In early January, four young Afghan Peace Volunteer members, Zainab, Umalbanin, Abdulhai, and Ali, guided Martha and me along narrow, primitive roads and crumbling stairs, ascending a mountain slope on the outskirts of Kabul. The icy, rutted roads twisted and turned. I asked if we could pause as my heart was hammering and I needed to catch my breath. Looking down, we saw a breathtaking view of Kabul. Above us, women in bright clothing were navigating the treacherous roads with heavy water containers on their heads or shoulders. I marveled at their strength and tenacity. "Yes, they make this trip every morning," Umalbanin said, as she helped me regain my balance after I had slipped on the ice.
About ten minutes later, we arrived at the home of Khoreb, a widow who helped us realize why so many widows and orphans live in the highest ranges of the mountain. Landlords rent one-room homes at the cheapest rates when they are at this isolating height; many of the homes are poorly constructed and have no pipes for running water. This means the occupants, most often women, must fetch water from the bottom of the hill each and every morning. A year ago, piped water began to reach some of the homes, but that only meant the landlords charged higher rent, so women had to move higher up the mountain for housing they can afford. It only made their daily water-carrying longer and more arduous.
Khoreb's home, like that of each family we visited, was neatly kept. She had formerly shared the one-room dwelling with only her daughter. But when the one-room house next door was rendered unlivable by water damage from a storm, the family of eight that lived there had nowhere to go. On Khoreb's invitation, they now live in her room.
Throughout our visit, she and her daughters cracked open almond nuts, and they didn't throw away the shells: they saved them to feed them into a small heater; the nut shells are needed as fuel. They didn't snack on the almonds; the almonds were shelled for eventual sale in the market place. Cracking and selling almonds is their main source of income. The women have no brothers, sons, or husbands to help them.
None of the families we visited could afford coal or wood to heat their homes. Most of them scavenge for plastic and paper to burn in their small heaters. Overnight, temperatures in Kabul are ranging from the mid-teens to zero degrees.
Homes on the mountainside are poorly constructed. The families we visited told us that when it snows overnight, they awake to find piles of snow inside their homes. Throughout the winter, they are almost always cold and hungry.
The Afghan Peace Volunteers told the families that they are working together with women tailors (from around their working class neighborhood in Kabul) to produce duvets, heavy blankets stuffed with wool which provide protection against the deadly Afghan winter. Each of 30 seamstresses produces four duvets every two days. Internationals have donated materials and the seamstresses' modest wages, and the duvets are then distributed free of charge to the poor.
The APVs have received many suggestions about families in need. Rather than issue a general invitation for people to come and get duvets, which would likely lead to terrific confusion, they have instead fanned out in teams of two to four, to visit families and learn about their situations. We were on the mountain as one of these teams.
Zainab gently asked Khoreb how she manages to get food. Khoreb tells her that they don't have enough to eat, but they try to sell as many almonds as possible and sometimes they can wash and iron clothes for their neighbors. Umalbanin met with her aunt on the road, who quickly ushered us into her home and then introduced us to several of her neighbors, all of them women with no husband or breadwinner on which they could depend.
Yet the community up here seems agreed - we heard it mentioned at some point during each visit - that their greatest need and greatest hope is to somehow give their children an education.
"The main problem for our family is that the children can't go to school," said Fatima, who can afford to send one child to school, but only one. The others have to help support the family. Three of the smaller children work making carpets every day, so that there will be money to feed all of them. "We feel sorry for this, but they must help us find money to buy bread."
My young friend (and APV volunteer) Abdulhai told me about a family he had visited a few days earlier for the Duvet Project, a family whose 17 year old daughter is his own age. The girl didn't tell Abdulhai that she and her mother were both beggars. The neighbors told him after his visit; with the reestablishment of the opium trade, her father had become a drug addict and has now gone back to Iran. Now the mother and grandmother have nothing and must go to the mosque and other places to beg. "I asked her if she is willing to study," Abdulhai said, "and she told me she wants to be part of classes at the APV home."
Moving up in the world generally means gaining a foothold on a ladder, on a steep upward slope, in some system built on the idea that the terror of poverty and the dream of extreme wealth are all that can motivate people to share their labor and inventiveness with each other. These systems in turn foster the idea that those who already have so much are entitled to get even more. The women I visited today are moving on up; single desperate mothers with children moving up the slope into a cold vacuum, fleeing the streets and daily business of a city that can't feed or use them. Decades of war in Afghanistan have forced these women upward. They don't know how they will ever get back down.
My four young friends, bright and compassionate, who educate themselves daily about the simple, dedicated life - the yearning for, and the laborious struggle for, a better world - are moving on up these mountains to comfort and aid the desperate, the widowed women and their children, who have been abandoned there. They are discovering that the promised land of adulthood, and the corrupt and dangerous city which the U.S./NATO coalition have done so much to build, is an unequal, violent world they need to resist, step by step.