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    ‘I Was Given a Schoolbag and I’m Happy’
    Afghan Children and Their World

    Children in Afghanistan are very special. They love school and know all about the conflicts in their country. German journalist Roger Willemsen has devoted his latest book to them and the world they live in.

    What do we really know about Afghanistan? What do we know about the lives of its children and the way they see post-Taliban, post-Allied forces Afghanistan?

    Old Afghan stories begin with the words ‘Once upon a time, or maybe not at all’. This is also the title of Roger Willemsen’s book, in which the children of today are given the opportunity to tell their stories.

    Since 2005, author Roger Willemsen has been a regular traveller in Afghanistan. He has made a conscious decision always to travel autonomously, independently, as a civilian, and definitely not as a so-called ‘embedded journalist’ with the military, as many of his colleagues have chosen to do. This may be risky, but it also allows Willemsen to really make contact with the Afghan people and culture and to forge friendships. This was the only way it was possible for him to write a book that shows not only the dark times, but also the moments of light that are part and parcel of Afghan life. Willemsen, a versatile intellectual, is not only an ambassador for Amnesty International, Terre des Femmes and CARE, but also patron of the Afghan Women’s Association. He is simultaneously curious and reserved: a sensitive observer.

    Very special children

    Afghan children – ‘totally different to children in other countries’ - impress Willemsen the most. He describes them as ‘old beyond their years, with bags under their eyes and deep lines engraved on their faces’, ‘miniature people whose faces have been marked’ by their experiences of war and ancient dust, hard labour, and frequently dire hardship. At the same time, however, they are also full of curiosity, lucidity, and optimism about the future. These children are different; these children are unique. They love going to school and adore their teachers. Do they play? This question is often greeted by blank faces. Their thoughts are politicised, their lives militarised.

    Willemsen has gathered notes about conversations with them as well as letters written and drawings made by them. And even though their lives may differ, their reactions to matters such as education or national responsibility are surprisingly uniform. They all want to improve their country, spread peace and brotherliness. Even the youngest among them has a sense of responsibility and an understanding of politics. They read the newspapers to their parents; they look for explanations for confusing situations. Their comments, related here, include: ‘The troops killed 28 people, two of whom were Taliban. The rest were subsequently labelled Taliban’, or: ‘The school was rocked by a bomb explosion. I’m fed up with this.’

    Lessons about landmines

    All they know is war and a life of insecurity. In the classroom hangs a poster illustrating different weapons. This class is about landmines. The children play in burned-out tanks; they play war. Every family has lost some members; all of the children have seen other people die. They are traumatised, in a country where few have ever heard the word ‘trauma’ and psychological help is almost unimaginable. Both these negative and other, positive experiences – symbolised by nature and happy families – dominate the letters and images presented in this book, a small selection of which we have reprinted here. The way they deal with what they have experienced and the pain they feel in their souls contrasts in these pictures with the desire for harmony: alongside the helicopters, Kalashnikovs, and bleeding bodies we see flowers, animals, and happy celebrations. It is quite possible that the act of painting other life-worlds and writing letters was therapeutic for many of the children. We in the West, who are not affected by the situation in Afghanistan and who live in a different world, listen to the children and share their worries.

    The images of the West drawn by these Afghan children raise a smile. Everything is in perfect order; the men are muscular and wear sunglasses; people live in skyscrapers, loll around on sofas, and do their homework by electric light. These children are excellent observers!

    Education is the key

    ‘I got a sewing machine and a pair of scissors. My life gets better by the day.’ Willemsen also made a conscious effort to visit Afghan women on his travels. He met female lecturers, football players, and women who work in workshops. Everywhere he went, he saw that education is the key; the key to economic development and social modernisation. Women are the vital engine that keeps things moving here. This is not a Western invention: it is human logic and necessity. However, as liberal as the Afghan constitution might be, there are still numerous obstacles to overcome. Every morning, Basira goes to school as a girl; in the afternoon, she works in the bazaar as a boy. The general lack of security, the landmines, and rape make it very difficult for women to go out in public. However, there are exceptions, like the father who has opened up part of his private home so that the girls in the city can attend classes.

    Unlike other experts, Willemsen has no need for dramatisation and know-it-all recommendations. He is restrained. He consciously highlights Eurocentric patterns of perception and tries to see things from a different perspective. He gives children, women, village elders, and former fighters alike the time and space they need to tell their stories, and to show us in the West that ‘we are not all murderers’. At the same time, Willemsen provides background information on the richness of Afghan culture and combines it with documents he has collected to create a convincing image of contemporary Afghan society: its dark side, its light side, the hunger for education, and the Afghan people’s yearning for peace. The children, in whose pictures we immerse ourselves here, are Afghanistan’s future. They will shape and develop politics and society. This book gives us hope. These children know the way.

    The author and the publisher are donating all revenues from the sale of this book to the Afghanischer Frauenverein e.V. [Afghan Women’s Association]. The money will go directly to maintaining existing schools and building new ones.

    Willemsen, Roger, Es war einmal oder nicht. Afghanische Kinder und ihre Welt [Once Upon A Time Or Maybe Not At All: Afghan Children and Their World], S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt, 2013.
    Nouria Ali-Tani is a political scientist who lives in Munich.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2014

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