(This is the story I wrote about my friend from Afghanistan for our college newspaper – the Mountaineer.)
Children from other parts of the world, at the age of eleven, might have had a hard time even to understand what really war is. Asadhullah (Asad) Sohail was eleven years old when the United States government declared war on his land, Afghanistan, in 2001. Unlike children of his age from other countries, he had already been through civil wars and several invasions by foreign armies. The ongoing war the U.S. army and its allies have fought against terrorism in his land has yet to be brought to an end.
“There was never peace. My whole childhood passed in wars,” Asad, who is a freshman student at Green Mountain College, said in his talk on the anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Asad was born shortly after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 after fighting with the Mujahideens, who carried out “jihad” which basically means “sacrifice or struggle.” The resistant movements of local Mujahideens were significantly financed and armed by the U.S. government as a part of their zeal to stop the expansion of Soviet communism.
Although Soviet troops left Afghanistan, regional warlords were fighting each other for the greater power. Civil wars became more intense even after the withdrawal.
Like many other Afghan families, Asad and his family had been through hard times during the unsettled fights among regional warlords. However, his education and the business of his family had not been interrupted until the Taliban, a religious extremist group based in Pakistan, entered the unruly country for the new armed movement in the middle of the 1990s. “Before the Taliban’s invasion, my father had a grocery shop and the business was good. My mother and elder sister also had jobs: weaving carpets and making handicrafts,” recalled Asad.
Fleeing their houses and seeking refuge in mountain areas, Afghanistan people became refugees inside the country under the Taliban. “The Taliban entered towns after towns. They destroyed houses. They captured and shot everyone who could not escape. My uncle was among the casualties killed by the Taliban. He was survived by his wife and ten children,” said Asad.
Two centuries-old giant statues of Buddha, listed as a World Heritage site by the UNESCO, was among the destruction the Taliban carried out, by saying that the statues were against their practice. “I was in the fourth grade when my family was forced to flee our village, Surkhqull in Bamiyan Province, out of the fear of the Taliban,” recalled Asad, who is now 19 years old.
The Taliban, who are majority Sunni Muslims, also committed ethnic cleansing crimes against ethnic Hazara people, who are Shi’a Muslims. Being an ethnic Hazara family, Asad said that his family had to face threats not just from the Taliban, but also from some Sunni Muslims.
During the three-year period in hiding, Asadhullah’s family sought refuge in mosques in northern mountain areas of the country. “Under the Taliban government, all schools had to close down. We all were in hiding and children do not get even play time. We had to move from one village to another because the Taliban were following us. My parents could not run their business anymore and family did not have income anymore. We had to survive on the mere food we could afford,” Asad recalled the painful memories of those years steadily.
At the age of nine, Assadhullah had been walking miles along mountains with his parents to collect firewood. “As there was no power supply, we had to store firewood to cook and to burn them during winters to keep ourselves warm as well,” said Asad.
Keeping local farms’ sheep was a part-time job for the young Asad in those years. “Local farmers hired me to take care of their sheep. It was how I kept myself occupied. At least I had something to do during those oppressive years,” noted Asad.
After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government launched the war on terrorism on the soil of Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban government, because it allowed Al-Qaeda to establish its headquarters in the country.
In the post-Taliban era, thousands of Afghanistan children, including Asad and his younger siblings, went back to school for the first time after the years-long interruption. However, the lives of many young children, like Asad’s eldest sister, would never be the same. “Being the eldest daughter in family, my sister decided not to go back to school and started working to send us, the younger siblings, to school.” said Asad.
After finishing tenth grade in Afghanistan, Asad was selected to study in the United States, along with 39 other Afghan students, under the one-year exchange program funded by the U.S. government. He won another scholarship to study at Lyndon Institute in Vermont for the following year and graduated high school from the institute in May 2009.
Asad joined Green Mountain College after winning the college’s prestigious full-ride Make a Difference Scholarship. He is studying Business and Economics. “When I arrived in the United States, I was so happy I could study in classrooms with professors, and other facilities. I can also play soccer,” said Asad. “In my entire school life in Afghanistan, I’ve not studied in a classroom. We do not have enough classrooms – tents are our classrooms. During winter times, schools have to close down because they do not have electricity,” said Asad, who has already set a plan to get his Master and Ph.D. degrees in Political Science before going back and building a career in politics in his country. Asad said that thousands of children across the country are still studying in overcrowded classrooms or tents. Many schools do not have enough number of teachers. “A single teacher has to handle two or three classrooms at the same time,” noted Asad.
More U.S. troops have moved in over the years to fight for victory on the land where no alien army had ever won a war. However, changes have yet to improve the lives of young Afghanis. Eight years after the U.S. began its invasion, the Obama administration was advised in September to send thousands of additional troops to the areas of ethnic Pashtun. If the decision is approved, the consequences will certainly deprive the prospect of peace in Afghanistan, which is what Asad and his siblings have dreamed of their entire lives.