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Afghanistan: uncertain but hopeful

Girls are eager to go to school but the nightmare scenario of a possible Taliban return looms. (Peter Balleis S.J./Jesuit Refugee Service)
Saturday, December 29, 2012

(Bamyan, Afghanistan) December 29, 2012 — In 2001, the world watched helplessly as the Taliban destroyed two massive Buddha statues, carved nearly 1,500 years earlier in the cliff face overlooking Bamyan. 

Today, the silent mountains still depict the wounds of this small isolated province in central Afghanistan. It was more than precious cultural monuments that were destroyed. The male and female Buddha statues stand for all the men and women of Bamyan, neglected, marginalized and, still today, in pain.

The beautiful green valley of Bamyan is mostly home to the Hazara people. Shia Muslims, as opposed to the overwhelming Sunni majority in Afghanistan, the Hazaras suffered terribly under Taliban rule. Many fled to neighboring Iran, where they spent years as refugees. Their suffering has prompted a realization in the people of Bamyan that education is the only way to fight injustice. Their desire to gain knowledge is so intense it really motivates me to give my best, always. 

The needs of Bamyan are many and diverse. But knowing that education is a major key to development, Jesuit Refugee Service has invested in this field. I was asked to manage the English Access program in four schools, the teacher-training center and at the university. 

Jerome Sequeira S.J., JRS director in Bamyan, had to go to India for tertianship (the final phase of Jesuit formation), and I was slightly anxious about being alone for three months. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The biggest challenge to overcome was the cultural barrier but those months by myself allowed me to get to know the people and their culture more closely.

My interaction with the students helps me to see reality from their point of view. Young people in Bamyan really want to study and progress in life, their avid interest in class makes this clear. They are tired of war, but when asked how they see the future of Afghanistan, their eyes reflect grave concern. 

During the Taliban times, girls were not allowed to go to school, never given the opportunity to learn. One of our access students voiced their silent fear: "If Taliban come back, it would be most difficult for us girls to leave our house freely and go to school or university. There will always be the fear of death".

Adults share the girls' views. A JRS staff worker said: "The Taliban will never allow us [Hazaras] to live peacefully. They will find us and kill us. We'll have no other way but to flee to another country as refugees just as we did before."

Another staff member says he'll leave the country voluntarily. "I'd be very happy to go somewhere else where I can do higher studies and get a good job." Many young intelligent minds feel the same, that there is no place for them in Afghanistan, no place for free speech. 

For now, at least, Bamyan is relatively safe although its surroundings and the roads leading to it remain volatile and dangerous. Many hold Bamyan out as a beacon of hope for the rest of the country. There is a long way to go, but can Bamyan truly change? My answer is yes – change is possible. But the people of Bamyan need our support, now more than ever. If we pull out at this critical moment then we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

As for me, I have discovered more confidence and inner strength than ever before. This wouldn't have been possible without faith in God, who has sent me on this mission, and my formation as a Jesuit. Every evening, in my silent prayers, I challenge myself with three questions from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, the Society of Jesus: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ? 

I am thankful to the Society for placing so much trust in me and challenging me to go ahead. As Jesuits, we are called to move out of our safety zones, to give without counting the cost. This land of uncertainties has taught me a great deal, and I am ever grateful to all who have been with me in this mission of the Society. For it is through your help and support that I have received formation that will be ever close to my heart.   

Jestin Anthony S.J. is a Jesuit in formation in Gujarat Province in India. This article appeared in the latest issue of Servir. Click here to access the PDF and read more.