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A Future Shaped by Hope

Many Afghans live on the fringes months after the Taliban was deposed, but optimism is taking root, nurtured by a sense of unity and peace.


KABUL, Afghanistan — Twelve months ago, when she heard that terrorists had slammed planes into the World Trade Center, Jamila Omar had no idea that her own world, thousands of miles away, would change for the better. Like most Afghans, she was filled with dread--fearful of facing another long war, fearful that she or people she loved would be killed.

For the five years of Taliban rule, she dared not emerge from her home without the all-encompassing robin's-egg-blue burka. On the bus, like other women, the college-educated journalist took her place at the rear. She saw stretching ahead of her a life only half-lived.

"I had concluded," she said, "that we women would always remain in the corners of the room."

A year later, however, women are working and going to school. A government that is representative has been formed. Except for pockets of U.S. military activity against Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects--and despite an assassination attempt last week against President Hamid Karzai--more than two decades of civil war appear to have ended.

The list goes on: International aid money is beginning to pour in, albeit not as quickly as people would like, and foreign organizations are offering advice and personnel. Institutions are forming. Newspapers are being published in relative freedom. The national airline, Ariana, has taken wing again. Refugees are returning to their homes by the hundreds of thousands, exceeding all estimates. National army and police forces are in training, and mine clearers are working full time to purge roads and fields of the deadly explosives.

The country has in Karzai a moderate leader who inspires confidence in the West and affection from most of his people--even if he's something of a figurehead with limited powers outside this capital city. Mohammad Zaher Shah, the octogenarian former king, has returned and moved back into his old palace. Although no longer a monarch, he has been given the honorific title "Father of the Nation."

And in the last few weeks of summer, women such as Omar have found the courage to shed their burkas and walk with the sun on their faces, at least here in Kabul.

"The changes we have witnessed are changes we never even dreamed of in the past," said Omar, 30, now a reporter for the Kabul Weekly, a newspaper that strives for Western standards of objectivity in English, Dari and Pashto. "To begin with, I can tell you about women: They have not only been physically freed ... but they have been mentally released."

Of course, there are worries on the horizon, made all the more plain by the twin shocks of nearly losing Karzai to an assassin's bullet in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar and the horror of a bombing that mowed down 26 people in Kabul. On the eve of the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks blamed on Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, the latest acts appeared to be a coordinated challenge to the new Afghan order.

There are still deep fault lines in the society--disagreement over how liberal a government Afghanistan can afford while many of its people remain deeply conservative. And many here still fear what could happen to the country if Western interest flags because of a war in Iraq or simple boredom. Afghans express anxiety that the "commanders"--a euphemism for the country's regional warlords--have not been effectively disarmed and are still playing too large a role.

Although governors are appointed and are supposed to follow directions from the central government, a lack of rudimentary telecommunications and a deteriorated road network make it difficult for officials in Kabul to know what is happening in the regions, much less impose authority.

Powerful commanders such as Abdul Rashid Dostum in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and Ismail Khan in the western province of Herat are able to rule as virtual potentates in their regions, collecting customs revenues without remitting them to Kabul, while at the same time paying lip service to Karzai's government.

Despite all this, in big cities and small villages alike throughout Afghanistan, one encounters an almost uniform sense of hope that this blood-soaked country has made a worthy start toward becoming a united and peaceful state. For many ordinary Afghans, the quality of life hasn't markedly improved, making their optimism even more poignant.

On the banks of the muddy Amu Darya River, facing Uzbekistan on the northern frontier of Afghanistan, a 19-year-old high school student called Najibullah might have cause for complaint. Thin and ill-clothed, he is living in a warren of hovels made of abandoned steel containers, and his family draws water from the polluted river because there is no other source nearby.

But instead of complaints, he spoke enthusiastically of where his country is headed, and his plans to be part of it.

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