Salvation factory

Afghani widow, Mazar-i-Sharif Hazrat Ali mosque
Should American rockets fall and kill the president’s brother, the world is sure to hear about that. About 40 people in the free tribe zone in Afghanistan were bombed to death the other day, and there has been no report on their names.

There has been no report on their surviving widows or children, either.

Widows and orphans are part of life in occupied Afghanistan. No one has ever run a census to define how many there are. There is a virtual number that pops up in publications, 1 million orphans and 1 million widows. Sometimes it gets doubled.

Widows and orphans are everywhere. And that is something not typical of Muslim culture. Islam prescribes to take care of them – but they are now so many that the society is failing to, and so is the state, as well as multiple international organizations.

On stepping out of the hotel, you get surrounded by children.They will try to sell you magic smoke, bad bananas, stale socks, or rock-hard chewing gum. You give them some change. They follow you to the end of their block. They are not Roma or beggars from India. They were orphaned by war.

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­The most innocent victims

A friend accompanying me recognized the two kids he gave some change two years ago: a teenage girl and two younger infants. They recognized him, too. The girl’s face lit up with a smile – an infrequent smile on a beautiful face of a 12 year old who’s been taking care of her younger siblings all her brief life.

My friend decided to pull their leg on one occasion. Seeing them coming he talked to them first and asked for money. The children were dumbfounded. But later on, he heard the elder girl telling off her younger brother: “When this man had money, he gave you. Why couldn’t you help him now?

Neither ubiquitous feminists nor charity foundations have done anything for these widows and orphans for the last 9 years
Neither ubiquitous feminists nor charity foundations have done anything for these widows and orphans for the last 9 years

When the Americans occupied Afghanistan, it was widows who ran the most massive protests. They would put on their blue burqas and gather for a silent protest, just standing there – they had no food, no shelter, and no one to protect them. The Americans worked hard throughout the summer of 2001 telling the world stories of how terribly oppressed women were by the Taliban regime, which had denied them the right to work and forced them to wear burqas. Well, here are these liberated women, dying of hunger and poverty.

Neither ubiquitous feminists nor charity foundations have done anything for these widows and orphans for the last 9 years. Nothing at all – and there were plenty of people willing to confirm that off the record.

­In silent protest

In 2007, I knocked on people’s doors and talked to them. I met huge families whose men were killed off, houses ruined, cattle slaughtered, and they were living among debris.Kabul has recently been purged of thousands of refugee families. They are hiding now. But they are everywhere.

That’s how widows make their living – by begging for alms. When a woman sees a camera, she covers her child’s face with her hand and walks away. That’s because they fear it can hex the baby.That has nothing to do with the alleged hatred for Western TV – the latter only captures the misery, but doesn’t change anything.

Afghani widows – you can see them everywhere
Afghani widows – you can see them everywhere

And this is how orphans make their living: by scavenging city dumps.

You should give credit to the Afghan people: everyone gives change to those who beg. Small change works better than Western charity foundations – though small, it is given from heart to heart, and it doesn’t go astray into someone else’s pockets. But these are peanuts which can’t fix anything.

I heard of a businessman in Kabul who set up a carpet factory for widows and orphans. It took me a few days to get the appointment. That’s because these women work from home, and getting to visit a home with women in it is not easy in Afghanistan, even when they are widows.

Finally, I got permission to see them. Quite a delegation is riding in several expensive SUVs. I asked who those people with us are – in the same caps, with photography cameras, scurrying about. It turns out that quite a team from a press service is covering the visit to the factory – apparently they are not widows or orphans.

The cavalcade is making its way into a residential area with narrow streets, where two cars can’t pass one another. In some places an SUV can hardly move through. Continuous wattle-and-daub walls everywhere. However, this is a residential area, but not a refugee camp. One can even say it is a well-to-do area, not destroyed by bombing, with water supplied. A US platoon won’t drive in, and the children who fear no one can play on the streets, since there is no other place for them to play in the liberated Afghanistan, and they have nothing much to do. In the past nine years the occupational regime has not built any sports gyms or schools for children.

They are happy though – just because they don’t have to beg, unlike millions of other children.

Several houses have been bought out for the factory. The houses accommodate widows and orphans.

The owner of the factory tactfully knocks at the gate – another round of lengthy talks with the dwellers follows. They allow him to enter, but promptly hide themselves. However, their curiosity prevails gradually. The children begin to peep, even to run out of their hiding place and agree to be photographed.

There is neither a book nor a toy here, also no cups to serve tea to the guests. And no tea whatsoever.

Some women are coming back to the room where they work and silently resume weaving a carpet. The work exhausts, it cripples the fingers, ruins the sight and damages the lungs. The room is drowned in semi-darkness and cold. No artificial light, no heating. The women are wearing hygienic masks. But those don’t save them from the dust, for which other kinds of masks are necessary.

This is how the splendid carpets are woven – considered one of the most expensive in the world. This splendor decorates homes in London, Paris and New York. And here, these widows and these children weave them.

I asked how much they get paid for their work. They simply don’t know what to say in reply, for the owner is standing by. One may well avoid asking – it’s obvious they are happy with what they get.

Each of the women understands: if not for that person, they would have been left begging on the streets and sleeping under a piece of cardboard.

Now we are heading for the factory itself. It is surrounded by barbed wire and guarded as if it were a military site. An electric-power generator is rumbling. Some people are standing in smoke and stirring the boiling liquid in huge cauldrons with wooden poles – thus they color the yarn and then hang it out to dry.

We enter an office and see painters who are working here – both men and women, all wearing factory-brand uniform baseball caps. They were told it was better for the press.

Here in Kabul, under the rumble of the generator and military helicopters in the sky, you can’t get rid of a feeling all this is infernally surreal. I ask the workers to take off their caps. Their work is about outlining ornaments of carpets for customers. And they are telling, as if reading out loud from a piece of paper, how good their life here is. Well, they do have a job in a country which lacks everything.

The ready-made carpets are taken to a warehouse and dropped onto the floor, after which they are taken to traders. So, this marvel woven with the fingers of war-time widows finds their owners who have absolutely no idea about the sad thoughts interwoven into these threads and desperate tears shed on them.

­Loose reality

The factory owner is full of plans. He has taken a big loan and is building a childcare center, a school and a hospital. He has already employed 1,200 people and plans to employ more. I don’t quite understand how the widows might use this opportunity, for they live in a remote part of the city, and they don’t have any SUVs, or even donkeys with carriages, so as to get here to the nursery or a doctor.

The owner is planning to build a factory in each province and surely he won’t lack a labor force, for there are 2 million widows and orphans of the war and the occupation, and their number is growing.

While he talks to us, helicopters are flying around over us. A group of people is climbing up a hill – they could be easily taken for an armed unit. Should a helicopter suspect anything, they will open fire, either against them or us, after which news agencies would report that the army had bravely neutralized a unit of terrorists at a carpet factory. As a matter of fact, this is how many become widows and orphans – when a pilot suspects something. Not one of the workers at the factory pays any attention to the helicopters.

As he talks, I am trying to calculate how many carpets one has to weave and sell in order to buy an SUV like this. Is it more or less than to feed this kind of a widows’ community to the full? But the world of philanthropy has a different arithmetic in operation – it allots peanuts for the poor just to keep them alive, and lavishes gold on the rich and gives them the halo of righteous people.

­Nadezda Kevorkova, RT