MARUF DISTRICT, Afghanistan -- In a far eastern corner of southern Afghanistan, some police patrol the villages spreading a distinctly Afghan message to their fellow countrymen.

"We are living on Afghanistan's land," 33-year-old Afghan National Policeman Daru Khan tells residents of Kandahar province's Maruf district. "It is your land today and it will be your children's land tomorrow. No matter what happens, this is Afghan soil, and it will never belong to the Taliban."

This is a lesson he took to heart after being forced from his home in Kandahar's eastern Spin Boldak province, bordering Pakistan. These were difficult years, he said, when he had to wake up and realize certain dreams he had were never going to be possible.

DARU, THE DISPLACED DREAMER

Approximately 15 years ago, the Taliban spread throughout Afghanistan and settled into many remote places - especially those in districts like Maruf and Spin Boldak, which share a border with Pakistan.

"They sent judges to each village and we knew them by the black turban," Daru explained.

Like many children, Daru said he dreamed of becoming a doctor when he became an adult. He attended classes and learned to read and write, but his education was interrupted by the Taliban's presence.

"They destroyed our schools and we were forced to stay in our homes," he said.

But the worst insult, he said, was a violation of something his family held dear, something they all knew before the judges in black turbans arrived: independence and self-determination. Those rights went away when the Taliban began issuing out harsh rules and standards for all the villagers to follow under penalty of violence or death.

"The way the Taliban tried to rule our lives, we had no choice but to leave Spin Boldak," said Daru, who has now been a member of the ANP for 10 years.

"My family's land had been with us for as long as anyone knew," he said. "Losing our land meant we lost everything."

So before his 15th birthday, Daru's family had to start again from nothing. He had gone from being a child of Afghanistan to a refugee living what felt like a "forgotten life" on desolate camps in Pakistan.

When the Taliban was toppled from power in 2002, Daru hurried to return to his country and signed up for the ANP almost immediately.

"I was not able to attend school in Pakistan and get an official education," he explained. "I had no skills that allowed me to do much else."

But the education he did receive as a child in Spin Boldak has stayed with him. Among the Maruf ANP, he is seen as a leader and instructor to other policemen like 22-year-old Ashraf, from Zabul Province. Both are police engineers here, which means they are in charge of clearing mines and explosives for Maruf residents.

Daru is the senior engineer, and Ashraf, the junior, has taken lessons from him since they first teamed up in Maruf almost four years ago.

There is one thing Daru has not had to teach the junior engineer. And that is self-reliance.

ASHRAF: LOVE, INDEPENDENCE AND NATIONAL PRIDE

Ashraf is a bright and determined Afghan, as well as a husband and father of three. He's also one of the Maruf ANP's expert drivers and vehicle mechanics. But what separates him from others in the force is a certain independence not often found in Pashtun life, which is the dominant culture for much of southern Afghanistan.

"In the Pashtun life, a man's wife is usually decided by the parents of the husband and the wife," Ashraf explained. "This is not always an arrangement which pleases either spouse, but it is how it has been done for centuries."

Ashraf and a female from Zabul had already developed a sincere relationship when the time came for him to be married, he said. So Ashraf and the woman he truly wanted left to marry in Pakistan when both were 19 years old.

"In Pashtun culture, the groom pays the bride's family a certain figure for the bride," he said. "If the groom wants a different bride, the family must be paid twice as much.

"I cannot go home to my family because we wanted very much to be married happily and honestly, but I did not have the money," Ashraf explained. "So I cannot see the place where I was born, but I have a wife and children who I know love me and that is worth it."

Ashraf and his wife could have stayed in Pakistan and tried to make a life there, but they wanted to live and work in Afghanistan. After all, Ashraf said, he had always wanted to be a soldier for Afghanistan since he was a boy. Working with the ANP allows him to at least get close to that childhood dream, despite the dangers of IEDs.

"Anytime you are doing dangerous things, it is natural for you to think about your family," he said. "They are always near to my heart, no matter what I am doing."

Ashraf said that Daru's words guide him too: "This is our soil and Afghanistan is our land. I will defend this country because it is the place where I was born."

EMERGING SELF-RELIANCE IN MARUF

Maruf district is a dry and semi-mountainous place with no paved roads and, until recently, very few opportunities.

"You are either a farmer or shopkeeper if you live in Maruf," Daru said. "Up to last year, almost everyone here was a farmer, no shopkeepers. They had to go to Pakistan to buy things for their family."

Crossing over the border and into Pakistan has been one of the things the ANP and the Afghan Border Police here have been working to secure, with the assistance of Soldiers of Special Operations Task Force - South. Occasionally, all three forces team up for an operation aimed at securing not only the border region, but all of Maruf.

"Maruf was a very poor and unsafe place, but together we are making it better," explained Col. Anwar, the ABP's 2nd Kandak commander.

Their work in security has helped to reopen the bazaar near the Maruf District Center. That bazaar was closed one year ago, but now provides jobs for Maruf citizens and gives them a safer place and shorter journey to purchase or trade for what they may need.

This is all part of the self-reliance which Daru and Ashraf are working to spread to the citizens living and working throughout Maruf.

"It is important for us to purchase and sell products from here," said Daru, who admits to spreading a sort of "grow local, buy local" ethos.

"We need to keep Maruf products in Afghanistan to help the Afghan economy and not take them across the border for sale," he said. "That way the people here can keep the profit and take care of themselves better."

The more residents become tied to the district for their needs, the more the country benefits, Daru said.

"Afghanistan needs to be fully independent one day, and this includes providing for our own security," he added. "My hope is that one day soon we will grow Afghan Security Forces to three times what they are now, and [International Security Assistance Forces] can leave knowing we are able to protect our own soil."

Page last updated Mon January 17th, 2011 at 01:08