Nine-year-old Zahra was orphaned after coalition forces bombed her village in a remote area of western Afghanistan last year. The attack killed 90 people, 60 of them children. Two days after the bombing, Sharafuodin Stanakzai, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, noticed a little girl dancing among the dead and decided to interview her.
Zahra sobbed into the microphone, and her voice so moved a listener in Afghanistan that he called in to a question-and-answer session with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ask about the little girl's fate. No one knew what had become of Zahra, so Stanakzai decided to travel to Afghanistan's hinterlands and track her down.
The prospect of trying to find a small child living in the remote, Taliban-dominated regions of Afghanistan terrified me. Security in the region had deteriorated. What if something happened? How would I explain what I was doing there?
I don't normally take such risks, but this little girl -- something about her had gotten to me. Her voice was stuck in my head; I kept wondering what had become of her. Still, it was risky. After wrestling with myself for a while, I finally decided to go.
My first move was to contact a village elder from Zahra's area. After talking with him and a few other people, I figured out a way to reach her village.
It was too dangerous to enter the region as a journalist, so I wore traditional clothing in order to blend in with the other travelers. The only way to reach remote regions of Afghanistan is by van or bus, and the one going to the right province left my area at 3 a.m. -- a risky time to travel. So a few hours before dawn, I climbed on board, greeted the 20-30 passengers traveling with me, tried to calm my nerves, and tried to act normal.
It took a day and a night to reach the province. After we made a quick stop, I let the car leave without me and told the villagers that I'd been accidently left behind. I knew they would help a stranger and guessed -- correctly -- that they would direct me to Zahra's village.
When I reached the village, it was exactly the same as it was a year ago. Nothing had changed. It was still destroyed.
I searched the whole village and couldn't find Zahra. I knew she had to be somewhere in the area, though, because she was too poor to leave. Finally I stumbled on a little place outside the village -- can I call it a house? I'm not sure. It didn't have a proper door, or windows -- just four walls.
Zahra was living there with her grandmother, who was in her seventies or eighties. I spoke with her grandmother and tried to engage Zahra, but she just looked at me, shy and scared, with empty eyes. All I could do was observe her, and I noticed how much she'd changed in only a year.
She was so much more aware -- when I first interviewed her she was still in shock over her family's death. I don't think it had become real to her yet. Now, it was clear, she understood what had happened and was in terrible shape. It's agonizing to witness that much despair in such a small child.
RFE/RL's correspondent found Zahra in shock and worried about her future.
After a while, she started to open up. She peppered me with questions about what to do, how to survive when she and her grandmother have nothing. This was her number one priority: survival. She kept asking: what can I eat, where can I stay?
I watched her cry as she listed her dead relatives. She was crying a lot; she knew that her father, mother, and brother were gone. When I looked at her in that nothing of a house, her face contorted with fear, naming her parents and little sisters and brothers, I could barely hold myself together.
I used my cell phone to record her and take pictures. I asked her if she knew that Hillary Clinton had been asking about her and planning to help her, but she had no idea. She didn't understand anything. I asked her about school, but she didn't even know the word "school."
Her grandmother was aware that the U.S. secretary of state had been asking about Zahra, though. So I asked her what people wanted from Clinton. She said they wanted their homes rebuilt, as well as blankets, shelter, and food.
When I first set eyes on Zahra in her house that wasn't a house, her clothing surprised me too. She was wearing the dress of a young woman -- it was too long and awkwardly hung off her tiny body.
She just stared at me, in the house with no doors and windows, wearing a dress that was way too long and shoes that were way too big.
She had lived through more tragedy than most adults, but she remained a child, unprepared to understand or cope with what had happened.