Planting the Seeds
Nur Agha Akbari and his family live in Kabul, on an unpaved, pitted street lined by mud brick homes. When we visited him this week, his oldest son, age 13, led us to a sitting room inside their rented two-story apartment, furnished with simple mats and pillows. The youngster smiled shyly as he served us tea. Then his father entered the room.
Mr. Akbari is a robust, energetic, well educated man from a respected, academic Afghan family. In the late 1970s, Nur had gone to study agriculture in the UK and remained there, becoming an organic farmer. His four brothers had instead remained in Afghanistan, or else returned there after studies abroad. His two eldest brothers had trained in the Soviet Union – one as an engineer, one as a nuclear scientist – and had received early warning of the likelihood of what came to be the 1979 Soviet invasion. They spoke out publicly about their fears as the invasion grew more and more imminent.
On December 27 of that year, Soviet troops occupied major government, media and military buildings in Kabul, initiating a nine-year war between a nationalist/fundamentalist resistance (the “Mujahideen”) and the Soviet occupiers. Soviet officials fired Nur’s oldest brother from his cancer research work at Kabul University and blacklisted him. He found himself unable to work, and soon joined the resistance. Nur doesn’t know much about what happened to him then, but he was among thousands of people bulldozed into mass graves after capture and execution by the Soviets. All told Nur knows very little about the fates of his three older brothers, all killed in the war. But their tragedy would largely shape his life.
Nur had arranged for his surviving, younger, brother to join him in the UK. But Nur would lie awake at night, thinking about the children and the wives of his slain brothers. Concerned that his nephews and nieces were now fending for themselves in Afghanistan’s war zones, fatherless and penniless, he resolved to return home.
When he learned of a job with an Austrian relief agency which would have him living in Pakistan but taking three trips per year into Afghanistan, he immediately applied. A representative of the “Austrian Relief Group” recognized Nur’s family name and told him it would be exceedingly dangerous for him to enter Afghanistan, but Nur persisted, realizing this was perhaps his only chance to rescue his widowed and orphaned family there. He got the job and swiftly set up residence in the Pakistani city of Peshawar where, eventually, he managed to gather all of his brothers’ children and wives in a large house he had rented. At last he could be sure that they had health care, adequate food, and access to education. He worked tirelessly to make this possible.
Now, at family reunions, they remember those hard times. The youngsters who were saved by their young uncle are themselves parents now, and the family history includes great gratitude for the sacrifices Nur made, as a young man, to provide for and encourage his large extended family.
His is among thousands of stories of hardship and tragedy, many worse than his own, as he made sure repeatedly to remind us several times in the course of relating it. Stories of death and dislocation from the superpower invasion of 1979, and now from the American occupation, entering its tenth year.
Now Nur works as an engineer for the Afghan government’s Department of Agriculture, with many more people to try to help rescue. He talked to us about the problems besetting Afghanistan as it attempts to rebuild from an ongoing war.
Nur is a visionary. He imagines communities learning to provide for themselves and solving problems using local decision-making and initiative at a grass roots level. He is passionately committed to a model of community development which he had begun to implement in the Panjshir Province. “We need to sow seeds,” he says. “Germination takes time. It’s not like building a wall which you can just slap up.” But he has hit impasse after impasse in his efforts to foster grassroots community development, with many different forms of corruption everywhere springing up to commandeer the funds the occupation has made available for development work.
Our delegation has heard a lot about rising and pervasive corruption over the past two weeks traveling in Afghanistan. Following the election of Mr. Karzai, people we’ve spoken with were stung by the congratulatory calls from heads of state around the world, including that of President Obama. Already outraged over what they (and international observers) consider an extremely fraudulent election, they feel bewildered by other world governments’ legitimization of corruption in their capital. By supporting the current government, the U.S. exacerbates the life-choking corruption here. Afghan Member of Parliament, Ramazan Bashar Dost, urged us to ask the U.S. government to realize this, and desist. A young woman running her own company in Kandahar province spoke to us with contempt about corrupt officials. And others - an Afghan human rights lawyer, the co-founder of a large media company, three fellows working for a smaller news agency, along with almost every Bamiyan villager we met during a week there - all spoke of how the corruption had negatively, in cases disastrously, impacted their efforts to make a living and contribute toward their country’s resurrection from its current, dreadful state.
One of the most egregious examples has been set by the United States. According to a McClatchy report released on October 27, 2010, the U.S. government knows it has awarded nearly $18 billion in contracts for rebuilding Afghanistan over the past three years, but it can't account for any of the billions spent before 2007. What’s more, a crucial agency of government investigators and auditors – those responsible for the SIGAR, the “Special Inspector General in Afghanistan Report," on waste, fraud, and abuse of American taxpayer dollars – has now received a failing grade in a new government investigation of corruption in their own activities.
Nur wonders where all the money has gone. “If we spent one quarter of one quarter of one quarter of the billions that they’ve spent, we could fund this process of community development,” he assures us. “Billions have been spent and we have nothing for it. If we had followed a process marked by transparency, fairness and involvement of local communities, we could have turned this country around in five years.”
Beyond lamenting lost opportunities and lost lives in the dangerously impoverished Afghan economy, he mainly fears that ordinary Afghans will increasingly adjust to a welfare culture which relies on handouts rather than hard work to achieve progress.
As we spoke with Nur, his son returned to the room with a rich, creamy soup prepared by his mother and then left and returned again with platters, one per guest, each heaped with walnuts, glazed dried apricots and luscious pomegranate seeds. When we praised the quality of this truly delicious fare, Nur (with a wry smile) replied, “We spend many days trying to export these good fruits. By the time we finish crossing bureaucratic hurdles and filling out many sets of papers, arranging transportation, getting approval, and negotiating prices, the fruit often rots. But, if you have a truckload of opium, you can send it to the other side of the world in one day.”
Nevertheless, Nur continues working toward a better future for Afghanistan. He holds on to a deep faith in the ability of the simplest people to generate solutions to their problems if they are liberated from the oppressive effects of war and corruption. This is no time for a loss of nerve. Nur Agha Akbari, a survivor and a creative thinker, may not reap the harvest in his lifetime, but he won’t stop planting the seeds.