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Voices of war and hope

The children of Afghanistan have never known peace in their own country. They are seldom heard, but

Dusk is falling over Kabul, and for Mortazar, a 17-year-old boy with an easy smile and a red waistcoat, it's time to go home. The silhouette of "TV Mountain", with its dense thicket of broadcasting towers, dominates the skyline. Every day, Mortazar stands for ten hours on one of Kabul's busiest streets, amid CD stalls and shop mannequins, hawking mobile phone top-up cards. He makes about $5 a day. "Nowadays I've almost lost interest in becoming something else," he says. "Maybe I'll be an interpreter if I can improve my English - or perhaps a footballer."

Afghanistan, seen through the eyes of its children, is a difficult mix of hope and hardship. Forty-seven per cent of Afghanistan's 33 million people are under 14. They have never known peace in their own country. Mortazar's family, tempted back to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, is now struggling to survive in a dysfunctional city. The billions of dollars of reconstruction aid sloshing around have not touched their lives. "Because of the economic problems, I have to work," he says, "and everything is getting more expensive. Four years ago I was a refugee in Iran - at least there I could go to school."

With winter approaching, the poor are preparing for the cold. Chronic power shortages, exacerbated by a long-running drought, which has reduced the amount of power generated by hydroelectric dams, mean that families must make do with just a few hours of electricity each day. Most cannot afford generators and many will be unable to buy firewood.

"The government doesn't care for anyone," says Mortazar. "It's just stealing money and doing everything for itself. When the foreigners are watching, they behave. But as soon as backs are turned they just take whatever it is - blankets, food, whatever - and sell it. I've seen it happen. My sister has, too. A charity came to her school and started giving out stationery: when the foreigners left, the rest just went missing."

Saleem, a slight, ten-year-old boy with kohl smudges beneath his eyes, is more sanguine. "Whatever you say about it," he says, referring to the government, "it's better than the Taliban." His cousin Fareed doesn't comment. He is absorbed in trying to mend a battered bicycle wheel.

Fareed's bicycle repair shop is located on a dusty slip road not far from Kabul airport. Chickens scratch for food in the rubbish strewn all around, and the neighbourhood of mud and brick houses that stretches out behind is one of Kabul's poorest. "I'm open early morning until late at night," he announces proudly, glancing up at a sky pierced by a single, bright star. With calloused hands, an oily salwar kameez and serious eyes, Fareed looks older than his 15 years. He did not grow up; he was just forced by circumstance to become an adult. He doesn't go to school and his business brings in, on average, a dollar a day. "Things are not great right now," he concedes, struggling with an inflated inner tube. "But they'll soon be looking up." "The next few years are going to be good," Saleem agrees with enthusiasm, though he is unable to say why they will be good.

All the signs are that they won't be good. The insurgents, with safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas, are well-resourced and growing stronger. Robbers and kidnappers operate with impunity and Afghans travelling by road are sometimes stopped by militants and searched for any evid ence of involvement with foreign companies or NGOs: the wrong business card in your wallet or number in your mobile phone can get you killed.

President Hamid Karzai, up for re-election in 2009, is widely perceived as indecisive and his government as corrupt. Politicians have built mansions in wealthy Kabul neighbourhoods such as Sher Pur, and Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali, has been accused of involvement in opium trafficking, which he denies. Last month's cabinet reshuffle came too late to inspire much confidence and relations with the British have been poisoned by a series of incidents, notably Karzai's refusal in January to accept Lord Paddy Ashdown's appointment as UN envoy in Afghanistan. The police, riddled with corruption, are in desperate need of reform, and the Afghan army, though improving, is still under-strength and unreliable.

Civilian casualties have eroded public support for Nato troops and it remains to be seen if, under Barack Obama, the troop surge will make things better or worse. Leaks and contradictory statements from the Afghan government and its western allies reveal uncertainty and division. Tentative negotiations in Saudi Arabia have shown that the militants are in no mood for deal-making - this winter, there may be no respite before the inevitable spring offensive.

Along way from the bustle, dust and razor wire of Kabul, villagers in Keshem, a district in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan, are gathering the harvest. Donkeys smothered beneath thick loads of fresh hay are driven along narrow roads hemmed in by high mud walls and clear, fast-flowing irrigation channels. The fertile Keshem valley, once famous for its poppies, is at peace.

At Jari Shah Baba girls' school, the tranquil sound of children learning Dari - a variant of the Persian language spoken in northern and western Afghanistan - by rote drifts in through the open windows of one of the classrooms. Out of a class of 15 girls aged 13, all in neat white headscarves, just one has a mother who went to school. But there is change, largely because of economic reasons. The girls here say that their fathers now support them going to school and, when asked what they would like to be when they finish studying, most shout out "doctor", "teacher" or "engineer". Educated girls make more money.

Two new school buildings are under construction with money raised by Afghan Connection, a British charity that, working closely with the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, has so far financed the building of 30 schools for more than 30,000 children. Jari Shah Baba is one of many good news stories that can be found in Afghanistan.

Children hurry along corridors and play in the grounds outside. The air of eager optimism, in and out of the classroom, is unmistakable. "We want to work to improve Afghanistan so that it can be like other countries," is the line often repeated, but always with conviction.

