Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter turned
aid worker featured in "A House for Haji Baba," describes herself
as "tenacious-a kind word for pig-headed." FRONTLINE/World
series editor Stephen Talbot interviewed her by email about her
struggle to rebuild, the dangers of her work and the rigors of
daily life in a country that "looks like the moon with goats on
Sarah Chayes records a radio spot in Kandahar. On her desk is a figure of a free-spirited dancer, given to her by American family friends, who also organized fellow townspeople in Concord, Mass. to contribute funds for the reconstruction of Akokolacha.
In the film you say, "I feel like my destiny is bound up
with the destiny of this place." What is it about Afghanistan
that moved you so deeply?
Afghanistan is a compelling place ... . As for me, though
I've been called a war reporter, I'm not drawn to conflict;
I am drawn to what happens afterward, to the chaos and promise
of societies recovering from war. In fact, the only moment I
had a twinge of regret that I wasn't covering the Iraq war was
the day Baghdad fell.
I'm also rather spartan in my habits and tastes, and I think
it's the ruggedness of this land and its people, their tenaciousness,
their refusal to bend -- sometimes to a fault -- that draws
me. And in contrast to other places I'd been, notably the Balkans,
I felt strongly there were a few people acting in the true interests
of their country. I felt I just had to throw my lot in with
How dangerous is it for you in Kandahar these days? We read
reports of resurgent Taliban attacks, and a U.S. envoy warned
recently that the Taliban may be planning larger attacks. Four
people working for a Danish relief group were killed in Ghazni
in central Afghanistan, and two members of the Afghan Red Crescent
were killed in the same area along the Kabul-to-Kandahar road
on which we see you driving in the beginning of the film. Is
the security situation deteriorating?
Chayes walks through Akokolacha seeking Haji Baba, for whom they were building a new home.
I don't think it's immediately dangerous for me in Kandahar:
I'm well known around town, and I'm known to enjoy powerful
backing. I am connected with the Karzais [the president's family],
and I'm seen, if not as "an American," at least as connected
with the Americans in some way. What's important to understand
about this culture is that security is not based so much on
protection -- on how many guards I might have -- as on the certainty
of retaliation should anyone try something. For the moment,
I enjoy that kind of deterrence.
In terms of the broader security situation, it's important
to distinguish between the conditions for ordinary Afghans and
the conditions for foreigners. For ordinary Afghans, while individual
liberty is immeasurably increased, the security situation is
rather worse than it was under the Taliban. But the threat is
not from the Taliban -- rather it's from representatives of
the current government. Every conversation I've had with Kandaharis
about this produces the same evidence. It is the militiamen
loyal to regional power-brokers, or warlords, who break into
people's houses, who kidnap people, or rape or torture them
for ransom, who shake down taxi and truck drivers, and so forth.
These people are in uniform, and ostensibly represent the new
regime. And the insecurity they are causing is driving ordinary
Kandaharis to distraction -- driving them to remember the Taliban
with nostalgia, in fact. Not for ideological reasons, but because
of the law and order the Taliban regime brought. Furthermore,
these depredations are happening under cover of U.S. support
for the regional powers. So as far as ordinary Kandaharis are
concerned, the United States is largely responsible for the
Against this backdrop, the Taliban are indeed resurgent. You
can distinguish a pattern of increasingly daring actions happening
outside the city of Kandahar, in outlying districts of Kandahar
province, and Zabul, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces. These attacks
are now carefully targeted against Afghans working with the
current government (especially those directly loyal to President
Karzai and his friends) and foreigners. These attacks are definitely
becoming more deadly, although they tend to come in spurts.
Driving the road from Kabul to Kandahar took 15 hours over bumpy and dusty terrain.
Who is behind these attacks?
This is not an indigenous, spontaneous uprising. All of these
attacks originate in Pakistan; top Taliban leaders live and
organize their activities openly in the Pakistani city of Quetta;
the border is for all intents and purposes open. The problem
of terrorism in Afghanistan is intimately linked to the regional
strategy of Pakistan. The U.S. military fights Taliban members
when they can be found in concentrated groups inside Afghanistan.
But once they cross the border, they are beyond reach. The U.S.
government, by not holding Pakistan accountable for its open
support of the Taliban, is in fact contributing to the problem.
