Kabul, Afghanistan(May 31, 2002) -- On a dry, mild day early last week, U.S. Army Lieutenant Col. Kevin McDonnell drove a dark-green SUV through the busy, narrow streets of this dusty town. Everywhere he looked, he saw Afghan children waving and signaling a thumbs-up.
Both McDonnell and the grey-haired, grey-bearded Afghan colonel seated next to him had slipped away from a busy Afghan army training schedule to attend a Children's Day recital at a local Kabul kindergarten. The Afghan colonel, Col. Najibullah Sadiqi, is commander of the Afghan army's only recruit battalion, to date, with another battalion ready to begin training next week.
As McDonnell mixed in with the chancy traffic, Najibullah stared out of the front passenger window, chuckling at the sight of the young Afghan boys and girls waving and shouting "Thank you," and "Hello," as they drove by.
"All of the children here are very trustworthy of you," Najibullah said, looking at McDonnell, the U.S. Green Beret in charge of training his country's new army.
Before Abdul the interpreter, sitting behind McDonnell, could translate, Najibullah laughed aloud, and said, "Look at all of them; how does it make you feel?"
"Very good," McDonnell said, smiling. "It makes me feel very good."
Building a new army in an old country takes a great deal of effort, and, according to McDonnell, two important ingredients that can't be ignored are community support and the ability to win the hearts of host nation children.
"Getting the message out that we're here to protect them, and the Afghan army is here to protect them is a veryimportant message," McDonnell said.
Children can be spotted all over this crowded, war-beaten city. They stick-out above the chatter of overloaded trucks and taxis, the dust storms, and shabby kiosks made of wood and rusty conex boxes. Some are busy with chores, while others play on the sides of the streets or in the city's run-down parks.
Nowadays, some can be found walking to or from school dressed in jeans and Fubu shirts, wearing Pepsi-Cola ball caps' attire that only a few months ago would have prompted punishment by the Taliban.
"These are some of the most beautiful kids I've ever seen," said McDonnell, who has been on similar training missions around the world. "And they are the future of this country."
Col. Najibullah said one of the goals in Afghanistan is to have teachers and parents raise their children right.
It's the absence of strict Taliban rule over these children that has brought a sparkle back into their eyes, and gleaming smiles and small hands that show support for U.S. and ISAF convoys conducting military and peacekeeping business around the city.
"Children don't lie," McDonnell said, "when it comes to their reaction to the military. If they run and hide when soldiers are around, that's not a good sign."
After driving past a shopkeeper selling eggs, onions and potatoes, and a loosely dressed man pushing a bicycle outfitted with four medium-size containers of handmade yogurt; these two rugged military veterans arrived at Khirkhana, a twenty-year-old suburb in Kabul's northwest corner. They were greeted here by students of Asheiy Kindergarten eager to perform modern comedy skits and shows of song and dance.
The kindergartners, both boys and girls, stood proudly outside the entrance to their school, hands extended high above their heads. "Salaam," "Hi," "How are you?" "Welcome," they said, one after another in what sounded like a play rehearsal, hoping that one or both of the giant military officers would reach down to shake their small, tender hands.
Inside the school, the two colonels sat in a decorated room with the mothers, brothers and sisters of the younger students. The room was crowded, filled to capacity, with no standing room available in the back. In one corner, a hastily hung curtain on a wire hid the young performers' ten-foot by six-foot, makeshift stage.
Shiny pieces of colored paper attached to small, round pieces of plastic cord were hung from the ceiling to adorn the room. There were also flowers made of pink, purple and white paper.
After an opening prayer from the Holy Koran, Jamila Ghorbandi, principal of Asheiy, reminded the audience: "Our children were deprived of their childhoods during the reign of the Taliban; now, we can celebrate Children's Day."
"I request that all children be treated with respect by our teachers, so they may be well-educated to serve in our society," Ghorbandi said.
Some of the skits presented during the show reflected the drastic changes inside Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.
One young girl named Zuhra, draped in a light-blue burqa, stood on the stage and told a story about a woman, who also wore a burqa, carrying a child in her arms.
The woman was too poor to purchase food from a shopkeeper. After realizing she did not have enough money to buy even a single cookie for her child, the lady attempted to hire a taxi. The fact that she couldn?t afford the taxi caused her to break down in the street, where she began to weep.
A Talib approached her and asked: "Why aren't you wearing socks?" Because her ankles were in plain view and she was not wearing socks, the Talib lashed her with a leather strap. She remained in the street, crying.
At the end of the skit Zuhra removed the burqa and sung with her classmates a song congratulating "freedom" and the "new administration." The act received a loud, sustained applause.
"This is not what I expected from a group of kindergartners," McDonnell said, after the show. "But this is Afghanistan."
Later in the week U.S. Green Berets assigned to McDonnell's unit participated in another effort to support Afghan students. This time, on Teachers' Day, at a school hidden just over the hillside from the Afghan National Army training academy.
The school is home to hundreds of students who cram into a one-room building to attend class each day. It has no restroom facilities, no running water or electricity, and only a few unbroken windows. Back in February, the school had not yet opened when UNICEF assessed the needs of Kabul area schools, so supplies have been scarce.
"The students sit there, with flies eating them alive all day long, trying to read and write Dari," McDonnell said.
After coordinating with UNICEF, soldiers delivered pre-packaged "School-in-a-box" sets containing pens, pencils, notebooks and text books. They also arranged to have four UNICEF tents erected that will be used as classrooms until permanent structures can be built.
"These kids are what this (new Afghan) army is going to provide security for so they can grow up and be educated," McDonnell said.
"They are the future of Afghanistan."
Photo by: USAF Tech. Sgt. Mike Buytas
Story by Gunnery Sgt. Charles Portman