Photo: United Nations Photo/Eric Kanalstein

The Surf Report From Kandahar

by Shannon Galpin Feb 22, 2014

Here’s the situation report in Kandahar today…not quite the same as the surf report I wish I were hearing while “California Dreamin'” runs through my head as I drive into Kandahar City. While the dusty, desert landscape in no way inspires thoughts of beach vacations, the sunshine and warmer temperatures make Kandahar feel positively tropical after the freezing rains that have dominated the last two weeks in Kabul.

I’m sitting in the back of a Toyota Corolla, digesting the news that was just shared, that my Kabul guesthouse is again on the latest hit list for the suicide bombers. Not great news following the newest rumor that NDIS had reported 10 Kandahari suicide bombers have entered Kabul in the past couple of days.

Glad I’m not there right now and am figuring out where to spend my last few days in Kabul. I could move to another guesthouse, but it’s kind of a crap shoot — I move, and it could very well be into the next target. They are all targets right now.

Kandahar is a difficult province to work in. The security risk is off the charts compared to the north where I spend most of my time, and that in itself makes it difficult for any NGO to get work done in the village-to-village approach I favor. There’s also the knowledge that as the Helmand offensive transfers control of the province to the Afghan government, the focus turns to Kandahar province. But there is a women’s prison here that I’ve wanted to visit, and things fell into place to make it possible for the first look.

The warmer temperatures I welcomed when I got off the airplane are quickly banished once we’re on the road. Wearing a burqa in a car doesn’t allow for a lot of oxygen to circulate. I keep lifting the front of my bluebird straightjacket and waving it back and forth. Focusing through the net also takes some getting used to. Causes quite the headache. It’s one thing doing it for a short period of time at nothing in particular, but quite another when trying to really focus or watch the scene unfolding outside my window.

It’s 25km to the city on the most dangerous road in the province.

Men in earth-colored shalwar kameez, large shawls, and turbans whiz by on their motorcycles, looking like something out of a Mad Max movie, the wind billowing their shawls dramatically against the desert landscape. Very few women are seen until we get closer to the outskirts of the city. They wear burqas of all different colors: sage green, pale green, and a light brown outnumber the traditional bluebird. Even their blue is a slightly darker, less vibrant hue. The muted tones are gorgeous but certainly add to the heavy feel of the active city.

It’s 25km to the city on the most dangerous road in the province. It connects not just the airport but the military airfield to the city. Lots of attacks, IED, and car bombs aimed at hitting foreigners and convoys. Last week the bridge was attacked with a car bomb when a military convoy went past. As we drive past, Mohammad points it out. Not like he has to — one whole lane is missing.

As we drive, Mohammad quickly moves past the formal niceties of, “How is Kandahar?” “Kandahar is very good, thank you,” to the realities. “The burqa is a necessity not just for culture, but for kidnapping. The Taliban is not the biggest danger for you, kidnapping is.” Hence the burqa anywhere outside the airport or hotel. The hotel I’m staying at is the only one for foreigners in Kandahar — and as such, remains a target. It was attacked only a month ago by a horse-drawn carriage loaded with explosives. The road that leads to the girls school behind the hotel had three mines discovered in one day a couple weeks ago. Several government officials were assassinated recently. The list continues…. I still feel quite calm, but my radar is definitely buzzing.

The surf report it is not.

This is the province where in November, 2008, several schoolgirls were attacked with acid as they walked to school. Where the Afghans believe, “He who controls Kandahar, controls Afghanistan.” It’s the key to the country, and a fierce battle is brewing. The desire to educate anyone, boy or girl, is met with resistance in most of the province. It’s only the key cities like Kandahar City that have schools, healthcare, and internet. Outside of the city centers, it’s a wasteland. Women have little or no rights, girls can’t attend school, and the little schooling boys have is typically in a madrasa. The blue burqa I brought from Kabul is deemed a little ‘risque’ for Kandahar, as it’s only a half burqa in the front. It’s pretty telling of a community’s view on women’s rights when you can feel whoreish in a burqa.

It’s amazing to me that the Taliban can retain power and control when it puts the lives of its own people in the crosshairs of ideology. Mohammad talks about the irony of the terrorists calling themselves Taliban. The Taliban were originally religious scholars. Yet the majority of the Taliban community today are “common people,” illiterate, unable to even read the holy book they’re so invested in.

Instead, leaders with their own aims can interpret the original teachings however they like and instill that interpretation, however mutated, into the heads of young boys — forever polluting the already muddy waters, and stunting any room for the future growth of Afghanistan. Further ensuring that those we wish to empower will remain helpless victims of their own countrymen.

It may be a pipe dream that I can affect any change for good within the women’s prison in Kandahar without the security or access we’ve experienced in other areas of the country. But dream or not, it’s one worth chasing.

This post was originally published at The Long Way Round and is reprinted here with permission.

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