Deborah Mitchell Contributing Columnist
February 14, 2014
One of the first questions I hear after I tell people about my experiences in Afghanistan is this: What do you think is going to happen after we leave? My answer: I think things will get better and it will take a long time, but I think a lot of people are going to die. And the news from Afghanistan over the past week hasn’t changed my mind.
Last Friday, I woke to the news that two people, part of a convoy on its way to a prison near Kabul, had been killed in a bombing. My heart stopped. Many of the people in our camp were on what I called “prison detail.” One, Paul, a well-respected warden in Illinois, was a lot of fun to talk to. He had risen through the ranks where he worked, beginning as a guard and leaving his job as warden when he was asked to go to Afghanistan to train their prison personnel. His friend John, an architect from Michigan, designed prison buildings in Afghanistan and oversaw their construction.
The United States has lent its prison expertise to Afghanistan because the prisons in Afghanistan are horrible. Some have no running water, most have dirt floors, and almost all of them house more than double the number of prisoners for which they were designed. The prison guards are abusive and not very knowledgeable about their jobs. Often, a prisoner will complete his prison term, and then not be released because no one has records of prisoners’ sentences’ lengths.
Obviously, prison is designed for punishment of convicted criminals, but these conditions are, according to Paul and John, beyond punishment – they are inhumane; Paul and John and others like them are working hard, despite danger, to make conditions in Afghan prisons better. When I heard about the bombing, I flew to the computer and sent an e-mail, hoping to hear that they were all right, but fearing the worst.
I did receive a response from John, who told me that he, indeed, had been in the caravan, and that the car directly behind his had been the one hit. One of his co-workers had been killed, as had an “LN” (a “local national”). I wrote back that it was time for him to go home. He didn’t respond other than to tell me that his son had graduated from medical school and would probably end up in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
Later that day, I received another e-mail, this one from one of my co-workers, Kevin, who is a prosecutor from Brooklyn. He stood to lose his job when I lost mine after our company’s contract was cut. He wanted to stay, so he applied for another job with another company, was hired, and spent several frightening months in Jalalabad, one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan.
His e-mail reminded me of the hope I continue to have for Afghans who want to do good. At his employer’s request, Kevin, who, like me, also teaches at a community college, taught a class on police/prosecutor procedure for developing a confidential informant. The class wanted to put its lessons into action, and so found and developed a confidential informant in Herat, close to the Iranian border, where I spent my first three months.
They certainly picked the right informant, because he helped the police locate a kidnapping ring. The police broke up the ring, and then freed the hostages being held by the kidnappers! Kevin is heading to Kabul to receive a medal for his part in the police’s success.
These stories illustrate both my optimism and fears for Afghanistan. I believe that most Afghans want a normal life and want to go about their business, raising their families, simply living the life they choose. The few who want something else – money, power – are willing to make that life dangerous and miserable because they can. The people who want to do good have, because of people from the United States like Paul, John, and Kevin, seen a different and better way. I think they will want to continue that better way and that they will eventually have it. But, oh, how many will lose their lives? Too many.