In November 2010, I spent just under a month teaching video journalism to a group of 16 to 22 year olds selected by the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
All of them were fluent in English. Most of them had done at least a year as a student in high school in the US and some were planning to return for college. In almost every way they were atypical young Afghans, better educated, better connected, better prepared for the 21st century.
Although they came from many different corners of Afghanistan: Herat in the west, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz in the North, Jalalabad in the east and Kandahar in the south, the majority were from Kabul, the capital city. All of them shared a deep commitment to an Afghan national identity, and like most urban and urbane Afghans they shared connections through not-all-that-extended families to rural areas and the tribal culture that defines them.
They all knew that mere mileage couldn’t begin to measure the differences between city and country life in Afghanistan, and they knew that for all the shades of religious commitment from devout or fundamentalist to detached or out and out secular, and of all the kinds of family ties, from complete integration in tribal or clan networks to real devotion devoted mostly to their nuclear families, they were caught in a country at war with itself along lines that often reduced to just country versus city.
This was almost 8 years ago, and continues to be today, a war with almost no winners and many, many losers, a war whose latest iteration has now been going on for 17 years, but really reaches back for generations. Then and now, it seems to be a war without end.
But all my students knew something else: which side they were on – the side of modernity, of economic development and personal liberty. Another thing they all shared: they all knew they had a lot to learn, and they wanted to learn as much as possible.
I was very moved by their curiosity, their ambition, their discipline.
Our big exercise was a day shooting short stories on video on various aspects of Afghanistan as illustrated by the people at the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul. There were a lot of stories, from the new jobs being created for uneducated Afghans in service work at the hotel, to the new higher-paying jobs for better-educated Afghans, like airline pilots and flight attendants, who boarded at the InterCon, to the intricacies of the hotel’s defensive security. In fact, that’s why we went there; because it was safe.
7 months after we had our day doing video journalism, the Kabul InterContinental was attacked by Taliban terrorists and 28 people –hotel staff and guests, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, were killed.
All of my students, some of whom have gone into journalism or related fields, have survived the years of paramilitary attacks and suicide bombings in Kabul since we were together.
But, ready as they have made themselves to help Afghanistan progress through the 21st Century, it’s still an open question as to whether their beloved homeland will ultimately be survivable for them and their fellow modernizing strivers.
Samim Faramarz did not survive. A reporter for Tolo TV News, the top-rated television channel in Afghanistan, he was killed by a second explosion set off to kill journalists and first responders who had come to the scene of an earlier bombing at a wrestling club.
Pamela Constable is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She previously served as a South Asia bureau chief and most recently covered immigration in the Washington area for several years. Her books on Pakistan and South Asia, Fragments of Grace and Playing With Fire have been very well reviewed, with the latter being regarded as one of the most authoritative analyses of Pakistan in print.