Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Shauket

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Shauket

I was told this story an hour ago. I just wanted to get it down before I forgot – and tell it as simply and honestly as I was told it.

Shauket has the high cheekbones of the Hazara people and narrow, yellow eyes like a wolf. His face is striking rather than handsome. The Hazara, the third most powerful ethnic group in Afghanistan, are based in the Hazarajat – a mountain fastness that is home to the great destroyed Buddhas of Bamyan and this Shiite minority. They are said to descend from Genghis Khan’s hordes, but probably descend from peaceful settlers from Central Asia.

I was watching the Travel Channel when Shauket came into the dining room in Kilo 3, the “guest house” in Kabul where a number of expats for AVIPA Plus live as well as the home of the kitchen and dining room.

He asked where it was that the show was being filmed. I told him Cyprus, but he didn’t know where that was. Then a map came up showing the Mediterranean and I showed him. Recognized Turkey. Then he started telling me his story. At first I was annoyed. Then I started to listen. Then I stopped laying down in my shalwar kameez pants and town hiking vest and untied boots and sat up. Then I help a choke in my throat and had to hold back from crying.

“You know, it is good that the American military is here. There are no terrorists now,” he said, as I commented on how beautiful the commentator was on the TV show in her white bikini top with her bubbly personality. “We couldn’t even dance. We had to grow our beards long. We couldn’t shave. We could even grow our hair long. But it is good now. The Americans are here and there are no terrorists.”

“I left Afghanistan when I was 13, in 2000. I went to Pakistan. It was too difficult for me. I couldn’t find a job,” he said. He went alone to the city of Karachi. “It is the biggest city in Asia. There are 18 million people living there.” He has thin, weak looking arms and short, thin fingers, like a girls. He is small for his age.

Eventually he got a job at a bakery. Today he works as one of three cooks serving meatballs, bread, broccoli, fried fish sticks, apple pie, salad, steak, hamburgers and spaghetti to the international staff – a mix of Americans, Brits, Swedes, Spaniards, Peruvians, Colombians and Ghurkhas.

“I worked at the bakery. I made 1,000 Pakistani Rupees a month. That is about $12,” he said. He has lived in Karachi, Islamabad and a half dozen other cities between Kabul and the other side of Pakistan. He worked and lived in a room on the premises of the bakery. “I worked every day. There were only three holidays a year. I never stopped working.”

He supported his family back in Ghazni, southwest of Kabul, on the main road to Kandahar. Anytime anyone was going back to Afghanistan, he would send a letter. He had learned to write in Dari. “My parents are illiterate, but one of my sisters can read and she read the letters to them. I would write, ‘Hello. How are you? I am fine. Life is good here. I hope you are well.’ Then I would take all of the Rupees I had saved and put them in the envelope and I would seal it, like this,” he says, spitting on his finger and running it over the imaginary glue strip of an envelope. He said he would give some money to the person taking it back, to make sure it got to his family. He was the only one supporting his family.

At that time, as far as communications were concerned it may as well have been 1801 as 2001. “I would send a letter and then I would wait for three months before I would get a reply from my father.”

After a year in Pakistan, having fled the repressive rule of the Taliban at 13, he decided to learn English. “I saw that the American military forces had invaded Afghanistan. I thought they would be victorious. And I thought, if I learn English, maybe I can go back home. Maybe I will find a good job there.” So, out of the 1,000 Pakistani Rupees he was making, he spent 200 a month on English classes.

His English, though flawed, is understandable and actually quite good for a young boy who worked all day, saved all of his money to send home and for English classes and had nothing to eat and no family in a massive foreign city. “It was hard at first. I didn’t speak the language. They speak Urdu. Now I speak English, Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Dari and Pashto. I learned four languages in nine years.”

Then, one day in 2004, someone called the bakery. “Shauket? Shauket?” the voice kept repeating over the phone. In the noisy bakery, the person who had picked up the phone couldn’t hear. He thought he recognized the name, though and handed the phone to the 18 year old man. “It was my father. He said, ‘Shauket, is that you? Is that you?’ I said, ‘yes father, it is me.’” It was the first time he’d heard his father’s voice in four years. “I cried. It was too much.”

They talked about the basics wanting to know how his health was, was he happy, was he safe, did he have a good job. “The Americans have destroyed the Taliban,” his father said. As Shauket said this, a dark shade passed over his face as he said the word “destroyed” – a wrinkle wrecking the smoothness of his forehead. “It is safe now. It is safe for you to come home. You can come home now. Come home,” his father said. But Shauket was determined to learn English. He told his father he would stay for another four years. His father told him that it was his decision, since he did not know the situation in Pakistan.

He asked his father how he had gotten the phone number of where he lived and worked. His father said someone who had come back to the village had given it to him. Shauket asked his father if he had a phone number. Hi father said yes. Recently a man in the village had bought a big portable phone, “like the ones the military uses or a satellite phone” and he would charge people to use it.

His father gave him a number, and Shauket noticed that it was not an Afghan extension. His father said the phone was registered in Dubai. “To call for one minute, it cost 100 Pakistani Rupees. That means I could talk to my family for ten minutes for my entire monthly salary. He saved up. “I didn’t eat. At the bakery, I took a little bit for myself – a small piece of bread. I would have some of that for breakfast. I would have some of that for lunch. The same piece of bread!” he said, showing me how he would cup his hand and slide crumbs off a counter into his hand and how he would pinch the crumbs out with his fingers and put them in his mouth. “I would have the rest of it for dinner. I lived at the bakery, so I didn’t have to pay rent.”

He eventually paid his entire month’s salary to talk to his family for ten minutes. “I called and the man answered and I told him who I wanted to talk to. He hung up and went through the village and took the phone to my family, then I called back. I spoke to my mother and my father and my sisters and brothers. You have no idea how hard it was,” he said with a shy smile that was direct at the same time.

Now his brother lives in France. “He is 20. He went there illegally. He does not send money to the family. He went through Pakistan, Turkey, Italy and now finally France. He says it is very dangerous and expensive there. He said, ‘even if you want to buy just one piece of bread, you have to pay a tax. You have to pay a tax for everything.’”

Tonight, before I had learned any of this, before I had sat up on the couch, as I finished a dinner of spaghetti, meatballs and sauce, I paused as I handed my plate to Shauket. There was a strip of bread and half eaten meatball on the plate. For some reason I felt bad about leaving that on the plate and handing it to an Afghan. Partly, maybe, it’s from the two books I’ve been reading. Maybe some part of me knew that I was handing a plate with as much food as he’d had for a day just five years ago.

“Now I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen. No one trusts our president. You know Hamid Karzai? He is our president and no one trusts him,” Shauket said. The Travel Channel show on Crete and Cyprus had just ended, but it had been on mute for a long time now. “No one trusts him and when the Americans leave, what will happen? No one knows. Maybe there will be war again. Maybe I will have to leave. This is an awful place. There is no future here.”

Links –

The Lost Boys of Afghanistan – Photo Essay

Afhgan Refugees – Muhajir

UN High Commission for Refugees – Afghanistan country profile

Afghan Youths Seek a New Life in Europe

In This World

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Written by johnwendle

March 6, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Powerful story John. I’m in Tonga, working now. Having a baby boy in July. We’ll get together sometime and trade stories, get terrifically drunk, maybe break a toilet. Chad and Darfur were crazy. Uganda was bothersome. Niger was unnerving. Nigeria was a damn mess. The South Pacific is a nice change. Only have to worry about natural disasters and not the man-made ones.

    Mad Ludwig

    March 9, 2010 at 7:42 am


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