The students say they are not worried about security and seem unwilling to think about it. "I used to watch the news," says one of the girls. "But it's always bombing and killing. We're bored with the fighting - we don't want to hear about it any more. I prefer to watch Indian soap operas."

Still, even in Badakhshan, the indicators of war are all around. Empty shell casings do for school bells, old Soviet tanks lie sunk in the grass, and red and green flags flutter by the roadside (marking landmines and martyrs' graves). Many Afghan officials predict that it is only a matter of time until the insurgency spreads this far north. But for now, thoughts are on future dreams.

"I want to go to university and study medicine," says 19-year-old Zulfiya. "But it's difficult." Zulfiya is fortunate to have her father's support. Of the 1,150 students at Jari Shah Baba, approximately 400 are married and many of these are already looking after their first child. Burkhas, belonging to the older girls, hang inside classrooms ready for the journey home. Expressive faces vanish suddenly behind blue nylon. For those able to compete for a place at one of Afghanistan's few state-run universities, competition is stiff. Last year, 35,000 students took the entrance exam; there was space for 10,000.

Kourban, a student from Sang Boran boys' school in nearby Baghlan province, is not worried about passing the exam - he has always been top of his class - he is worried about paying for his studies. "I'll face a lot of financial problems," he says. "I know people who dropped out after one or two years at university because they couldn't afford it."

Neither of his parents went to school and just one of his three older brothers can read and write. The family makes its living farming and there isn't enough left over to support a son studying in the city. Now aged 20, Kourban has had to spend time catching up on school years missed during the fighting.

Through Afghan Connection, his school is "twinned" to Eton College: the students exchange gifts and letters in order to attain a mutual understanding. Kourban's demeanour is usually one of calm determination but, when confronted by photographs of Eton's grand architecture and oddly attired students, he is momentarily bemused. "Can I have a scholarship?" he asks, eventually.

Like many Afghans, Kourban believes that Afghan istan would collapse in all-out war if the foreign troops were to leave. His attitude is pragmatic: "We don't have a military force capable of controlling the country," he says. "So for now, it's better for the foreigners to stay."

Others are not so sure: "If the foreigners went away, I think the problems would go with them," says Abdu Rahmin, a 14-year-old boy from Khost, a troubled province in the east that borders North Waziristan, one of Pakistan's most militant-run tribal agencies. "A roadside bomb exploded when foreign troops were driving past my school. My friend was injured in the blast; now I'm always scared something will happen."

His story, and lasting anxiety, is not unique. “My sister-in-law was killed in a bomb blast,” says Nabila, a 13-year-old girl, also from Khost. “When I go to school, I am afraid there will be a bomb on the way; when I get there I start worrying about my father – especially when he goes to the city because there are lots of security problems there.”

Afghanistan's children have learnt the vocabulary of war. When talking about violence, they quickly reduce their experiences to specifics. Terms like "security", "suicide attack" and "roadside bomb" are deftly employed by children younger than Nabila and Abdu Rahmin. These are the words used to describe their world.

"The Afghan government cannot make 30 per cent security for the people," says Abdu Rahmin, angrily. "That is the big failure and disappointment. The Taliban were bad: they didn't like music or fashionable clothes, but the one important point is that when they were in charge, we were safe."

Nabila is not interested in taking sides. Her father is old and she has no brothers to help support the family. She is worried about money, and about losing her parents and maybe being blown up. But, when asked how she compares life under the Taliban with life now, she answers without hesitation: "In the Taliban time, there was security; in this time, no." She is equally matter of fact when asked about the foreign soldiers: "I don't know about them any more. Since they came to Afghanistan, there has been more killing."

Across the border in Pakistan, a tilted half-moon hangs in the black sky above Aza Khel Afghan refugee camp in Nowshera, a district of the North-West Frontier Province, and the call to prayer rings out over the vast community of flat-roofed mud houses. People here are deeply distrustful of western involvement in Afghanistan. Militants hide among the houses.

"They say there is a problem in Afghanistan and that they are there to fix it," says Hairullah, a confident 16-year-old boy whose family originally came from Nangrahar, a province in eastern Afghanistan. "Then they say there is another problem, so they need to stay. It's obvious the soldiers are just there to cover Afghanistan and make it part of the United States."

His brothers nod in agreement. Hairullah is one of more than three million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. He has visited Afghanistan just once, four years ago. The camp is located next to a river on the other side of the railway tracks that run along the main road. Floods regularly damage the houses and conditions are basic, but at least there is mains electricity most of the time. Many of the 9,000 families living in Aza Khel have been here as long as 30 years. Despite this, the atmosphere is one of uncertainty and impermanence.

For Hairullah, there is no question of staying. "As soon as I am a doctor," he says, "I am going back to Afghanistan to help my people. I want to make my country strong."

"I'm going, too!" interrupts his brother, Zaidullah, a small, outspoken 11-year-old. He is dressed in a turquoise salwar kameez.

"I don't like being away from my homeland. When I am taller, I am going back to help my country."

Sam Alexandroni was awarded a 2008 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. For more information on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust visit http://wcmt.org.uk

For more information on Afghan Connection visit http://afghanconnection.org

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue