Frontline World


Afghanistan, A HOUSE FOR HAJI BABA, October 2003



Read through archived FRONTLINE/World conversations around this story below.

Frank Bennett III - Ann Arbor, Michigan
I just happened to catch the story of Sarah (Chayes) in Afghanistan. I was so moved by this woman and her strength and determination. I was truly inspired and I think she's doing a wonderful job and all of my prayers are with her. Her strength motivates me to do something in my home town of Detroit, Michigan, not Afghanistan, but close!!!

Patrick Shaw - Columbia, Kentucky
A late friend and her husband were aid workers in Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power. Her words on Afghanistan and her photographs of its women spoke to her passion for that country and its people. Sarah Chayes' commitment to what is at the very least a daunting task reassures me that others continue the work they once carried out, and do so with the same passion they had.

Alice McMullin - Sarasota, Florida
I missed the show, but fortunately caught the more timeless version, and was spellbound. I have tremendous respect, as a former journalist, and a world traveler, for Sarah, and all international correspondents. They risk their lives and become deeply involved in the peoples they live with/speak for. Sarah took it so much further, and I greatly admire her for her deep work towards peace and justice. She goes there for all of us who want to make the bridge between our so-different cultures, repairing the gouges of war, and making peace on a personal level, at great personal sacrifice. Hooray for Frontline, always a gripping show, for spreading the real news that, as a wise peacemaker and spiritual teacher once said, "Peace will come when we eat together, pray together, and dance together."

Anonymous - Vancouver, Washington
Wonderful program. (I am) shocked at the selfishness of (Haji) Baba for a few metres when so many others were homeless. Is there any hope for Afghanistan when corrupt warlords rule with no concern for their fellow citizens?

Wais Azami - Woodland Hills, California
Well, to help (the) Afghan people and Afghanistan, (the) U.S. government should stop paying dollars to warlords and the Afghan government. Spend the money directly to rebuild Afghanistan and (to) educate people; send American construction companies to work there with 75 billion dollars (and) we can build two Afghanistans. Afghanistan's government is corrupted. You cannot trust them.

Anonymous - Honolulu, Hawaii
It's all about her.

Sarah, not camera shy, offers a hardy handshake to all, injects herself into conversations mid-sentence, and physically blocks people if they are not behaving as she wants them to behave. And she dresses like a man and seems as happy as a rock star with all the attention her odd appearance brings.

That is, she treats the Afghan culture with contempt as she pursues her own personal pseudo-adventure. She is tolerated -- as Haji Baba (a bit of a self-promoter himself) notes -- only because she dangles dollars. Of course, in time, she will go home and perhaps try her hand at a book. Or appear on TV talk shows. And maybe even hit the university lecture circuit, wow-ing googly-eyed coeds with her Afghan tales.

This was a facile look at cronyism and corruption, which is a human institution (not an Afghan invention) that exists everywhere, including the U.S. where well-connected companies (like Halliburton) roll in the doe and big-wig campaign contributors slum in the White House. Just another look-at-me story.

Thomas Fly - Spartanburg, South Carolina
This is an example of the kind of Frontline story that has kept me a PBS addict. Afghanistan, for all of its ravages and poverty, seems to have a strange magnetism that on occasion attracts human riches--such as Sarah Chayes--and turns them into serendipitous ambassadors.

Don McCrery - Sparta, Wisconsin
The U.S. should come down hard on warlords who are exploiting their people. The war while ill advised to begin with is an even greater travesty when we allow this interference in reconstruction.

Anonymous - Macomb, Illinois
Great show. Simple, direct, powerful.

Stephen Nadler - Larkspur, Colorado
In a relatively short 20-25 minutes Sarah Chayes and Frontline documented one of the core issues that must be resolved - corruption by warlords. It was an elegantly simple and profound program.

I recommend the program be shown to the Loya Jirga with the warlord present. The truth through this type of journalism will win the peace far better than bullets. ...