Tell us a bit more about how you live in Kandahar. In the
film, we see you in a compound of sorts with other people and
various animals, including, I understand, a cow that used to
belong to Mullah Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader.
We have a lovely compound, with a riotous garden behind, thanks
to a well we dug last year. Our menagerie includes three cows,
so we get fresh milk in our tea every morning, and fresh yoghurt
with lunch and dinner. Among the cows is Maura, Mullah Omar's
cow, and Aphrodita, a calf born on the premises last year. Her
mother's udders were infected, so we had to feed her by hand.
Ever since, she sucks on my clothes whenever I get near her.
She loves watermelon. There's also Wooly, the ram. I bought
him to serve as pet therapy for Big Dog, who suffered from post-traumatic
stress syndrome. Then as Wooly grew, he began thinking of Big
Dog as his girlfriend. Wooly got tied up once we planted the
garden. There are also three birds, one a beautiful white dove.
Chayes gets fit for Afghan clothing.
She chose to dress in garb suited for an Afghan man. (photo
courtesy Eve Lyman)
On the human side of things, we have a couple of guards who
watch the gate and tell us who's come to visit, including the
stately Bacha, in whose capable hands our nighttime safety resides.
There are several drivers who fetch materials and workers for
our latest construction project or take our literacy teacher
around to women's homes. There's Safi, a young student who helps
us keep the house clean and runs errands in the mornings, and
a cook. The principals are Abdullah, the engineer; Rangina,
an Afghan American who runs our women's programs; and me. We
eat on the floor, very simply -- stewed vegetables and lentils
mostly, but lots and lots of wonderful fruit, currently pomegranates.
We wash our clothes in a user-assisted washing machine (meaning
you have to empty the water out yourself and re-fill from the
shower); we sit on a toilet rather than squatting over a hole
like most of Kandahar, and we take hot showers. But there's
been no electricity for the past six weeks or so, so it always
takes some effort to put the generator on when you want to charge
your computer. We have to keep the generator maintained and
filled with diesel. Our engineer is the mischievous good genie
of the household, making sure all this happens.
I sleep in a room separate from the main house, with wonderful
arches in the wall. I sleep on the ground, on a cotton-filled
mattress we had made in the bazaar, and read at night by candlelight.
In the summer, when the film was shot, it's 120 to 130 degrees
every day, and might get down to the 80s at night. So my room
is too hot, and then I sleep outside. In the winter it's down
to the 30s and 40s, and there's no heat. We survive with a barrel
wood stove in our main room and electric space heaters in our
bedrooms. Please God the power gets fixed by the winter!
About the electricity: This is because virtually all the humanitarian
aid that has been funneled here has been doled out in very small
increments. But there's a major (U.S.-built) hydroelectric dam,
which serves two provinces, in a dreadful state of repair --
the turbine's been broken for several months, and it's needed
repairs since the time of the Taliban. It needs a couple-million-dollar
overhaul. That money could easily be collected from a consortium
including the province of Kandahar, the World Bank, and the
governments of the United States and India. But while some plans
have been developed, no work has begun.
I'm curious about the construction engineer you work with.
He was quiet, but he seemed intelligent and dedicated, if frequently
exasperated. Does he think you're in over your head? What's
Abdullah, the engineer (hydraulics, not construction) is an
extraordinary person, and one of my closest friends on Earth.
Apart from being the truest friend you can imagine -- protective,
tirelessly thoughtful and helpful -- and a wicked tease, a great
mime and dangerously short-fused, he is one of the few people
around here who has a moral compass. He was in university when
the communists started pulling students out of class and shooting
them. He was jailed twice, then drafted for some elite military
unit -- of which no member survived -- and escaped training
camp in the middle of the night with two friends. He fled to
Pakistan while his younger brother fought the Russians; worked
for Ahmad Shah Masoud in Peshawar and watched him pocket all
the money from humanitarian contracts. He built canals and culverts
during the post-Soviet chaos, driving around in his white Save
the Children car while various factions shot themselves to pieces
around him; was in Uruzgan Province for the arrival of the Taliban
and found himself the engineer on a UNHCR- [U.N. Refugee Agency]
funded contract to refurbish the Taliban Ministry of Virtue
and Vice. In other words, he's been forced to get along and
survive in a country not only at constant war, through head-spinning
changes in ideology, but also in a community almost entirely
devoid of a notion of right and wrong. And to survive in this
community, he could not challenge or even openly voice disapproval
of what was going on around him -- hence the exasperation.
