KABUL -- "We are children. We are sweet-speaking. We don't have money to go to school. Uncle Driver and Uncle Cleaner take us to the kindergarten. The door was opened. Women became free and children got ready [to go to school]."
Farah Diba, 6, sings a children's song that would have been impossible to hear in the Afghan capital, Kabul, this time last year. She sings of "sweet-speaking children" being driven to school by the local bus driver and his helper. She sings of the door to education being opened after the fall of the Taliban last November, when "women became free" and girls were able once again to attend class.
Farah Diba is the daughter of 47-year-old Kabir, a Dari-language teacher at the Abdul Ali Mustaghni High School and a shopkeeper. Kabir and his wife, Rabia, live with their six daughters in a simple house down a muddy alleyway in the Kart-i-Sei district of western Kabul, in the shadow of Asmayee Mountain, or "TV Mountain," because of the transmission towers on its peak. The mountain was heavily shelled during the country's civil war in the early 1990s.
Once the most modern part of the capital, many of the district's mud-brick buildings, modern offices, and cinemas are now rubble, though that doesn't stop people from living in them. There is nowhere else to go.
Kabir's family is sitting on the carpets in the clean and cozy room that serves as living room, bedroom and dining room for the eight of them. A few chickens scratch in the enclosed garden outside. A clock hangs from one of the room's whitewashed walls, ticking loudly. Their daughters -- ages 3 to 17 -- fidget and giggle.
Making Ends Meet
Kabir rents his home for 1 million afghanis a month, or about $17. It is a lot of money in this city. He and his wife -- also a teacher -- together earn some 3.5 million afghanis per month, or about $60. He talked about the challenges he faces making ends meet: "I work as a teacher and go to school in the mornings. In the afternoons, I work as a shopkeeper. But because of the bad economic situation in the country, the work we do is not so effective. Most of our work depends on foreign currencies like Pakistani rupees, [and the unfavorable exchange rate] means we can't make a good living in our jobs."
Kabir says he and his wife need to earn about 8 million to 9 million afghanis a month -- about $150 -- to support their family. Although he describes teaching as a "holy task," the profession alone does not earn them enough money to pay their bills. That is why he says he must often work up to 18 hours a day, including his time in the food shop.
The western section of Kabul hasn't had electricity for more than 10 years. Lanterns provide light. The family's newly acquired television set runs on a car battery. Cooking is done over tiny portable stoves on a dirt floor in a room near the garden. A cardboard box half full of potatoes and carrots sits nearby, next to two large orange squash from their garden. Meat is too expensive and is enjoyed only once a month.
As a teacher, Kabir is entitled to receive coupons that he can redeem for some kitchen staples, such as flour and wheat. A large can of vegetable oil from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sits on a shelf above the stoves. The family buys the cheapest rice, at less than $2 per kilogram.
Despite the hardships, however, Kabir said he is better off now than under the Taliban, which held the city and much of Afghanistan in its grip for over five years: "We are very optimistic about the [current] situation. The Taliban period was really a period of terror. We suffered a lot in the past, but now we are optimistic about the future. Now we can work freely, and I hope that things go like this in the future, as well."
Beaten With Chains
Kabir lifts his pant leg to reveal a deep scar near his knee. He says the Taliban arrested him, looted his shop, and threw him in jail, where they beat him severely with chains. He says he still does not know why. He says he would have died from his injuries if not for the care he received at a Red Cross hospital in the area.
Kabir's wife, Rabia, teaches biology at nearby Rukhshana High School, but was forced to give up her job during the Taliban regime. She said she felt despair over the future of her children, but that now she feels "reborn."
"I have six daughters, and during the Taliban they could not go outside of the house. Their rights were fully neglected, and we had lots of problems. And I felt that my six daughters and I were the unluckiest people. It was very difficult for us in the past and we suffered a lot, but after the change [the fall of the Taliban], I feel that we are the happiest family. I was mostly thinking about the future of my daughters. Now, fortunately, all of my children are busy with their lessons and school."
Rabia is wearing a chador, the traditional Islamic shawl. Like all women, she was forced by the Taliban to wear a burqa -- the restrictive, body-covering garment that she said was made even more uncomfortable by a shrapnel injury she suffered during the civil war: "Under the Taliban, I only used to wear a burqa when I wanted to go to the bazaar, although I had lots of difficulty wearing it since I have problems with my eyes and also breathlessness due to a lung injury during the fighting. My problem with wearing the burqa was so severe that I could hardly breathe. And so I could not cover my face, despite being threatened by the Taliban many times. I dealt very sternly with them and told them that I could not cover my face due to my illness. I was the first one who took off the burqa in this area."
Rabia, 43, said many of her colleagues still choose to wear the burqa. When she asks them why, she said they tell her they are still afraid of the Taliban and that for many of them, it simply feels more comfortable; it has become a habit.
'Now We Are Happy'
Husnia is 17 years old, with a charming smile and a sprinkling of freckles. She is going to school at Rukhshana High School, where she has been learning English, among her many other classes. She remembers feeling like a prisoner inside her own home during the days of the Taliban: "Now I feel very happy. We were at home during the past five years and the door of school and education was closed to us. And we did not have the right to go outside. But now we are very happy that we can go to our school after a long delay."
Husnia said she is interested in all of her subjects at school, especially algebra, physics, chemistry, and biology. She said she wants to become a doctor -- in order, she said, "to serve my people and my country."
Husnia and her five sisters were terrified during the U.S.-led air strikes against Taliban command facilities and Al-Qaeda headquarters prior to the Taliban's abandoning Kabul last November. Though no one in the neighborhood was injured, the explosions shook the ground, like an earthquake. Kabir, the father, recalls: "[During the U.S.-led air raids,] our children were afraid. They did not allow us to leave the living room. They wanted us to leave this area so we wouldn't be hit by a bomb. In fact, all of the people [in the neighborhood], especially our children, were scared."
Kabir continued: "The hardest bombardment came in the first nights. Though the people were aware of the American bombing, it still shocked this area when it started. The people became very frightened."
Kabir adjusts his patoo, an Afghan blanket, around his shoulders and speaks of the future. He simply asks the international community not to forget about Afghanistan, as it has done so often in the past: "Our request from the United States and the coalition forces is not to forget us, since warlordism is still going on in the country. If the coalition forces are going to leave Afghanistan, then the situation will worsen and there will be fighting and killing once again. Now we need their aid and assistance."
Kabir believes the educated and open-minded people in Afghanistan, as well as the younger generation, fully support the international presence in the country and want to do everything they can to help in the monumental reconstruction effort that lies ahead.