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Learning lessons from Malalai in Afghanistan

I’ve been fascinated by Afghanistan for many years. In 1996 I was prevented from approaching a friend’s house in Delhi (where I was living at the time) by armed guards protecting the house next door, which was the residence-in-exile of the wife and children of former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah.

At the same time, five hundred miles north-west in Kabul, Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, had taken control of the city. The Taliban tortured, castrated, beat and shot the president. They left him hanging from a traffic light post in a Kabul street, in full public view.

The opportunity to make a film about children’s lives in Afghanistan was both exciting and scary. My experience filming children in other parts of the world, including the Occupied Palestinian Territories, is that, despite the wars, politics and agendas which adults and politicians try to impose on the world, children have pretty universal needs and desires. I had faith that despite all the scare stories about the ultra-conservative religious establishment in Afghanistan, the children would share the same desire to talk, play and laugh as any other kids from Aberdeen to Addis Ababa.

In my research I found out about a young 14-year-old Afghan girl, called Malalai. She got caught up in the fighting between Afghans and British troops near Kandahar in July. As the British were getting the upper hand in the battle, Malalai removed her veil and waved it in the air in defiant encouragement to the Afghan fighters. She cried out loud “Young loves, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand, by God someone is saving you as a token of shame.” This roused the Afghans so much that they turned the tide and beat back the Brits to win the battle.

…This battle – the Battle of Maiwand – was fought on 27 July 1880. It was a pivotal moment in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (the first war began in 1839), and most Afghans are familiar with the story.

A military solution in Afghanistan has been sought by the British (and the West more generally) for at least 170 years. So why does anyone think it will work this time? Isn’t it about time we considered a humanitarian solution?

I met a real life Malalai (yes, that really was her name) in an Accelerated Learning Centre (ALC) co-funded by Save the Children in a rural village just outside of Mazar-i-Sharif. She, along with the rest of the girls in her grade three class, could not attend a mainstream school for a number of reasons, including poverty, distance from the nearest state school, their parents’ concerns about attending a mixed-sex establishment, and the general security situation – there is an apparent risk of kidnapping by what the girls referred to as “organ-stealers.”

Malalai is the loveliest, most charming young girl you could hope to meet. She told us how proud she was to be literate now. She loves attending the ALC, and especially loves her Dari (language) class. She spoke about the upcoming elections in Afghanistan, expressing hope that any new president would not be corrupt, and would enable all children to go to school and study properly. She wanted ordinary people to be given help with their “family and financial problems,” and she spoke about children’s rights and responsibilities. She said she wanted to join the police force and help prevent those who “make explosions” in her country one day. She wanted Afghanistan to become “a liberal, peaceful and developed country.” These were her words.

I know that children are supposed to be naïve, but if Malalai and her fellow pupils in the grade three class at Langar Khana ALC get everything that they wish for and deserve, then why shouldn’t Afghanistan become a peaceful and developed nation? Their wishes are not outlandish. They are perfectly reasonable.

Every child that I spoke to, filmed and interviewed in Afghanistan spoke about what needed to be done to put an end to the terrible state Afghanistan is in. They all spoke about improved education and healthcare, eradication of poverty and corruption, and the rights for children and the poor. In short, the need for a humanitarian solution.

Sadly, Malalai – the one from the history books, not our friend from Mazar-i-Sharif– lost her life during the Battle of Maiwand. But she is not forgotten. Many schools and hospitals have been named after her, and she is considered Afghanistan’s greatest heroine; Afghanistan’s version of Joan of Arc.

I would hope that 129 years after her namesake was killed in a war with British occupiers, our own young Malalai may see more schools and hospitals in her community without too much more blood being spilled.

Watch Child Eye films, that share the testimonies of children at the sharp end of war, natural disasters and poverty all over the world, including those of Afghan children.

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