Yes, he thinks I'm in over my head. He's been telling me to
go home from the day I got here. But I think he respects me
for not leaving. And for not stealing or lying, even if I'm
as blind and clumsy around here as a child, in his view. And
I believe he respects me for speaking out in public -- that
is, for opening a space for the truth.
Is the landscape around Kandahar as bleak as it seems in
the film? I know the mountains and valleys in the north are
lush and beautiful, but central and southern Afghanistan look
utterly barren, especially along that dusty road you travel
from Kabul to Kandahar. How do people manage to keep their clothes
clean in all that swirling dust? Where does their water come
Yes -- it's like the moon with goats on it. The earth is a
fine, fine powder, and when it's dry, which means almost always,
it's like rock. The real rocks crop up suddenly, steeply and
craggily. It's about the most forbidding, but breathtaking,
landscape I've ever imagined. Last winter we had rain, for the
first time in five or six years. Immediately, hard little shoots
of green sprouted. It's nothing like lush; it's determined.
Things only grow here when irrigated, so in some places you
see scruffy orchards and gardens behind earthen walls, but nothing
growing wild. No one's clothes stay clean. And you should see
the number this place does on shoes.
A view of southern Afghanistan. Only 12 percent of Afghanistan's mountainous and barren land is arable.
People get their water either from canals that draw from the
Arghandab River, north of here, or from wells, or carezes,
which are extraordinary ancient underground irrigation systems
that bring water down from the mountains to the flatlands, where
it comes up and is channeled into small irrigation ditches.
Vertical holes like the mouths of volcanoes allow people to
maintain the carezes.
You are an outsider, a foreigner, an American and a woman --
and you dress like an Afghan man. Do people there regard you as
Yes. But I heard a wonderful compliment the other day. There's
a joke about an old and holy mullah [religious teacher] who
lived in a village and used to help all the people, whispering
their names when they were born, marrying them, burying them,
helping them with cures and prayers for their children's health
and the fertility of their land. One day he told them he was
tired, he wanted to move back to the city. They begged him not
to go. They said they would build him a house and plant the
most beautiful garden for him. But he would have none of it.
He had to go. So they killed him and built a shrine to him,
where they could go and pray and ask him to intercede for them.
Someone said recently: When Sarah wants to go back to America,
we'll have to kill her and build a shrine.
In our broadcast story, we see you interacting with a variety
of men -- village leaders, a quarry owner, a warlord, laborers
and soldiers. What we don't see are women. You seem to operate
in a world of men. The women are invisible. Where are they?
How do they relate to you?
Women are invisible here, Taliban defeat or no Taliban defeat.
I'd say 80 percent to 90 percent of the women in Kandahar are
still not allowed to leave their homes. So, while I visited
women in Akokolacha almost every day I was out there, Brian
Knappenberger, the filmmaker, never even saw one of them. It
would have been even more unthinkable for him to film them.
Chayes with village youth in Akokolacha. The term "Al Qaeda" has become a joke in the village of Akokolacha, a name kids call one another. In their broken English, they say, "He is no good...He is Al Qaeda," then laugh and hit each other, teasingly. (photo courtesy Eve Lyman)
We have a variety of women's programs at Afghans for Civil
Society, run by the extremely capable Rangina Hamidi. She was
born in Kandahar, but grew up in Pakistan and Virginia. She's
the only woman of the Afghan diaspora to come back to Kandahar
to help her people. She runs our income-generation project,
based on the intricate and fine embroidery that is a Kandahar
specialty. She visits 20 homes around town each week, giving
work to a total of more than 250 women. Sometimes I go with
her, so I get a chance to hang out with our women that way.
With the help of the people of Lincoln, Mass., and the German
foreign ministry, we've now added a health-care component to
this program with our visiting nurse Leslie Hale-Warner and
a literacy component. It's been a challenge even getting permission
to conduct these activities for the women, but inch by inch
We also have a "women's law group," in which six women --
two school principals, a teacher, an educated housewife and
two illiterate housewives -- get together each week and discuss
first the draft Afghan constitution, and now the 1976 civil
code, article by article. It's an absolutely extraordinary group.
Our conversations have been wide-ranging and intimate -- sometimes
outrageous. We brought the group to Kabul to present their report
on the constitution to President Karzai, the United Nations
and the constitutional commission. That was a pretty revolutionary
trip for all of them.
