Children of War
On the last day of my first trip to Kabul in 2001, I met a small boy named Jenova, and it is his smiling face that I see every time I talk about Afghanistan. Jenova was one of the group of young boys who always begged at the gate of the Intercontinental Hotel. As I drove through, I usually slowed down to give them candies, and one day I stopped because an odd detail caught my eye. The smallest kid in the bunch, the one who was yelling “Mister!” the loudest and jumping the highest, was wearing a hockey shirt—not just any shirt, but a Habs shirt. How did he get that? Did he even know what hockey was, or that in a big city called Montreal, puck-pushers were revered as heroes and paid millions of dollars?
Jenova said that he was seven years old and that he was begging in order to feed his mother and three sisters. He was the only man in his family, his father and grandfather having died in the Mujahidin action against the Taliban. His family had bought the shirt in one of the markets of Kabul, where piles of second-hand clothes are sold. It had seemed to me, when I saw women rummaging through those clothes during my stay, that every piece of clothing discarded by affluent Western countries must have ended up in Afghanistan.
Jenova was a shy but determined boy who apparently didn’t see any injustice in the fact that he had to work all day long and couldn’t play or go to school. He seemed puzzled by my interest in him, he smiled widely when I drove him home in order to discreetly give him money for his mother, and he had only one question for me: what was my name? “Mister” Manon, he called me, in typical Afghan fashion, as he waved goodbye.
My meeting with Jenova has stuck with me. He is everything I have experienced about Afghanistan and everything I have felt since. This is a country that I liked immediately, a country ready to welcome whatever the rest of the world has to offer—even when it is culturally bizarre for them. The first long radio piece I did from Kabul during that first visit in 2001 was about how the fun had come back to the city. Musicians had dug out their instruments, parks were bustling with noise and the sky over Kabul was full of multicoloured kites. The spirit of the Afghans—especially the children—is remarkable. These kids, who know more about wars and guns than most of us and who carry the scars of war, were racing kites again, skilfully making them turn and rise as high as they could go.
An exhibition entitled Kites, Guns and Dreams has to be dedicated in part to these children, to their courage, their playfulness and the promises they carry. A lot of Afghan boys and girls have had to forgo childhood as we think of it and go to work as soon as they were able. But Afghanistan is also about children who have gone back to school and are full of dreams. In the early morning you see groups of them, proud, immaculately dressed, making their way to the schoolyards, where they frolic with carefree laughter. That, more than anything else, is the sound of hope for me after three years of travelling to Afghanistan. One day these children may grow up to strengthen their own culture, seize the resources of their country and build it on their own. When they do, the country’s children will no longer need hand-me-down shirts from Montreal. And if they know about hockey, it will be because they and their children have the resources to acquire all of the wonderful, necessary, luxurious knowledge they want.
Manon Globenski is a CBC Radio journalist. She reported from Afghanistan for three years (2000-2003), and currently she is a correspondent working in Jerusalem.