Lal-sar-Jangal November 1989
The headmaster had asked Qurban to bring me to see the village school. Although our organisation did not provide financial support directly to schools, we acted as couriers for donor organisations in Germany, delivering funds and sending back reports and funding requests. In this way we had quite strong links with several schools. The school in Lal had been open for several years and, although it was only for boys plans were in place to open classes for girls the following year, when new school premises had been built.
Ibrahim was to accompany us, for which I was glad. He, more than any of the other staff, had the ability to understand what I was trying to say, even when it was coming out all wrong. When I had difficulties understanding something, it was Ibrahim who could usually find a different way to phrase things until the meaning was clear. When we were ready to leave Qurban said, ‘You go on ahead. I’ll catch you up when I finish some work here.’
I followed Ibrahim out of the compound to where our horses awaited and Rahimy joined us, just before we reached the school, riding up sporting a magnificent turban.
The headmaster, standing at the doorway of the school was clearly upset by Qurban’s non-appearance – having two lowly field assistants as guests, instead of the big “doctor” was an insult. On behalf of Qurban, Rahimy apologised, delivering the message about him having ‘too much work’. Ibrahim spoke to him in a placatory way. Finally, he shrugged and led us into the two-roomed school.
The boys could study only up to Class Five. When the new building was ready the students would be able to continue their studies further. At that time – 1989 – only Jaghoray had the means of allowing students to study right up to Class Twelve – the final year before higher education.
The rough mud walls were hung with work done by the children; a large colourful map of Afghanistan which showed all the mountain ranges and rivers, posters of birds and flowers, and the alphabet – both English and Dari. In the first room three groups of junior boys sat cross legged in a circle on the floor. I spotted Bashir and Khadeem giggling amongst their friends. The class had been rehearsing something to recite to their guest. Exactly what that something was, I could only guess – it was delivered in such a garbled rush. It may have been multiplication tables.
Through a low archway, in the second room, the higher group were sitting, expectantly facing a blackboard. The headmaster chalked up a few maths problems and chose one or two boys to come and solve them. Ibrahim nodded approvingly by my side so I assumed they must have got the sums right and smiled encouragingly as the boys returned to their places. I made a little speech, previously rehearsed with Ibrahim’s help, on the importance of education. It was greeted with a round of applause before I was asked to write the English alphabet on the board. I’ve never been very good at writing on a chalk board and I’m sure my efforts were a bit disappointing.
The headmaster borrowed “my” horse to warn the cook we were about to arrive for lunch. We walked the few hundred yards to the teachers’ room, making a detour to inspect the progress of the new school building. It was going to be a fine building when completed and everyone was very proud of it. The teachers’ house was one large room in which they all ate, slept, prepared lessons and marked school work. It was already packed with mujahideen, including the two leading Commanders who, of course, must be invited to any special occasion. Books were piled around the room and each teacher had a locked tin trunk in which to store personal belongings.
Pictures – the inevitable Swiss mountain scene and the little boy with the Kalashnikov I’d seen everywhere – and maps adorned the walls. Studying a map of the world I was incensed to discover Scotland had been depicted as part of England. Ibrahim laughed when I muttered crossly about this to him – he’d already heard me explain to various people Scotland was not the same as England.
After lunch one of the Commanders asked about the point I had made regarding Scotland and England. ‘Do you mean the Scottish people are under the control of the English?’
Realising I was unable to fully explain the British political system, I agreed this was true. He asked, ‘Do the Scottish people not want freedom?’
By now, everyone was listening intently to the conversation. ‘Many Scottish people want freedom from the English government. They want to have their own government in Scotland.’
‘Oh, I see – like the Irish? Bobby Sands? But I never heard of any fighting in Scotland?’
‘No, the Scottish people are trying to win their freedom through politics, through talks and agreements. They are not fighting with bombs and bullets. We don’t have Kalashnikovs.’
‘Why don’t your people fight? Can you not buy Kalashnikovs in your country?’
Laughingly, I replied, ‘I think nearly all the Kalashnikovs in the world are with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Maybe you have some to spare, now that the Russians have gone?’
Everyone shouted with laughter. I felt inordinately proud my first attempted joke in Dari, delivered in public, had gone down so well. I was not quite so sure when, as we were putting our boots on by the door, the Commander drew me aside to ask quietly how many Kalashnikovs I thought would be necessary – and would Stingers be useful?