Anonymous - Denver, Colorado
The program was riveting and timely.

Bailey Jepson - Pacific Palisades, California
As Ollie said to Stan, "Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into." Now that we're there, we've got nothing less than the obligation to make good.

We're surely nearer the mark when we speak of the Marshall Plan than when we speak of Crusade, but we refer to the Marshall Plan and the 13 billion it cost rather than the long-term benefits it provided. For nearly a quarter century the U.S. had its own cheap labor market for the production of low and medium quality goods from manufacturing plants built in Japan as part of post war reconstruction. So we should not only provide the Afghans with houses, but transportation and industrial infrastructure and whatever comes as close to full employment as may be possible. This presupposes that the American wish to foster consumer economics is a good. In any event, we'd better see this thing through if for no other reason than "if you save a person's life, you owe them forever," as the Chinese say - the same Chinese who will own us if we fail.

Should this all seem too cynical, interventionist, expensive and alarmist, consider the consequences in one generation should things continue as they currently are.

Mark Tyler - Denver, Colorado
My impression of the story is that the former reporter, as a kind of one-person NGO, operates as a bit of a dichotomy. She, on a mission defined by a single person (her), works without the politics of a larger institution (in fact, encountering the red tape of other institutions). Her own personal reasons taking the place of either political platforms or violence, however, puts her in the same position as the warlords: being among larger political structures in competition while making her own decisions, most importantly about what is right and wrong. I wonder how close her need to act will extend toward being a permanent village member, and thus in this context making the ultimate act. I also wonder where she fits into the cycle of construction and destruction. Today, the warlords have crisp uniforms for their troops (money to burn on useless fashionable green ones for the tan desert). Tomorrow, if they acquire a taste for weapons with solid fuel and guidance systems (never mind the warheads), the newly built houses may once again come down. What will she do then? Ask Haji Baba if one wishes to know about the cycle of war and renewal.

Vilnius Blekaitis - Wheaton, Maryland
As always, your most recent installment of Frontline/World was astonishingly informative, moving and engrossing. I went through withdrawal for a while when the regular Frontline seemed to disappear, but now I am a convert.

Please keep up the good work--your show demonstrates beyond all doubt that, contrary to what one pundit has said, PBS is still relevant simply because it provides the best programming available to curious viewers.

Yes, we should aid in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, just as we should press Putin to prove he's a democrat, because we have been the beneficiaries of a democratic state and we should strive to ensure that nascent and fragile democracies everywhere can lay down strong foundations (Ms. Chayes' story is in a sense a metaphor for the struggles that lie ahead for the Afghan people and for our obligations). Our democracy was created brick by agonizing brick, with many cracks and faults along the way, but our "house" is pretty solid; now it is time to spend less on billion dollar aircraft and more on assisting others in the construction of their homes; in a few generations, with enough blood, sweat and tears, perhaps our house will be part of a larger democratic village.

Kudos again to reporters Sarah Chayes and Sabrina Tavernise for a spellbinding hour of reportage.

Anonymous - Texas
Sarah is obnoxiously presumptuous and self-important. I suspect she did more damage to the image of Americans among Afghanistanis than any number of accidental bombings. The program was really too embarrassing to watch.

Responding to Anonymous in Texas:

Anonymous - St. Cloud, Minnesota
This goes out to Anonymous in Texas... I can't believe how obnoxious YOU sound. I could barely stand to read your insults! That wonderful woman is a gift to the people that she is involved with. Thank God for people such as herself who risk their LIVES to help and inform others about situations we would NEVER hear about otherwise. It must hurt too much for you to hear the truth. You must be a REPUBLICAN! That explains it!

Jessica A. Bruno - Ridgewood, New Jersey
This was really good; I really loved it. I felt I got a better understanding of Afghanistan now. Thank you. Keep up the good work.
Respectfully yours,
Jessica A. Bruno