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


Afghanistan's Boys in Blue

With cops like these, who needs robbers? Our diarist meets one of Afghanistan's finest.

SHOLGARA — There have been so many police chiefs in the district of Sholgara in recent years that the people who live in this granitoid bowl of smooth mountains tapering toward the Balkh river valley in a mellow polychrome of fields have forgotten to count them. All that anyone can tell you is that Captain Ghawsuddin Tufal has been chief of Sholgara police for five months.

Who knows how long he will last?

The Taliban is not known to operate in Sholgara, but someone claiming to be a member of the Islamist militia has already called his cell phone twice to threaten to kill him if he doesn't quit. To protect a population of 100,000 he has a police force of 45 men. And three cars. And a sole police station on the edge of downtown Sholgara: a gravel-strewn compound suffocating in the sun where the men, wrapped in impressive bandoliers of 7.62 rounds, stand and squat along low walls all day, swatting at flies, while the chief chain-smokes in his tiny office.

The couches that clutter the room exhale puffs of dust every now and then, as though the captain's lungs and the furniture's upholstery are somehow connected.

Has he mentioned -- he inquires between drags -- that he receives absolutely no money to pay for gas for the police cars? When someone calls the cops, he pays out of his own pocket. Some villages are 30 miles away from the police station. Captain Tufal's monthly paycheck is $400; a gallon of gas costs about $3.60.

The 120 villages in his charge are a dizzying kaleidoscope of ethnicities, political alliances, family and village feuds so old that the sides cannot quite remember how they started. There is a lot of bad blood here; there is a lot of spilled blood. In the last three decades, everyone has fought everyone in Sholgara: The mujaheddin fought the Soviets; the Tajiks fought the Uzbeks; the Hazaras fought the Pashtuns; the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance; various Northern Alliance warlords fought each other.

The fighting continues today: A few months ago, in the riverside village of Siaub, one former anti-Taliban warlord killed another. Provincial police drove down from Mazar-e-Sharif to arrest him; five days later, the prosecutors set him free.

"Let's put it this way: He has powerful supporters," Captain Tufal says, tweezing another cheap Korean cigarette out of the pack. "If I were to arrest him, I wouldn't last a day. This is Afghanistan, not America."

The people of Sholgara don't call the cops very often. Once they called Captain Tufal when they found a cache of rocket-propelled grenades hidden under some crumbs of dry clay by an old T-54 tank that sits upside-down on the unpaved main road, the words "People of Sholgara, Vote for Abdullah!" scrawled in black spray paint across its corroded hull.

Another time, some men called when they stumbled upon four 122-millimeter rounds wired together to form a powerful, remote-controlled roadside bomb, farther south on the same road. The captain doesn't know who put the explosives there: maybe a warlord trying to kill a rival, or a villager seeking revenge for some century-old offense.

Generally, though, people here don't look to police for security. Anyone here will tell you: They don't trust the police. And why should they? En route from Sholgara to Mazar-e-Sharif today I watch a policeman at a checkpoint demand a bribe from a pickup truck with a camel and some burlap sacks tied to the bed with rope.

"Too little," the officer tells a careworn Uzbek driver offering, through a rolled-down cab window, a soiled, sweat-drenched green bank note: 10 Afghanis, or about 22 cents. A line forms. Men stuck behind the camel truck relax the grip of their steering wheels and rummage in their pockets for bills.

At this checkpoint, in the middle of a road that could at any moment be besieged by bandits, by Taliban fighters, by kidnapping gangs, Afghanistan's centralized government doesn't offer protection to these men. Instead, the men require protection from it. No wonder they cling to the traditional feudal semi-anarchy of fortified villages, and erect the thick walls of mud and straw of their family compounds patiently, by hand. They know: In the end, these will be the only walls that will matter.

Less than a mile away from the Sholgara police station, a small, 60-year-old castle presides over 15 acres of farmland that belong to two brothers. The outer walls are painted ocher; at first, I think the two towers and the primitive battlements are a stylization.

No, no, the owners assure me, and show me the four-foot-thick walls, and the castellations that provide a 360-degree view of the valley. Our grandfather built this, for fighting. For defending ourselves so that our houses are not looted and our women are not raped. This is real, it can be used very efficiently, you see?

From whom are you defending yourselves? I ask.

The farmers study me for a moment, trying to understand whether I am being deliberately obtuse.

Then, one of the men shrugs, and they say, in unison:


Read the next dispatch, "Afghanistan's Little Men."