Voices from Panjwai: Villagers hope for stability in rural Kandahar
March 7, 2011
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, March 3, 2011 -- "I remember with fondness the days of Zahir Shah," said the old shopkeeper in southern Afghanistan, referring to a man whose reign over Afghanistan covered a 40-year period from the 1930s to the 1970s.
The shopkeeper, a man named Abdul who didn't know his exact age, is who residents of this flat and heavily-irrigated region call a "man of the white beard," or village elder.
Abdul and other "white bearded" men are the leaders whose voices speak for their often quite large families, villages and communities. And a growing number of those voices are growing disgusted over the effects of insurgent violence in the lands where they live and try to survive on next to nothing, day in and day out.
"We were very poor [in Zahir Shah's time], as we are today," Abdul said one cloudy winter afternoon in Panjwai district - the place he calls home in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province. "But no one was afraid to go into the farms or fields for food, even if, like today, there was never very much food to eat."
Abdul sat outside his store, one room among many in a series of buildings made entirely of the mud in this dry farm region. To the eyes of a visitor, the only indication that his room was a store was the blue and white, empty carton of cigarettes Abdul's son had nailed to a tree just outside the entrance. To members of the community, seeing Abdul's distinctive white beard was the cue telling them they were in familiar territory.
As he spoke, young men and children gathered around as though he was both campfire and storyteller rolled into one.
"I was once a soldier, a long time ago," Abdul said. "I fought in Afghanistan's army many years ago, even before [the Soviets entered Afghanistan more than 30 years ago].
"I would like to stand up and lead my village in a fight against the Taliban, but you see how old I am. I cannot move like this young man here," he said, pointing to Sayeed, a 20-year-old Afghan police sergeant from northeastern Afghanistan's Takhar Province. Sayeed nodded in acknowledgment, but did not interrupt the man of the white beard.
Children looked now at the young Sayeed with his vest, the weapon which was slung over his shoulder and to his side, and finally at his Afghan National Civil Order Police uniform. Sayeed smiled back, and allowed the men of the village to continue.
"We would like to stand up and fight for this village, to protect our land and our safety," said Rahmatullah, a younger elder whose beard was more salt-and-peppered than all-white. "But it is important for us to know that the villages to our right and our left are willing to do the same."
The crowd of men and children stirred in agreement at this thought. Abdul's expression then turned sharp as he extended his hand and said loudly, "We have always been poor here, but we know this and we have learned how to survive. We can make food, but only just enough; and it always seems to be only just enough. I have this store so I can make more money to feed the village."
But security threats like insurgent violence get in the way of Panjwai villagers coming to his store, he explained.
"When drivers are kidnapped and their trucks are left on the road, people will know not to leave their homes. My children become afraid to work in the fields. [Insurgents] killing people and shooting at trucks keeps us from making what little food we need. And people stop coming to my store. What do we do then'"
The crowd looked again at Sayeed and his weapon and his uniform. Children began to crowd him when he spoke up, saying, "I am from the north, and I fight to protect Panjwai for now. But [the Afghan National Civil Order Police] cannot be everywhere all the time. You have to shout back against the Taliban or you must do what you can do to tell the Taliban when they are shooting near your home to go away. The children should not watch this happen forever."
The young men looked at Sayeed, but said nothing.
Rahmatullah, whose 3-year-old daughter had moved in close to him, pulled her near and said, "The Taliban see the roads being built and do not like it. When they shoot our drivers and our roads do not get built, our shops get no customers and our fields get no work done to them.
"I believe that if Panjwai will stand up together against insurgents, we can live better. We can sell our crops and have a safe road to school. This is what we want. But one village cannot do it alone."
One promising sign of exactly what Rahmatullah is talking about occurred last week in Kandahar when hundreds of tribal elders gathered in the provincial capital of Kandahar City to denounce insurgent violence nationwide. The elders also asked that villagers like those living to the east and west of Abdul and Rahmatullah protect themselves by not allowing insurgents to hide among the people.
Government officials too have been vocal in their disgust with insurgent violence.
"Terrorists [are] targeting all those who tirelessly work to benefit the Afghan people," said Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa.
"I have spent the last 30 years fighting for Afghanistan and I know every inch of this district," said Panjwai district Governor Faizludden Agha. "Until the villages stand up and put forward their own representatives to fight for their own security, it will be a much harder job securing every farm and every family in Panjwai."
"Most of us in the villages want security more than anything," a Panjwai elder said during one recent patrol by coalition forces from Special Operations Task Force - South. "We are poor, and we have learned to live off the food we make here."
Panjwai security is improving relative to what the situation had been in recent years, one elder named Ghani said during the same patrol, Feb. 20. The man was being treated by a SOTF-South medic for a laceration to his hand he suffered while redirecting a water channel for his irrigated fields. He and his children have been working to prepare the fields for summer crops like tomatoes, corn and wheat.
"For the last six years, I had not been able to sleep well at night because I was scared for my family, for the people in my village," Ghani said. "Security had not been good and one of my sons lost his leg after stepping on [an improvised explosive device]."
"But I have seen you and your beards almost every day," he told the SOTF-South medic after he had finished dressing the wound. "I sleep in peace now."
"We're not leaving tomorrow," the medic said, "but we're also not going to be here forever. You know we're going to help you while we're here, but it's your kids and the village youth - they're going to need to stand up too."
"Yes, yes," Ghani said, shaking his head. "This is your home," policeman Sayeed added. "You've got to think about how your family can stay safe while we are miles away and a bad guy sneaks up on your doorstep. We will help, but you must consider these things."
"Yes, yes," Ghani said again.
"Think about it," added the medic. "We'll be back tomorrow to check on that hand."