THE CROSSING

Afghanistan's Little Men

Stopping through Mazar-e-Sharif, our correspondent witnesses one of the most disturbing side effects of the region's poverty: young boys with old faces.

Hasan, center.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF — Before it dead-ends in a crowded burst of kiosks, pilgrims, and taxicabs at the northern gate of the Blue Mosque, Dasht-e-Shor Street is a motley procession of businesses that constellate by type.

First come the auto body shops, with gauges and hoses and pipes protruding from dark, sooty metal shipping containers. Then the welders, displaying heavy iron gates painted blue and green to ward off evil spirits. Then the bicycle dealers, decked out with rows of well-worn bikes and wheelbarrows (here the street is interrupted by a soccer field behind the wrecked wall of a bombed-out building); then a few small rice pilau and kebab stalls; and, finally, a long white-and-blue stretch of pharmacies.

Somewhere between the welders and the bike dealers, I buy a small box of pomegranate juice from Mahdi.

Mahdi is 11 years old. He has been running the soft drinks stall on Dasht-e-Shor for his uncle since he was seven. At first, the work was part-time, but after he graduated 4th grade he quit school to become a full-time street vendor.

Mahdi rolls up the metal blinds of the shop at 6:30 in the morning; he closes at seven or eight at night. The uncle is usually there to help open and lock up the store, but generally, Mahdi is on his own. How much does he earn for his work? I ask. Mahdi counts my change and juts out his chin in proud indignation.

"He is my uncle!" the boy says. "It would be totally embarrassing to take money from him."

The child mortality rate in Afghanistan is second only to Sierra Leone's. More than 2 million Afghan children are orphans. Children are also the casualties of the war over Afghanistan's modernization: Last weekend, someone pumped poison gas into two schools for girls in Kunduz, poisoning scores of students.

Despite the billions of international aid dollars funneled into Afghanistan since 2001, the country is weighed down by crushing poverty -- a burden that falls heavily on children. The United Nations estimates that one-third of Afghanistan's children under 14 work. Drive out of any city in any direction, and you will see children as young as seven herding livestock, tilling fields, leveling dirt roads. Peek inside the shops of Dasht-e-Shor Street: Half of the workforce on this grimy boulevard appears to be children. There are child welders, child carpenters, child auto mechanics, child haulers of bags of cement, child shredders of carrots for someone else's pilau.

There are no child pharmacists. A child cannot be trusted with something so delicate as medicine. Especially if he hasn't finished elementary school.

Walk south on Dasht-e-Shor, toward the cyanic mosque thought to enshrine the remains of both Imam Ali and Zoroaster. Several blocks before the mosque, take a right on Mandawi Street, toward the main bazaar, and, if you are in the mood, pick up some cottage cheese from Hasan. He is the kid in the canary yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the words TOM AND JERRY and AIR HERO COME. He buys his cottage cheese from a wholesaler down the street and sells it at a very slight markup that will set you back a penny or two.

Hasan says he is 10; from the distance of a few feet, he looks about six. But look at his face. Those worry wrinkles across his forehead. That skeptical down-curve of his mouth. Those eyes, suspicious of life. It is the face of an old man, a man who has already seen everything and knows that no more is coming.

While Hasan and I chat, a crowd of boys surrounds us. One sells tomatoes, another wild garlic; a third sells toys for children whose parents can afford to buy toys -- children who don't have to work in the street all day. Although these children work, too, in the homes of their parents: doing the dishes and the laundry, preparing and serving breakfast and dinner, serving innumerable cups of tea to their parents' guests and cleaning up afterward, even if they stay till midnight on a school night. They eat leftovers of their fathers' dinners. Few eat meat.

Amin, his broad face discolored in blotches by malnutrition, comes pushing his beat-up wheelbarrow: For 20 cents he will follow you around the market and trundle your purchases to your car. If the car is far away, he will charge 40 cents.

I ask Amin how old he is. He doesn't know.

The boys don't chatter the way other kids do, don't push each other out of the way. They listen to each other talk, then offer their reserved, monosyllabic opinions about street work.

"Porter work pays better than selling plastic bags," one opines.

"You'd better move your wheelbarrow closer to the cheese row: You'd get more customers," another advises Hasan.

Businesslike. Adult-like. In the evening, when purple and red rhombi of boys' kites cut through the smog colored orange by the sunset, none of the kites will be theirs. Theirs will be the kiosks to push through the streets and lock up, the wheelbarrows to put away, the juice stalls to shutter, the money to bring home.

I bid the boys farewell, and they nod. They don't like to waste words.

I am 20 paces away, and someone calls: "Bye, auntie."

A block down Mandawi Street, across the black gutter from where men and boys sell little hot suns of fresh bread, two boys who look like brothers squat at the edge of an oblong heap of rotting trash. They don't seem to notice anyone else. The older picks out of the fetid mess two strings of green onions, brushes off the more decomposed parts with his fingers. He hands one of the onion shoots to the younger boy, and they eat.


Read the next dispatch, "Warped Lives."

Anna Badkhen

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