Afghanistan is not kind to children. Thirty years of war have marred the land, decimated the economy, and exposed Afghans to human loss on a grand scale. The country ranks second to last on the United Nations'human-development index, and for children, the consequences have been especially acute. Afghanistan has one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates, according to UNICEF, and a child mortality rate second only to Sierra Leone's. More than 2 million Afghan children are orphans. More than half are malnourished, and one-third are underweight. The United Nations estimates that one-third of children under 14 work, though the real number is probably higher. Forty-three percent are married, some against their will.
These are obvious indicators of hardship. But Afghan children also grow up in a society that uniquely privileges elders. Age is perhaps the most important determinant of power there, even more important than gender. (Girls generally count for less than boys, but in rural border areas, I've seen a gray-haired woman join a meeting of bearded leaders where no young men were present.) In progressive cities like Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, families send their daughters to medical school and let them choose their own husbands. Some boys are cared for and protected, and some young men gain respect in their communities. With an average life expectancy of 44, Afghanistan has relatively few genuine elders left, empowering some young people by default. But this is still the exception. One of the chief attractions of militancy has always been the radical power it gives to Afghan boys and young men who have traditionally been voiceless.
Because they're smaller and weaker than adults—and more easily controlled—children tend to be mistaken for inanimate things. Like children in other embattled parts of the world, Afghan children are often viewed as tools instead of people. They are given away to compensate for adult crimes, bartered for land and livestock, sold as kitchen slaves and sexual playthings, used as human material to bind families together. Afghans love their children, but it is taken for granted that kids will work. They sew carpets, gather firewood, bring water, thresh rice, and scrape raw opium from poppy bulbs. Rural Afghan families, like rural families everywhere, depend on their children the way corporate farmers rely on hired hands. Some Afghan children understand how easily their small bodies can be utilized or converted to profit. "I am afraid because people may kidnap me and sell me, or they may take out a part of my body to sell. They may make me smuggle drugs in my body," one working street child in Kabul told Save the Children in 2001. Said another, "Don't make me say the truth or I shall be hanged. Nobody will take the side of the truth."
These words suggest another remarkable aspect of Afghan children: their preternatural maturity. Nowhere else in the world have I seen such deep worry lines in the faces of children, such sharp definition in their features, crow's feet around their eyes. Never have I seen so many stereotypical adult roles play-acted by kids who seem unable to step out of character (the shrewish woman, slick salesman, and haggling shopper are favorites). On the outskirts of Kandahar this fall, I met a group of children crouched on a stone wall near a police station. We couldn't talk—I know only a few words of Pashto, they spoke about the same amount of English—but their personalities (or, more accurately, the adult personas they had adopted for the purpose of interacting with foreigners) came through clearly. A girl of about 7 in a red dress winked like a knowing barmaid and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. A boy rolled his eyes back in his head and pretended to slip off the wall like a Shakespearean fool.
Their favorite game was to grab my hand in an approximation of a handshake. Their hands were small and black with dirt and unbelievably strong, and when they took my hand, they did not squeeze or shake, they pulled as if they wanted to rip my arm from its socket. When I freed myself, they would laugh and reach for me again. It occurred to me that the joining of hands—that symbol of trust, friendship, and welcome—was to them also an act of struggle, an opportunity to exert force, a way to tell someone what you really thought of them. In this, they were only repeating what the world and the constancy of war had taught them: A gesture of kindness was as likely to be violent as benign.