible for me to determine whether a woman I meet is older or younger than me. But when a woman sits down, and in doing so, suggests that she won’t go away, I feel an immediate affinity.
As a longtime peace activist, I’ve been arrested numerous times for this sort of determination. I “get it,” and yet how could I ever understand the fear, desperation, hunger, thirst, cold, and misery that drives a woman to walk for miles in faint hope that someone will understand her plight and help her?
Sometimes, in Kabul, my young friends tell their stories late into the night. In a soft voice, one young man tries to help me understand the desperation afflicting his family when he was growing up. He recalls a night when “we were so cold, and each of us had only one blanket. One of my brothers awoke, shivering in the night, and seeing our older brother sound asleep, he snatched this brother’s blanket.”
Startled, the older brother awoke and quickly began to fight for his blanket. The brothers fought intensely. The other family members were frightened that one brother might suffocate the other in the struggle. My friend wants me to appreciate how much their family has already weathered in terms of stormy relationships, and ultimately how deeply they care for one another.
Now, he and our other young friends work hard to make sure that the heavy blankets (duvets) they help manufacture and dispense each winter, thanks to international funds, will bring as much warmth as possible.