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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Beyond the reach of the peacekeeping soldiers

Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Jan. 22, 2004

PAGHMAN, AFGHANISTAN — Sarwar makes his living each autumn from the harvest of walnuts, which he collects and sells to expatriates taking a day trip to the beautiful western province of Paghman.

"One walnut, one rupee," he says. I buy $1.30 worth. It is too much, but he has a large family to feed.

It is one way that most people in Afghanistan make a living, as they are beyond the reach of the peacekeeping soldiers in Kabul, and the reconstruction and aid money pouring into the capital. But despite the poverty, it is the generous spirit of the poorest people of Afghanistan that is often more striking than all the years of war, the staggering numbers of lives lost, and cities destroyed. Never was it more so than during a visit to Paghman, a 30 minute drive west of Kabul. The expat community and Afghans come here to get away from the unbearable diesel fumes poisoning Kabul's air.

We drove on unpaved road for 30 minutes before finding the perfect spot under a grove of walnut trees nourished by a cold, clear stream that winds its way down from the mountains beyond. Sarwar is the local shepherd whose shoes are one size too small for his feet. He has re-built his large mud house that was destroyed by fighting and lives with his wife, daughter-in-law, son and grandchildren.

He is better off than most farmers.

"I bought my wife for 25,000 rupees and married off my daughter earlier this year for 50,000. I also got an Arab wife for my son, for 25,000 Afghanis," he says.

He is proud of his six cows and about a dozen sheep that run wild in the mountains, drink from the stream and graze on the patches of clover. His granddaughters, the two little shepherd girls, have been taught not to talk to strangers. Girls are vulnerable to the roaming, predatory Mujihadeen soldiers - and run away like shy gazelles when approached.

He insisted I visit his home and have tea with his family. Their house is set on the foot of a hill, and a used scud missile, and a couple of spent rockets are displayed on the mud wall of the courtyard.

"It's for our decoration," explains his daughter in law, Makkhai, a pretty, pale skinned girl in her early 20s.

We walk inside the small room with bare mud walls and a few cushions.

"This is a poor person's house," she says as we sit down with her sister in law. They use the rare visit with a foreigner to explain the hardships in their lives. Makkhai sends her elder son to school but her daughter stays at home.

"Their grandfather won't let her," she explains. "The school is too far away, at least two hour walk. She can't go alone so she will stay home with me."

The women are not allowed to leave the confines of the courtyard.

"We have our food brought her, our clothes, everything. We never leave the house. Even our bracelets are brought her by the woman who sells them in the bazaar."

There is too much work to do anyway, explains the sister in law. She opened her palms. They were stained deep brown, almost black from peeling walnut skins.

Today they are disappointed because there was a rare opportunity to go to a party with other women at a relative's house near the market in town. But it's too far for them to walk so they can't go.

"Do you have a car to take us in?" Makhai asks hopefully.

They insist I stay for supper.

"I would like to welcome you as my guest. Please stay for the evening. We have milk, yoghurt, and crushed walnuts," said Sarwar.

We decline the invitation, as it is getting dark and the roads are not lit. Makkhai gives me a bowlful of dried mulberries to take home, and I wrap it in my scarf before leaving the courtyard.

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