Contemporary Relevance

Ongoing Brutality in Kabul, Afghanistan

KABUL — A brother’s sandals. A flag of Afghanistan. A daughter’s favorite toy.

These are some of the remnants of lives lost to violence.

The prosaic belongings, collected in handmade wooden containers, are displayed in the frigid basement of a house in Kabul. They are the possessions of the dead, lovingly preserved by family members of Afghans killed during the past 40 years of conflict.

An exhibition of these everyday items — from scarves and robes to teacups and poems — seeks to memorialize a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have died violently since 1979 in Afghanistan, a country that rarely pauses to remember its victims.

Each so-called memory box includes a narrative composed by loved ones about the life lost, making each tragedy personal.

“We want the story written by the victims themselves,” said Hadi Marifat, director of the Afghanistan Center for Memory and Dialogue, where the exhibition, which opened in February, is housed.

Countless Afghan families have been shattered by violence, but the civilian dead are often forgotten and forsaken by everyone but their closest relatives, even as combatants — warlords, commanders, fighters — are lionized as martyrs in billboards and posters.


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The Importance of Kite Running as a Sport in Afghanistan

KABUL — The kites appear suddenly, whimsical flashes of color that kick above this beige landscape of relentless dust and desperation.

They reveal themselves, like dragonflies, at the most unexpected moments: through the window of a grim government office, beyond the smoke curling from the debris left by a suicide bomb, above the demoralizing gridlock of traffic and poverty. To a new arrival in this chaotic city of three million, they are unexpected and wonderfully incongruous.

Banned during the Taliban regime, kite flying is once again the main recreational escape for Afghan boys and some men. (It still remains largely off-limits to girls and women.) And with the American release Friday of the film “The Kite Runner,” based on the best-selling novel of the same name, a much wider audience will be introduced to Afghan kite culture.

Following a kite’s string to its source will most likely lead to an Afghan boy standing on top of his roof or in an empty lot, playing the line in deep concentration.

But this is not the stuff of idle afternoons or, as in American culture, carefree picnics in the park. This is war. The sole reason for kites, Afghans will tell you, is to fight them, and a single kite aloft is nothing but an unspoken challenge to a neighbor: Bring it on!

The objective of the kite fight is to slice the other flier’s string with your own, sending the vanquished aircraft to the ground. Kite-fighting string is coated with a resin made of glue and finely crushed glass, which turns it into a blade.

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Afghanistan Refugee Crisis

Shortly after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a village called Rozay Qala was blitzed out of existence. At the time, Momin Gul was a farmer in his early thirties, living with his extended family and he recalls: “A mujahed [resistance fighter] was hiding in the village. Soviet troops came to find him. He shot one of them. After this, they opened fire indiscriminately, killing more than 300 villagers in a single day.”

A rocket hit Momin Gul’s uncle’s house. “We all wanted to go and see what had happened to the house and its inhabitants, but our parents wouldn’t let us. Only my father went to help. When he returned, he sat in a corner. The only word he would utter was ‘Nothing … nothing,’” Momin Gul said. “I woke in the night and heard my mother and father weeping. Nobody had survived. The entire family disappeared in dust and ashes. The poor souls were burnt alive.”

The story of Momin Gul’s uncle and his family is tragically commonplace in Afghanistan. Thousands of other Afghan villages similar to Rozay Qala were partially or utterly destroyed during the 10-year Soviet occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were killed. During the eight years of civil war that have followed the Soviet withdrawal, that figure has probably risen to more than one million dead, with hundreds of thousands more permanently disabled.

By the end of 1979, 400,000 Afghans had fled to Pakistan and another 200,000 to Iran. By the end of the following year, the total number of Afghan refugees had risen to 1.9 million – the biggest single group of refugees in the world. As the country developed into the last and worst of the Cold War proxy battlefields, the numbers of refugees kept climbing. From 1985 to 1990, when they finally peaked at a staggering 6.2 million in Iran and Pakistan alone, Afghan refugees consistently supplied just under half the world’s total refugee population.

In 1997, with 2.7 million remaining in Iran, Pakistan and other countries in the region, Afghans have the unhappy distinction of remaining UNHCR’s biggest single refugee caseload in the world for the 17th year in succession.

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The Kite Runner Adapted into Film

Much like the best-selling novel on which it’s based, “The Kite Runner tells the story of an Afghan refugee who, long after arriving in America, sifts through memories of his cosseted childhood, his emotionally remote father, his devoted best friend, the kites they flew and the stories they shared. The back of my paperback copy of this Khaled Hosseini novel is sprinkled with words like “powerful” and “haunting” and “riveting” and “unforgettable.” It’s a good guess that this film will be rolled around in a similarly large helping of lard.

There’s another word on the back of my copy: “genuine.” The portrait of Afghan culture broadly painted by its narrator, a 38-year-old novelist known as Amir (played in the film by the Scottish-born Khalid Abdalla), certainly seems like the real deal, a sense of authenticity underscored by the book’s evocation of the Afghan diaspora in America, its descriptions of traditions and rituals and the numerous italicized words like “Kocheh-Morgha” (“Chicken Bazaar”) and “Shirini-khori” (“ ‘Eating of the Sweets’ ceremony”). That said, it is difficult to believe in the authenticity of any book (and its author) in which a born and bred Afghan narrator asks of the Taliban — as this one does in June 2001 — “Is it as bad as I hear?” David Benioff’s clumsy screenplay doesn’t broadcast its political naïveté as openly, but only because the filmmakers seem to assume that unlike the book’s readers, the movie audience doesn’t care about such matters. Mr. Benioff gestures in the direction of Communists and mullahs, the Soviet invaders and the Taliban insurgents, but none of these players figure into the story in any meaningful fashion. The director Marc Forster, following the script’s lead, scrupulously avoids politics and history — there are no causes or positions, just villains and horrors — and instead offers us a succession of atmospheric, realistic landscapes, colorful sights and smiling boys. And kites. Lots and lots of bobbing, darting, high-flying kites.

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Danny Burke ’19

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