Here in Kabul, Voices co-coordinator Buddy Bell and I are guests at the home of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV) where we've gotten to know four young boys who are being tutored by the Volunteers in the afternoons, having "retired" from their former work as street vendors in exchange for a chance to enter a public school. Five afternoons a week, Murtaza, Rahim, Hamid and Sajad wheel their antiquated bicycles into the APV 'yard.' They shake the hand of each person present and then wash their feet outside the back door before settling into a classroom to study language, maths and art, tutored in each subject by a different Volunteer. They've cycled here from school through heavy traffic, which worries their mothers, but the families cannot afford for the boys to take a public bus.
Today, their mothers are here to observe the class, quietly sipping tea as they watch the two youngest boys practice writing the Dari alphabet (Dari is an official Afghan language) while the older boys, age 12 and 13, take turns reading, in Dari, a chapter about the respiratory system from a primary school science book. The Volunteers hope to help the mothers learn how to tailor, so they can earn a modest income.
Later, the boys play volleyball. When the ball went over the wall, as it often does, three of them switched to a makeshift game of ping-pong using their plastic sandals as paddles, while Rahim climbed to the top of a tree, walked confidently along the ledge of the wall, then jumped about fifteen feet to the ground below to retrieve the volleyball.
Their mothers, Fatima, Nuria and Nekbat, are overjoyed to see the children getting an education. The women smiled as they expressed their thanks for a few hours of quiet in their homes each morning with the young and sometimes mischievous boys away at school. Nuria, the youngest, is mother of Rahim and Hamid. She hopes they can escape the tragedy that has befallen her husband who has become addicted to opium. By washing clothes, she earns a small income to support the family.
Fatima, Murtaza's mother, takes care of Murtaza's father at home - an earlier illness having left her husband paralyzed from the waist down. Most of Fatima's right hand is scarred by a burn that happened while she was baking bread in a tandoor oven.
Nekbat, Sajad's mother, appears to be in her late forties. Recalling her own years growing up in Kabul during earlier Afghan wars, she speaks about family members then also being without work. There was little food and children couldn't go to school. Eventually, her parents, displaced by war, took the family to seek refuge in Iran. Nuria remembers fleeing as a child from one area of Kabul to another, running from killings and attacks waged by Massoud, Gulbuddin and others.
The women still hear stories of people fleeing attacks in the Hazarajat area, where Kuchi and Hazara groups are fighting, and they know many people who have recently arrived in Kabul as refugees from areas gripped by war. The fighting has increased in the past few years. Previously, borders were porous and people could flee. Now the borders appear to be closing.
The mothers teach their children that war is always wrong, that it brings sorrow, and that the children should find productive work rather than enlist to fight, as so many do on all sides of this conflict, often because they want to help feed their families.
In Afghanistan, "women have a bad situation," says Fatima. "We are illiterate, and we can't find work that will help us meet expenses."
They pay one- to two-thousand Afghanis a month for rent. Their homes are compounds where several families share one kitchen. Bread, potatoes, and tea without sugar constitute their normal daily meals.
Fatima recalls the past winter which was particularly harsh. They couldn't afford fuel and had to find other ways to keep warm. But, Nuria adds, every season presents constant problems and it is always difficult for the family to make ends meet. Asked whether they could recall ever getting a day off from work, the women answer in unison, "No."
When asked what they think of the notion that the US is protecting Afghan women, Nekbat says that whatever officials might claim in this regard, they are bringing no help. These women have seen no improvement in Afghanistan, and neither, they claim, has anyone they know. They don't mix in the circles of those most likely to meet and speak with Western journalists, and poverty and the uncertainties of war seem to dictate their lives more surely than any government. The women tell me all foreign money is lost to corruption – no-one in their communities sees it going to the people.