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25 October 2004

Some Things do Change

Trading their guns for pens
Sat Oct 23, 4:27 PM ET
By Bay Fang

KABUL--They were three years younger then, playing at adulthood with wispy beards and Kalashnikovs. They spent their days sniping at Taliban fighters from trenches along the front line, operating radios from mountaintop bunkers, and serving tea to the local warlord and his guests. For these teenagers living in Dashti Qala, the frontline town in northern Afghanistan (news - web sites), daily life had one focus and one focus only--the enemy outlined on the next hill.

Today their faces are thinner, with age and a student diet, and they talk not of fighting and of the enemy but of their futures. Hedayatullah studies engineering. Osman is preparing for medical school. Mukhtar wants to be a teacher. Jalaluddin harbors hopes of going abroad. In the three years since the Taliban fell, these young men and their lives--as soldiers turned students--are the faces of change in Afghanistan.

Mukhtar was 15 when the Taliban came to the village of Khoja Ghar. Stories of their atrocities -- raping young women and burning the old -- live on in Northern Alliance lore, and most boys of fighting age took up a weapon and joined the local commander. Mukhtar was given a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher--which, his friends laugh, was taller than he was then. "At the time, our feeling was only to defend our nation," says Mukhtar, now 19. "We had no chance to study. No one knew if the Taliban would be there forever. We couldn't think about becoming an engineer, a teacher, a doctor. We only thought about fighting."

Today, nine of them live in one tiny room, above the bus station where passengers headed to Kandahar throng. Mats line the floor, and pieces of clothing hang haphazardly from a rod across the ceiling. The one desk is piled high with notebooks and papers. There are so many young men like them that the university has run out of space in the dormitories. Their fellow students come from all different backgrounds -- some fought with the Northern Alliance, some with the Taliban. Some men are starting the equivalent of middle school in their late 20s, having never before had the chance to study. "No one looks down on anyone else," says Hedayatullah, "because we all know we had no other choice."

(USNEWS.com)

At least for some, things seem to be getting better...

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