Amnesty International just released a depressing report
on the status of women in Afghanistan, arguing that little has
changed -- especially outside the capital, Kabul -- since the
infamous days of the Taliban. According to Amnesty, "The criminal
justice system is too weak to offer effective protection of
women's right to life and physical security, and itself subjects
them to discrimination and abuse. Prosecution for violence against
women, and protection for women at acute risk of violence, is
virtually absent." Is the reality for women still that grim?
Yes. With the exception that now some women -- with their
husband/father/brother's permission -- can work, and several
thousand girls are in school. We just completed a baseline survey
on women's conditions in Kandahar. We found, for example, that
a large proportion of women here suffer from clinical depression.
None can make any decision without the express permission --
ijaza -- of a male relative. And as far as violence is
concerned, I think every single woman in Kandahar is subject
to domestic abuse. Even to talk about it with them is to increase
their risk of suffering more abuse.
The film documents your relentless efforts to rebuild the
village of Akokolacha, outside Kandahar. You completed the home
of the village elder, Haji Baba. What else have you and Afghans
for Civil Society been able to accomplish?
Located just outside the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Akokolacha's once mud-brick houses, elegantly rimmed with tall walls containing small farms, were completely destroyed by bombing.
We did rebuild all the destroyed houses, and the village mosque,
and a hand-pump well. We also refurbished the grounds of a famous
mausoleum that is a favorite picnic site for Kandaharis. We
have developed several women's programs and hope next year to
open a women's center, which would include a public bath, a
clinic, literacy classes, a day care center and public transportation
We have a sister-school project, which links a dozen U.S.
schools to six counterparts in Afghanistan. With the help of
U.S. students, we have been able to provide 48 wooden desk and
chair sets (built by local craftsmen on our premises) to two
different schools; we have equipped a number of classrooms with
carpeting and fans as well as school supplies, and we are building
a classroom building. We plan to launch a library project --
a program to provide each of our sister-schools with a library
and books and materials to stock it.
In the meantime, we are setting up a children's library in
our office open to all local kids. We hope to start reading/drama
groups soon. We already hold poetry contests once a month in
With vital support from the Carr Foundation, we are also launching
an independent radio station, run by Isma'il Timor, who opened
the radio/television station in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1989. It's
a first experiment in truly independent radio in this part of
Afghanistan, and we are approaching it in a very gentle fashion.
I am being rather hands-off, offering advice on program content
and style, the equipping of the studio, and so forth, but we
all really want this to be a local product.
You strike me as a rather fearless person -- barging in
where angels fear to tread, especially in your confrontation
with the warlord, Governor Gul Agha Shirzai, and his soldiers.
You condemn warlordism as a huge obstacle to reconstructing
and developing a modern Afghanistan. President Karzai's government
just banned warlords from taking part in politics, saying no
one with a private army can run for office. But warlordism seems
endemic to Afghan society. What are the chances it can really
I don't think warlords are endemic to Afghan society. The vast
majority of the people detest them. The warlords originally
came to power by means of the approximately $1 billion a year
the United States was pumping into the anti-Soviet war, via
Pakistan. The Taliban threw them out of the country with little
trouble. They only came back thanks again to U.S. largesse in
the fight to topple the Taliban. They would be gone now were
the central government in Kabul a little more decisive and were
U.S policy more clear-cut.
Sarah Chayes in Akokolacha. (photo courtesy Eve Lyman)
As it is, the American use of these men, and copious payment
to them as proxies in the fight against the Taliban, gave the
warlords a foothold from which they could easily consolidate
their power. As an example, the province of Kandahar pulls in
some $10 million a month in customs dues. As of August 2003,
only a total of $2 million had been sent to the central government
in Kabul. With $10 million a month, it is easy for a governor
to impose an almost totalitarian rule. Warlordism can be overcome,
but only by opposing power with power, by standing up unambiguously
and implacably against the warlords, not by negotiating with
them in the perennial Afghan dance.
We wanted to air your story, in large part, because it
often feels as if Americans have forgotten about Afghanistan,
moving on to the next war in Iraq. Is that the way it feels
in Afghanistan? Do Afghans feel abandoned by the United States?
