Frontline World

Afghanistan - A House for Haji Baba, Ocotber 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "A House for Haji Baba"

Behind the Lens

Danger, Determination and Destiny

Politics, Security, Health, Education

Government, Population, Economy

Background, Reconstruction Efforts, Warlordism




The Story
Afghani man, Reporter Sarah Chayes, One of the homes in construction

Watch VideoSarah Chayes is an American, a woman, a former war correspondent, and for the time being, a construction foreman in Akokolacha, Afghanistan. Chayes first came to Afghanistan to cover the U.S. war against the Taliban for National Public Radio. She'd spent years coming and going from war zones, increasingly disturbed by the devastation she witnessed. When it came time to leave Afghanistan, she found she simply could not. Encouraged by President Hamid Karzai's uncle and brother, Chayes quit her job at NPR and returned to Afghanistan not to report, but to rebuild. In Fall 2003, filmmaker Brian Knappenberger met up with Chayes and documented her experience for FRONTLINE/World as she set about the simultaneously frustrating and rewarding task of rebuilding a village.

As a war correspondent, Chayes is certainly under no illusion that Afghanistan is a safe place, and the southern city of Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold, provides constant reminders of just how dangerous and volatile it truly is. When she first meets President Karzai at a family wedding, he had just survived an assassination attempt in which three others died. In Kandahar, loyalty is to warlords, not to the central government in far off Kabul. In the final days of the U.S. war, the Taliban made their last stand in small villages along the road north of Kandahar. One of these, Akokolacha, is the place that Chayes has raised money back in Concord, Massachusetts, to rebuild.

The village itself is largely piles of rubble, having been hit hard by United States bombs seeking Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. Chayes is determined to rebuild the destroyed homes, 13 in all. She believes the U.S. bombing was justified. Still, as she says, "Whether it was wrong, or whether it was right, these people deserve to have their houses to live in."

Before beginning construction Chayes and Qayum Karzai attend a shura, a meeting of village elders. Decisions are made by consensus after conversation and, at times, heated argument. It's usually forbidden for a woman to be present at a shura, but Chayes has become accustomed to operating outside Afghan norms. She dresses in men's clothes, wears a turban and attracts attention everywhere she goes. But she makes things happen.

There are, however, always obstacles. On the first day construction is supposed to begin, Chayes arrives with the project engineer to discover there are no workers at the site, although village leaders at the shura had promised to provide laborers. Unwilling to wait another day to resolve the miscommunication, Chayes rounds up villagers herself, and they get started clearing the rubble. Their first home will be one for Haji Baba, the oldest resident of Akokolacha. Despite his 85 years of age, Haji Baba joins in alongside the other workers, lifting rocks and hauling them across the hot, dusty building site.

But Haji Baba throws a monkeywrench in the operation himself when he begins to insist on having larger rooms in his house. Equally stubborn, Chayes digs in her heels and insists on the dimensions for the rooms which all had agreed upon. Haji Baba reluctantly concedes.

The project encounters its first major obstacle when Chayes attempts to purchase foundation stone. Local governor and former warlord Gul Agha Shirzai has soldiers seizing all stones from the local quarry. Shocked, frustrated and confused, Chayes talks to quarry owner Haji Abdullah, who's been forced out of his factory along with his workers, and forbidden to sell stones. He explains that the governor plans to use the land and its water supply to make cement. Why this sudden action? It turns out that Governor Shirzai is the recent recipient of a lucrative U.S. government contract to repave the vital road from Kabul to Kandahar, and he'll be needing a lot of cement.

Chayes is furious, and so is Qayum Karzai, the president's brother. The Karzai government has been struggling to control local governors like Gul Agha Shirzai, without much success.

Without stone, the work at the village is now at a standstill. With the help of the quarry owner, Chayes succeeds in smuggling out one tractor-full of cargo early the next morning, but a second load is stopped by Shirzai's soldiers. Left with only one choice, Chayes and her engineer, Abdullah, set out to confront the governor directly. Because of her status as an American, and her alliance with the Karzai family, they have to wait for an audience mere hours, not days or weeks like others. At the meeting, the governor encourages her to use cement instead of stone. But Chayes insists that she has promised to rebuild the village the way it was before, with stone, and the governor finally accedes.

But of course it's not that easy. The governor's deputy minister fails to send a delegation to the quarry, as he had promised, and Chayes ends up spending another full day fighting her way through bureaucracy until she succeeds in taking the Minister of Mines and Industry to the quarry in person to authorize the stone delivery.

It's a partial victory. Akokolacha will get the stones the workers need, but there's the still the fate of quarry owner Haji Abdullah. "What is he supposed to do with his life, his house, his business, his workers?" Chayes asks the minister. The minister smiles uncomfortably. "Find another job," he suggests. As it turns out, it won't be long before the governor's soldiers throw Haji Abdullah in jail, and when they let him out after ten days, the stones he had stockpiled for years will be gone.

Meanwhile, control of the South continues to be increasingly uncertain. Members of the Taliban are slipping back into their former stronghold, killing construction crews and ambushing international aid workers. The biggest problem is the rule of local warlords. "I think the reconstruction and the peace process would be very easy to achieve if it wasn't for these warlords," says an angry Qayum Karzai. "Warlords are in control of the [Kandahar] government...They are basically bandits."

As Chayes observes, "There is murder. There is greed. There is corruption. This is still a very volatile place, particularly in the South. There are people with a lot of different agendas, and it's going to take a lot of time for mindsets to change."

But even with these enormous difficulties, there are signs that life here is getting better. The Taliban had banned kite flying. Chayes shares a vivid memory of kites filling the skies just after the Taliban fled - a symbol of liberation.

And back in Akokolacha, Haji Baba's house is at last finished - his skepticism about Chayes and her project overcome. "I have seen it all," he muses. "Governments come and governments go. They change so fast. The most important thing in my life is to live in peace. All that I ask for is food, water, and shelter." Smiling he adds, "Now I have a house."

As for Chayes, she feels her destiny is linked to the destiny of this rugged, war-ravaged country, and for now, she says, she will continue to devote herself to the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the freedom of its people.


Producer / Reporter / Videographer
Brian Knappenberger

Sound / Additional Camera
Anton Gold

Greg Macdonald
Michael Simollari

FRONTLINE Story Editor
Ken Dornstein

Jim Dooley

Samir Aseel
Naim Majrooh

Production Assistant
Kate Romero

Eve Lyman

Additional Materials
ABC News Videosource
AP / Wide World Photos
BBC Worldwide

Marc Halperin
Marla Lewin Halperin

Executive Producer
Larry Hart

back to top