Most days, at about 5:30 a.m., just after the first prayer call, the men who run the guest house where I'm staying carry armloads of firewood into the larger of our two bathrooms and light the iron stove that warms the water for our bucket baths, making the room misty and overheated. Shortly after 7 a.m. today, I gazed into a mirror entirely obscured by condensation, hoping the belching stove wouldn't melt the linoleum and fighting the urge to open a window and let in the winter air. The problem with opening the window is that the bathroom is directly opposite the night watchmen's quarters. Normally I wouldn't mind if a man happened to see me wash, but in this country it could cause trouble.
First up for me today was the weekly U.N. security meeting at 8:30 a.m. A soldier from the small British peacekeeping contingent stationed in Mazar-i-Sharif briefs aid workers like me on the latest factional sparring and warns us away from sensitive areas. The security threat in Northern Afghanistan is not the Taliban, who were despised as interlopers in this part of the country even before the regime collapsed, but the long-simmering feud between two armed factions controlled by rival warlords, Gen. Atta, an ethnic Tajik, and the Uzbek Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. Like every gunslinger in the country, both are gearing up for the election, which is scheduled for June but seems increasingly likely to be postponed because of problems with voter registration.
I enjoy these meetings because, unlike everyone else in the room, I'm not a foreign aid worker, and so I'm not required to avoid hot spots. The movement of foreign aid workers in Afghanistan is restricted to a degree that I find baffling and even ridiculous. Not that people shouldn't take precautions, but this country is so unpredictable that "safe" places can quickly turn ugly, and places with dangerous reputations often lie quiet for months. One aid worker inquired how much longer he should wait before traveling a road where a homemade bomb had exploded the week before, and I thought of the answer an American colonel had given me when I asked a similar question while covering Afghanistan as a reporter. He said something to the effect that since a killing had just occurred on the road I wanted to take, there would probably be a lull before the next one, so I should go while the going was good.
Monday is deadline day at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, where I'm training 15 Afghan journalists who produce stories for our Web site and for local syndication in Dari, one of the country's two official languages. (In this part of the country, Afghanistan's other main language, Pashto, is not commonly spoken.) In our office here in Mazar, Monday is given over to the unglamorous work of chasing down the nagging details we need to finish stories. Ever wonder how many Swedish soldiers (if any) are stationed in Afghanistan? Or whether to believe a man who says he couldn't help beating his wife to death after spotting her on another man's bicycle? Or how speakers of obscure Turkik languages could mount an angry protest against a constitution that forbids them to refer to titled bureaucrats in any but the country's two official languages? Neither had I before today.
Midmorning, I got an instant message from someone with the screen name "Single but love to be mingle." I was about to switch my status to offline when, just for the hell of it, I opened the message window and discovered that "Single but love to be mingle" was the screen name of one of our staff reporters, a freckled prodigy named Taher who was writing to find out whether I had received his story on the weekend celebrations of the Afghan New Year. At 19, Taher is our fastest reporter—one of those naturals whose work can make even the most cantankerous news editors smile. He speaks and writes English with ease; however, there are still some glitches: He couldn't understand why I thought "Single but love to be mingle" was a funny screen name to use when corresponding with your editor.
Of the stories we filed to our editors in London and New York this week, the one that grabbed me most was by Qais, a young Bollywood movie star look-alike. At 22, Qais is his family's sole source of income, supporting his mother and seven siblings. He has a 15-year-old brother whose leg was blown off in a rocket attack during the Afghan civil war in the early 1990s. His story was about an 18-year-old girl named Sultana who had been forced to marry a 45-year-old man who already had one wife. About four months after the wedding, they found Sultana's beaten body in a shallow grave under an abandoned house. Her husband, Zia Uddin, confessed to the killing. During a visit home after the marriage, Sultana described her new life to her family. In the words of her mother, "Her husband was hitting her, the son of Zia Uddin also hit her, and also the first wife of Zia Uddin hit her. Even the children were hitting her with stones and anything. Since that time, my daughter didn't come back home until she was dead."