Richard Armitage, of the U.S. Department of State, recently
visited Afghanistan, promising that Washington would deliver
$1.2 billion in aid. Do Afghans expect to see that money?
Afghans don't expect to see much of any money any more. But
they do say that as long as the United States or other foreigners
are controlling disbursements, maybe 20 cents on the dollar
might get to the people. If Afghan officials control disbursements,
most Kandaharis tell me, no one will see a penny.
The problem with international assistance is not only one
of quantity, it is also one of how aid is delivered: through
what channels (warlord or other), according to what kind of
master plan (if any) and to what kind of projects.
The problems I have seen have been an overemphasis on very
small projects that won't be much of a loss if they fail, but
that by the same token don't make much of a difference to the
people. Big projects, like the hydroelectric dam, are deemed
too large to tackle right away -- but then the whole economy
of two provinces is crippled, with serious political repercussions.
Just the other day, a man stopped in the street opposite our
car and began to harangue us about electricity. "If you don't
help us," he shouted, "we don't want you here."
Instead of repairing the Kajiki Dam or the road to Kabul,
most of the international money has gone to the likes of a hospital
wing here, or a school there, or one or half a dozen culverts.
All worthy enough projects -- but really ones that small organizations
like ours could have undertaken. There has also been almost
no attention to concerted capacity-building, except for the
Afghan national army. There have been no real efforts to train
civil servants, on a national or local level, in the rudiments
of management, accounting or administration, which is necessary
to begin to counter the power of the warlords.
Much of the big money that is finally being allocated gets
slurped up by the huge "Beltway bandits" -- U.S. contracting
companies that get millions of U.S. aid money, then hire international
NGOs and Afghan companies to do the real work on the ground.
And those who do that work usually regard it as a profit-making
venture. It's as though many see the suffering of the Afghan
people as an economic opportunity.
Please also note that the $1.2 billion is largely going for
the costs of U.S. military presence and only secondarily to
the training of the Afghan national police and army. There's
not much for big economic reconstruction jobs.
Brian Knappenberger has fashioned a very strong report
for FRONTLINE/World about you and your work, and he has also
produced a much longer documentary, Life After War. What
was the experience like for you, being followed around by a
Brian is a wonderful person and a very serious journalist.
He was an absolute pleasure to have as part of our crew, as
was the infinitely sensible and sensitive Anton Gold, the soundman.
Sometimes we got into some pretty heavy debates about the degree
we were or weren't taking the villagers' concerns seriously
enough. Sometimes Brian thought I was imposing too much of my
own views, and sometimes I thought he was a bit green and, not
having gone through the previous one or two rounds with the
villagers, was swallowing too much of what they told him. All
of these questions were hashed out around the dinner mat, and
it added immeasurably to the value of the project to us. About
the camera: As Brian promised, you get used to it and don't
really feel its presence after a while.
Still, it's often uncomfortable to see yourself for the
first time on the screen. What were your thoughts when you saw
Brian's film? Did he portray you accurately?
I was a bit horrified at first, largely because it's always
been my credo that the journalist is not the story. I hate the
constant use of the first person in magazine reporting, for
example, and on the otherwise excellent BBC. And somehow, though
I knew I was the vehicle for this story, I had not really registered
that the movie was about -- me. So that was a really hard one
to take at first. The second shock came when I saw it at the
Baltimore film festival, with Brian and Qayum, and saw what
a harpie I was! I really forgot what we had gone through to
get that village built. I must say Brian did an absolutely bang-up
job. And if anything, he showed me as more genteel than I really
Any further reflections on the life-changing decision you
made to leave journalism and become an aid worker? You've taken
on a herculean task. Do the frustrations of your work ever make
you want to rush back to reporting?
The frustrations and bursts of outrage and disillusionment
are beyond description. But so is the elation, at times. I have
absolutely no regrets. This is by far the most interesting and
moving thing I've ever done in my life. I'm not entirely sure
what objective value my presence here holds for Afghans, given
the broader context of local and international politics that
I can't really affect. But sometimes I feel that just the willingness
to be here with them -- to go through it with them, when I don't
have to -- means something.
As for how long it will last, it's hard to know. It's hard
to imagine doing anything else. But that's how I felt about
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Links Relevant to this Article:
To learn more about the work of Sarah Chayes in Afghanistan,
visit the Web site of her group, Afghans
for Civil Society, or visit our Links
& Resources page.