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The Effect 20 Years Of War Had On Women In Rural Afghanistan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This summer, as the Taliban closed in on the cities of Afghanistan, the journalist Anand Gopal decided to check on the rural parts of the country, the tiny villages and, in particular, the women who live there. Gopal interviewed dozens of women about the impact on their lives of these last two decades of war. One of them told him, quote, my daughter wakes up screaming that the Americans are coming. We have to keep talking to her softly and tell her, no, no, they won't come back. Anand Gopal's new piece for The New Yorker is titled "The Other Afghan Women." Welcome.

ANAND GOPAL: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Start by painting me a picture of where you were reporting from in Afghanistan, where and how these women live.

GOPAL: This was in Helmand Province, which is in southern Afghanistan. It is really the epicenter of the war in the last two decades. It's an extremely underdeveloped area, despite the billions of dollars that the U.S. has spent. If you visit Helmand, you'll hardly see any paved roads, electricity. And some people there, women there, are living mostly in mud-walled villages, not that different than they have been for the previous two decades.

KELLY: Of the many fascinating women who you met, I want to focus us on one, Shakira. Who is she?

GOPAL: So Shakira comes from northern Helmand Province, and she was born in the late 1970s. And shortly after she was born, Afghanistan plunged into violence, really for the first time. It's when the Soviets invaded the country. And she lived through the Soviet invasion and really horrific occupation in which she saw loved ones being killed by Russian jets, family members disappeared. So she kind of grew up around this violence. And then the anti-Soviet forces after the Soviets left turned their guns on each other, and that led to a civil war. So by the time the Taliban came to power in the '90s, they just saw this as, well, at least this is not fighting. But then the whole cycle started again when the U.S. invaded. So she's now 41 years old, and she's lived her entire life in conflict.

KELLY: She's now 41, and she has eight kids. And the way that you trace her view of what these last two decades have looked like, what they have meant, when she first heard American soldiers were coming to overthrow the Taliban, that her heart filled with hope. She thought these were the good guys. These guys might help her life, her family's life improve.

GOPAL: Absolutely. I mean, the way she put it to me is these are the soldiers in the richest country on earth coming here. And this is at a time when there was a pretty devastating drought in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban were running a very vicious conscription campaign, taking young men off to fight on the front lines. And so there was very little support for the Taliban, and there was a lot of hope that the U.S. would turn things around.

KELLY: And what happened?

GOPAL: Well, the U.S. came, and they brought in these warlords or strongmen who had previously terrorized the community. These are people who had initially fought against the Soviets, but really were mostly fighting against each other for opium profits or for smuggling and other such things. And so these warlords started to prey on the local population again. And so really, in the years between 2001 and 2004 or so, it felt, in Shakira's community, it felt like she was living through a civil war again. But it was a one-sided civil war where the fighting was only done by the government forces, and the victims were all local villagers that she knew.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, it's remarkable, really, how quickly her view turned. You write that by 2005 - and I so felt for her in this moment - she's dealing with all these kids. Her husband is not much help. He's smoking opium and sleeping too much. And by then, she's lost faith in the Americans. She sees a Taliban convoy and thinks, maybe things might be different.

GOPAL: Yeah, it's a really tragic moment. And it's a choice that a lot of Afghans were making at that point in her community, which is these are the people that we previously saw as our tormentors, but maybe they're actually a little bit better than the current tormentors.

KELLY: You chronicle the list of Shakira's family members who've died in these 20 years since the U.S. invaded and some by coalition forces, U.S. forces, some shot by Afghan security forces. One at least died in a drone strike. But it is - it's such a long list, entire branches of her family tree just vanishing. How did she talk about that, about the impact of that?

GOPAL: You know, this kind of violence was so baked into people's lives that in the beginning, when I was interviewing her and other women, they didn't really center their interviews around these stories. They would mention in passing, oh, yeah, and that was my cousin so-and-so who got killed by a drone or my cousin so-and-so hit a roadside bomb. For me, as an outsider, though, it was shocking. And I've been covering Afghanistan for a long time. And even for me, the level of suffering and death I hadn't expected to see. And so I realized I should start getting lists and finding out in each family how many people have died. So in Shakira's case, she said she's lost 16 members of her family in the last 20 years.

KELLY: Sixteen. And you cross-checked with other families. What did you find?

GOPAL: So I went house to house. I did a basically, like, a random sample survey in her village and then checked with other villages. And I found that, on average, families lost between 10 to 12 members of their family in the last two decades.

KELLY: Bring us up to this summer. When you were there talking to her, what was the situation? What was her view as the U.S. had announced we're out, we're winding down this war, we're done?

GOPAL: She looked at this purely as, is this going to help me and my children survive or not? And so she was saying, thank God, the U.S. is leaving. Maybe this is our chance for peace. And so when I traveled through Helmand Province this summer, I met many people who, on the one hand, they were afraid that maybe there would be a new civil war. But on the other hand, they were hopeful that, OK, if one side takes over, that's better than two sides fighting

KELLY: And where is Shakira now? How's she doing?

GOPAL: So Shakira is living in a, I guess, a makeshift displaced persons area that used to be decades ago a thriving market but has basically been bombed out. And so she's living in a storefront that's - and she's put, like, curtains in front of the storefront for privacy. And her family of eight children and her and her husband live in this - probably a room the size of ordinary American living room.

KELLY: I can't imagine. Her youngest is - what? - 2?

GOPAL: Two years old, yes.

KELLY: And her house, part of the reason she can't go back is that right before U.S. forces left, they dynamited part of it?

GOPAL: That's right. And there was a Taliban fighter that was near her house. So the U.S. forces went and dynamited the house as part of the fight against the Taliban fighter. And she's hoping she can go back, live in the intact part and then rebuild the rest.

KELLY: At the end of your piece, you give Shakira the last words. And after all of this, she's speaking - living in this one room market storefront, she is hopeful. Why?

GOPAL: I think because, at this point, she has no choice but to be hopeful, you know, after living through what she's lived through. The possibility that there'll be no more fighting is what she's been waiting for her whole life. And, you know, the last things - the piece closes with one of the things she told me, which is that I have to believe this. You know, otherwise, what was all this for?

KELLY: That's the journalist Anand Gopal. His New Yorker piece is titled "The Other Afghan Women." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.