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Assignment Afghanistan

From keeping tabs on the Taliban to saving puppies, a reporter looks back on her three years covering a nation's struggle to be reborn

Electricity was weak and erratic, although the municipal authorities set up a rationing system so residents could plan ahead; I regularly set my alarm for 5 a.m. so I could wash clothes before the 6 a.m. power cut. I became so accustomed to dim light that when I finally returned to the United States, I was shocked by how bright the rooms seemed.

For all the stories I covered and the friends I made, what gave real meaning and purpose to my years in Kabul was something else entirely. I had always been an animal lover, and the city was full of emaciated, sickly stray dogs and cats. One by one they found their way into my house, and within a year it was functioning as a shelter. There were no small animal veterinary services—indeed, no culture of pets, unless one counted fighting dogs and roosters—so I treated the animals with pharmacy drugs and patient observation, and almost all of them bounced back.

Mr. Stumpy, a mangy cat whose hind leg had been crushed by a taxi and then amputated, hopped around the sun porch. Pak, a sturdy pup whose mother had been poisoned to death, buried bones in my backyard. Pshak Nau, a wild cat who lived over the garage, was gradually lured by canned tuna into domesticity. Honey, a pretty dog I bought for $10 from a man who was strangling her, refused to leave my side for days. Se Pai, a black kitten who was scavenging garbage on three legs, became a contented parlor cat after a terrible wound on his fourth leg healed.

One freezing night I found a dog so starved she could no longer walk, and I had to carry her home. I had no space left by then, but an Afghan acquaintance, an eccentric mathematician named Siddiq Afghan, said she was welcome to stay in his yard if she could reach accommodation with his flock of sheep. For an entire winter, I brought Dosty food twice a day, while she eyed the sheep and put on weight.

My happiest hours in Afghanistan were spent nursing these animals back to health, and my proudest accomplishment was opening a real animal shelter in a run-down house, which I refurbished and stocked and staffed so it would continue after I left. I also brought some of the animals back with me to America, a complicated and expensive ordeal in itself. Mr. Stumpy landed on a farm in Vermont, where his new owners soon sent me a photograph of an unrecognizably sleek, white creature. Dosty found a permanent home with a couple in Maryland, where she was last reported leaping halfway up oak trees to protect my friends from marauding squirrels. Pak, at this writing, is gnawing on an enormous bone in my backyard in Virginia.

Although I grew attached to Kabul, it was in the countryside that I experienced true generosity from people who had survived drought and war, hunger and disease. On a dozen trips, I forced myself to swallow greasy stews offered around a common pot—with bread serving as the only utensil—by families who could ill-afford an extra guest. And in remote villages, I met teachers who had neither chalk nor chairs nor texts, but who had devised ingenious ways to impart knowledge.

Over three years, I ventured into perhaps 20 provinces, usually in hasty pursuit of bad news. In Baghlan, where an earthquake toppled an entire village, I listened with my eyes closed to the sounds of a man digging and a woman wailing. In Oruzgan, where a U.S. gunship mistakenly bombed a wedding party, killing several dozen women and children, I contemplated a jumble of small plastic sandals left unclaimed at the entrance. In Logar, a weeping teacher showed me a two room schoolhouse for girls that had been torched at midnight. In Paktia, a dignified policeman twisted himself into a pretzel to show me how he had been abused in U.S. military custody.

During a trip to Nangarhar in the eastern part of the country, I was invited on a rollicking and uplifting adventure: a three-day field mission with U.S. military doctors and veterinarians. We straddled sheep to squirt deworming goo in their mouths, watched baby goats being born, and held stepladders so the vets could climb up to examine camels. We also glimpsed the brutal lives of Afghan nomads, who lived in filthy tents and traveled ancient grazing routes. A crippled girl was brought to us on a donkey for treatment; children were given the first toothbrushes they had ever seen; mothers asked for advice on how to stop having so many babies. By the time we were finished, hundreds of people were a little healthier and 10,000 animals had been vaccinated.

I also made numerous trips to poppy-growing areas, where the pretty but noxious crop, once nearly wiped out by the Taliban, made such a vigorous comeback that by late 2003 it accounted for more than half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product and yielded as much as 75 percent of the world’s heroin. Drug trafficking began to spread as well, and U.N. experts warned that Afghanistan was in danger of becoming a “narco-state” like Colombia.

Along roads in Nangarhar and Helmand provinces, fields of emerald poppy shoots stretched in both directions. Children squatted busily along the rows, weeding the precious crop with small scythes. Village leaders showed me their hidden stores of poppy seeds, and illiterate farmers, sweating behind ox teams, paused to explain precisely why it made economic sense for them to plow under their wheat fields for a narcotic crop.

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