Just one detail separates the best friends. Their fathers were killed fighting on opposite sides of the war.
Rahmatullah’s father was killed by the Taliban.
Hamidullah’s father was killed fighting for the Taliban.
In this ethnic Pashtun heartland, where vengeance and pride so often dictate action, Rahmatullah and Hamidullah might have been expected to inherit their fathers’ allegiances. Instead, they started fresh, embracing each other.
“No matter what their fathers did, they are friends,” said Sayyid Abdullah Hashemi, the director of Afghanistan’s orphanages. “Our goal for the country is to have the same attitude as the orphans.”
That seems a distant prospect. Afghanistan is full of villages and families that are bitterly divided between the insurgency and the government. Eleven years into the war, efforts to bring the country together through a nationwide reconciliation process have yielded nothing.
But on a much smaller scale, some wounds heal. When men die in Kandahar, it doesn’t matter whether they’re soldiers, civilians or insurgents: Their sons are taken to the same smattering of drab buildings and assigned to the same dorm rooms at Sheikh Zayed Orphanage.
Many of their mothers are alive. But women in southern Afghanistan are seen by many here as being incapable of independently providing for their children. Sometimes, the boys are found wandering aimlessly around bazaars and are picked up by police. Sometimes uncles or cousins drop them off with a quick explanation: “His father is gone.”
They are the sons of police killed in targeted attacks, of Taliban fighters struck down by American airstrikes, of farmers who stepped on improvised explosive devices. Hundreds of attacks every year means hundreds of newly fatherless children. There are 16,700 of them in Afghan orphanages. Of those, 440 are in Kandahar.
They are known as yateem, a particularly pitiable title in patriarchal Afghanistan. Boys without fathers. Orphans.
For years, the boys grieve quietly, scribbling their fathers’ names in notebooks and on the wall next to their beds. They dwell privately on their dads’ allegiances.
Dislodged from their sliver of a fractured province and bound by the same weighted word, they let themselves like one another.
‘We became close very quickly’
Hamidullah arrived in 2009, when he was 9 years old. His understanding of his father’s death is full of vagaries — a terrible event but not something he could explain. A midday firefight and a burial ceremony the next day. That’s all he remembers.
Before being sent to the orphanage, he went to his mother for details. “Who was my father and how did he die?” he asked.