Skating to Kabul

For Many Afghan Boys, the Future
Lies Between War & Being a Sex Toy

Last week’s tragic killing of two boys in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, underlined once again our worst fears about the future of generations of Afghan youth, squeezed between the brutal choices of either being killed by the war, or sexually abused by their country’s older men.
As the U.S. prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, many fear it will leave it in a much worst shape than it found 12 years ago, choked in the toxic mix of poverty, obscurantism, and the quirks of ancient law. Still, some see skateboarding as a way out for some children.
The shooting of the young cattle herders by a NATO-led strike was obviously a catastrophic mistake, just the latest in a long list. That, however, doesn’t lessen the brunt of their loss to their families, who like many others rely on all labor their youngest can put up to, amid the war-ravaged countryside.
Mistaken strikes, often by drone missiles, have been the most deadly cause for civilian casualties in the Afghan war, and the death of the two boys, ages seven and eight, follows another attack in early February, that left 10 unarmed people dead, five of which children. There’s no sight this can possibly be stopped.

It’s a fitting, albeit calamitous, coda for a war that started with one purpose, to find the responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It got deflated before such mission had been accomplished, interrupted by the long, and completely baseless, Iraq invasion, and finally restarted with no visible objective.
The result: over 2,000 American troops killed, an estimated 140,000 civilian ‘casualties’ in the combined Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the biggest U.S. defense budget ever, far more than all the other NATO nations combined, and a domestic economy in tatters due to this overzealous war effort.
A recent U.N. report also pointed at one of the most lasting damages this war will imprint on Afghan’s society, and the Iraqi’s too for that matter, for years to come: the staggering number of children killed, enough to leave a generational gap in the future of those countries.
As for the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the main reason to justify both military adventures, and the most expensive war effort ever undertaken by the U.S., it ended as everybody knows, with his killing in May, 2, 2010, amid a fusillade of bullets, in neither of these countries but in Pakistan.

Imagine if Catholic priests accused of horrendous sexual crimes against children, or Rabbis, or even Boy Scout leaders, were in charge not only of the supposedly key to the kingdom of heavens, or of supreme moral rectitude, but also would preside over more mundane tasks such as public safety, or law-making, or business matters?
They would be tribal elders, former army commanders, and their moral rulings (mainly over the sexuality and freedom of women and their daughters) were not to be questioned. They would also be married, but that wouldn’t preclude what their culture considers leisure time: purchasing dancing boys for their private ‘entertainment.’
Gross qualification? Perhaps. But the reality of contemporary rural life in Afghanistan doesn’t stray too far from that. Except that, unlike centuries ago, the practice of buying boys for sex is illegal (wink, wink). And that the tragic reality of war may have increased the appeal of such a lifestyle to dispossessed youth.
Apart from the money, most of everything else also resembles what it’s now well-known strategies adopted by pedophiles everywhere, both of the cloth and outside it. Boys to be known as basha bazi later, are bought from poor, often fatherless families, in what it’s quite possibly their only shot at beating a lifetime of starvation for them and their families.
We said the practice is considered illegal, but enforcement of the rules is, well, left to police chiefs and tribe elders, deeply involved in the ancient habit. By the way, historians have traced it all the way to ancient Greeks, and besides Afghanistan, many Central Asian countries have one form or another of sexual exploitation of children.

Despite this grim reality for many Asian children, an organization came up with a plan that’s so far out, so outrageously creative that it may just work. Skateistan started as a non-government enterprise focused on skateboarding-making as a tool for education and social integration of Afghan youth, a safe environment badly missing in most of Kabul.
As a not-for-profit, and with the help of U.S.-based Create-a-Skate, it’s now expanded to Cambodia and Pakistan, catering to five to eight-year-olds who learn much more than to make skates. Through this project, documented in a short film, they’re also part of an exchange program with Native Americans, of whom cultural motifs illustrate the Kabul-made skates.
Another crucial, and highly beneficial, element of Skateistan‘s project: over 40% of the skateboarders are girls. Programs include disabled children, indoor and outdoor practice camps, and lessons of civility and of a life resembling the one that’s only possible in times of peace.
We’re obviously not an interested party in this project, in any shape or form, just first-time enthusiasts. After all, such a brand of small, independent, free for all, playful in nature and serious in purpose, kind of idea seems custom-made for the harsh realities faced by Afghans of all ages. We could go on, but won’t.

Want to know why? Even such an idealistic effort may be doomed, if the Afghanistan that will emerge after the U.S. exits will be a lawless land of strict but twisted moral codes, a male-oriented authoritarian regime bent with a seething desire for revenge for what was done to their country by foreign powers.
The greatest tragedy of Afghanistan is that the new generations that will be needed to build a better country, serving as agents of peace and deterrent for vendetta and the retrograde old ways, may have already been too brutalized, maimed, violated, corrupted, or just downright dead to be counted.
Heaven forbid if the only choice for the young, other than being part of the war’s grim statistics, or a boy toy to some repulsive old man, would be to waste their lives as manual laborers, building skates for Western kids. After all this country went through along the centuries, there’s got to be a better prospect for tomorrow’s Afghanistan.

(*) Originally published on March 3, 2015.

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