All the Country Will Be Shaking

Article excerpt

Watch the suit run, the boys chasing him. War orphans, some of them, others carrying their younger siblings, polio afflicted, across their shoulders, hands outstretched. "Money, mister," they beg. Clutching his jacket, his shirt, they are a locust swarm of impoverished children driving this foreigner (diplomat, aid worker, contractor, who knows?) to madness. Shirttail flapping, he tosses money from his pocket, flees past the stylish storefront mannequins of Crystal Light Fashions and Jacque Fashion, past the trays of cream puffs in the windows of Sheikh Nabal Bakery, and dodges around the red-striped concrete security barriers at Safi Landmark Hotel and Suites.

At last he bursts through its gilt-framed doors. The lobby yawns before the boys and they tilt their heads back and follow the diamond-shaped glass elevator as it rises eight floors above the marble lobby. When the doors close again, their reflection hangs trapped in glass. "Tomorrow, you give us five dollar," one of the boys shouts.

Armed guards, scowling and agitated, shoo the boys back with the ducttaped butts of their battered Kalashnikovs, "Burol Buro!" Go! Go! And the boys scatter, the suit's money choked in their hands. They proceed down the road, across the street from the new, blue-tinted Kam Air building. They squint, eye one another, ready to steal from the group's weaker members if the opportunity presents.

Then they see me and stop. "Nay, not this outsider," my Afghan colleague Aziz tells them in Dari. "Bugger off." Our companion, Ahmad Shah Marofi, echoes the soldiers' order: "Buro."

We are looking for a twelve-year-old boy named Hamid, one of Ahmad's students from Aschiana-literally "the nest," a school for street children. Ahmad tells me that Hamid knows everyone on the streets of Kabul. I'm hoping he can help me find my boys, my six war orphans, my old students. When I last saw them, they were thirteen. We finally find Hamid, and I show him the photograph from 2004, but he just shrugs. Maybe he knows them. He can't say for sure. He crooks a finger, and I follow.

Ahmad does not recognize them, either. "I'm sorry," he says. "I don't know them. We see so many." He pats my shoulder, and his resigned look tells me what I already know. Look around: The streets of Kabul are filled with orphans. I put the photograph away.

I left Kabul in October 2004, when Hamid Karzai became Afghanistan's first democratically elected president, when what most of us hoped would be a successful democratic regime was launched in the wake of the Taliban's defeat. As a journalist, I had turned my attention to Iraq, the next immediate disaster and career-making opportunity. Afghanistan, I reasoned, could do without me. There would be much less violence, much less poverty, and my boys, I thought, could do without me, too. Judging by the state of things today, I was wrong. This spring I watched an evening report on CNN about the inroads the Taliban had made around Kabul, and I decided to come back, to see if my optimism had been misplaced. Mostly, I felt guilty. I needed to find those boys.

When I arrive at my Kabul hotel, the staff warns me not to drive outside the city limits, where suicide bombings, kidnappings, roadside bombs, and violent crime are part of everyday life in this Texas-size nation of about thirty million. The Taliban move with impunity throughout the country, I am told. International aid organizations travel in heavily guarded convoys whenever they have to navigate undefended territory. The old regime, people whisper, is a threatening shadow behind every tree on the highway. The violence caused by the continuing insurgency took an estimated 3,700 lives in the last year alone. Fifty thousand foreign troops, led by US military and NATO forces, have been unable to quash the resurgent Taliban. Civilian casualties-including children wounded or killed in NATO forces' retaliatory strikes against insurgents-have only increased resentment toward foreigners. …