What The Future Holds For The 'Kids Of Kabul'

Afghanistan's decade-long insurgency has largely been fought by men. But in 2011, author Deborah Ellis went to Kabul to ask, how do Afghanistan's children see their future? She tries to answer that question in her recently released book, Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War. Ellis speaks with guest host Viviana Hurtado.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, his musical career brought him success and celebrity in South Africa, but Sipho Hotstix Mabuse always felt something was missing. We hear more about his decision to go back to school at age 60.

But, first, Afghanistan's government marked the country's independence day this weekend, but it's the ongoing violence in the country that's dominating the news. Top U.S. military officials met in Afghanistan today to figure out how to stop so-called insider attacks where western-trained Afghan forces have been turning their guns on American troops.

Throughout the war, Afghan civilians have also been targeted. Afghan women and children have been particularly vulnerable. Writer Deborah Ellis has been speaking with Afghan women and children for decades and she chronicles their stories in the book, "Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War." She joins us now.

Welcome.

DEBORAH ELLIS: Hi. It's good to be here.

HURTADO: It's great to have you, Deborah. Can you tell us, what is it about Afghanistan, especially its women and children, that has caught your attention since the '90s?

ELLIS: As a woman in Canada, I get to do whatever I want to do and I'm used to that. I'm used to not having my government tell me my life is going to be restricted because I'm female. And when the news of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan hit the papers in Toronto, I started to think about the terrible crimes that were being committed against women and how in the world would I survive under similar circumstances? So that's why I initially traveled to the refugee camps to meet with these women and, in the course of meeting with them, I learned all kinds of stories of survival and I learned, also, about the lives of children in Afghanistan.

HURTADO: Can you talk a little bit about how, in speaking with women, they were just tied together? Stories of women and stories of children.

ELLIS: When I was talking to one group, the other group would be there and, in the refugee camps, there wasn't a whole lot for children to do and I was kind of the entertainment and they would follow me around and laugh at me and it was quite lovely. But, in the midst of all that, I got to hear from them about what their life was like living under the warzone and living under the Taliban and I heard incredible stories of how these children - girls would transform themselves into boys, cutting off their hair, putting on boys' clothing and then going out into the streets of the city to earn money any way that they could because, if they didn't do this, their families were going to starve.

HURTADO: So many of these kids - they just want to study. They want to be able to study continuously, without interruption, but getting an education is something that's been really hard for girls in Afghanistan, certainly, over the years.

Can you tell us about the changes and opportunities you observed this time around for Afghan students since the fall of the Taliban?

ELLIS: There's been a lot of emphasis put on trying to rebuild or build a new education system in Afghanistan and there have been great strides that have been made toward that. Literacy levels for women - they still hover around 13 percent, so very few women still have access to being able to learn. It isn't a simple thing. You don't just build a school and provide books and then things magically work out. There's...

HURTADO: You need to have, for example, female teachers.

ELLIS: You need female teachers. A lot of parents don't want their daughters to be educated by men and women are not able to travel on their own with any degree of security. It becomes like a very difficult challenge to work out all the pieces of the puzzle.

HURTADO: Some of the larger issues, too, like the violence and the current political situation - how does that impact the students' access to education?

ELLIS: A lot of it is around corruption. Schools get built with shoddy materials. They fall apart. Another is the sheer poverty that war has contributed to, so for example, if a farmer has to borrow money to plant his crops and the crops fail and he can't repay his debt, girls end up being used as the repayment.

HURTADO: You spoke with dozens of Afghan children, but one that stood out was the story of a teenage girl who you meet in prison for running away. Can you tell us about her?

ELLIS: Yeah. The prison for girls was filled with girls who had simply run away from forced marriages and forced marriage in Afghanistan today is supposed to be against the law. There are rights under the constitution that are supposed to protect girls and this girl had learned about these rights in school. So, when her father told her, well, I've just sold you into marriage to a very old man, she was understandably upset. She even went to the local representative of the Ministry of Women's Affairs and nobody could help her.

So she was listening to the radio and there was a young man who played songs and people could call in with their favorite song and they got to talking off the radio and he said, well, I can help you. And so they met up and he took her away. They were spotted in a restaurant. The manager called the police and they were arrested and the girl is now facing seven years in prison and she told me that she didn't like being in prison, but at least she had a better life in prison because, if she had gotten married, her education would be done, and in the prison they have a teacher who comes in and gives them classes for a couple of hours a day. But the problem that she was worried about was not her life in prison, but it was what would happen to her after her sentence was over. She didn't know where she was going to go.

HURTADO: If you're just, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. We're speaking with journalist and author Deborah Ellis about her latest book chronicling the lives of Afghan children. It's called "Kids of Kabul."

Deborah, despite the circumstances, these kids have hope.

ELLIS: Mm-hmm.

HURTADO: And I think that's one of the things that made my heart cheer as I was reading it.

ELLIS: Yeah.

HURTADO: Another story that I just loved is Sara's. She comes from a long line of business women.

ELLIS: Mm-hmm.

HURTADO: Can you tell us about her?

ELLIS: Yeah. This is a really neat family. This is a group of women where the whole family had been involved in businesses of one kind or another. And they went through the period of the Taliban and they got exiled into Pakistan, and throughout that whole time the mother, who's a very enterprising woman, found ways to work and support her family doing all kinds of businesses. So the grandmother now works in a jewelry cooperative making jewelry with other old widows who have no other means of income. The mother works with 300 women farmers from all around Afghanistan, and the mother gathers up the crops and finds ways to market them so that these women have an independent kind of an income during. And the 17-year-old girl Sara, is already thinking of new ways that she can go into business as well so that she can have money for herself and decide her own destiny.

HURTADO: And I was going to ask if you can shed some light Deborah, how rare is the example of Sara's family, where women rule and are financially independent?

ELLIS: It's incredibly rare. And that other stories of widows who did not have any financial means whose whatever financial means they had that was taken from them by the male members of their families. So widows who were forced to live at their husband's brother's place and the kids would tell me about how awful it was there and they just wanted to be able to go to school, graduate, get a good job and get their mother out of that situation. And that was their whole hope.

HURTADO: A lot of the students you spoke to said they're just not sure if their school is going to be around tomorrow. It's just a very tenuous situation, real touch and go. So how Deborah, do these students stay motivated when there's so much uncertainty?

ELLIS: It's pretty easy for them to see the results of not getting an education, so that motivation is just a daily part of their life. Part of the obstacles so, is the ongoing violence. There have been a lot of teachers assassinated, schools are being blown up, girls are harassed and in some cases, attacked on their way to school. Even if the girls are able to get an education, they can dream big, they can think about how they want to become a member of parliament because they are now women members of parliament in Afghanistan, nobody is really sure how long everything is going to last. So, like, when girls in Canada dream about becoming members of parliament, they have a pretty good expectation that parliament is going to be around for them when they graduate. There is no such expectation in Afghanistan. It's all still hope and wanting it but not really sure if it's going to be around.

HURTADO: What do you want your readers, Deborah, to take away from this book?

ELLIS: I'd like them to think about the fact that these are great people, great, courageous, amazing kids doing really incredible things with really difficult circumstances. I want them to think about how they and we would react given the same set of circumstances, and ultimately think about how we are more alike than we are different.

HURTADO: Deborah Ellis is the author of "Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War." She's also the writer of the popular children's novel series "The Breadwinner." And she joined us from the CBC studios in Toronto.

Thank you, Deborah.

ELLIS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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