At Afghan orphanage, friends from different sides of the war

Hamidullah, 12, and Rahmatullah, 10, have nearly everything in common. They have the same haircuts, the same blue uniforms, the same jokes, the same notebooks with sailboats and convertibles on the cover.

They sleep next to each other in a big room where a ceiling fan stirs warm air. They eat together and play on the same cricket team. When they get older, they want to be neighbors. They arrived here — bunkmates in southern Afghanistan’s largest orphanage — under the same tragic circumstances.

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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.

“Your dad was a Taliban fighter,” she told him.

She said that his father, Noorzai, was killed with other combatants in the Arghandab Valley — an insurgent hotbed just beyond the orphanage walls. He had been fighting U.S. and Afghan forces for two years.

Hamidullah wanted more specifics but was afraid to ask for them. He decided not to tell anyone at the orphanage the few details he knew.

Rahmatullah arrived about a year later. His father was an officer in the Afghan National Police. In 2010, after several years working at a local security checkpoint, he was shot and killed by insurgents when he walked out of a mosque. Although no killer was identified, no one doubted that the Taliban had taken down another government employee.

“He was representing the government and security forces when he was killed,” Rahmatullah said.

A few weeks after the killing, Rahmatullah’s older brother drove him to the orphanage, where about half of the boys are the sons of fallen soldiers and police officers. The other half includes a number of boys with familial connections to the Taliban.

Rahmatullah was 8 when he arrived, and Hamidullah was one of the first boys he met. If Rahmatullah had inherited any biases from his father’s slaying, they hadn’t yet congealed. Mostly, he needed friends.

“He was kind, well-behaved and smart,” Rahmatullah said of Hamidullah. “We became close very quickly.”

But the topic of their fathers’ deaths has never come up.

“It is our habit not to talk about this with each other. It’s a sad issue,” Hamidullah said.

‘That’s just how Kandahar is’

The two boys started studying together. They told each other made-up stories and jokes. Every day, they listened when the radio or television in the orphanage blasted the local news.

“Things like 29 dead and 29 injured in bombing,” Hamidullah said.

“Things about the attacks in Kandahar,” Rahmatullah said.

They rarely talked about what they heard, except for Hamidullah’s occasional political commentary.

“There will be fighting until the Taliban are allowed to come into the government,” he said.

The boys still seek to rationalize the deaths of their fathers, even if they express little interest in exacting revenge.

“He was fighting for the government. Defending our country. And I’m proud of that,” said Zulmai, 12, whose father was killed while serving as a bodyguard for Kandahar’s police chief.

“The Taliban he was fighting for — they made mistakes, but they are good people,” said Agha Wali, whose father was killed in an American airstrike while fighting for the insurgency.

Afghan officials worry that the unlikely bonds among orphans could come undone when the boys return to their home villages, surrounded again by those on the same side of the conflict.

Hashemi, the orphanages’ director, estimates that 13 of the Kandahar orphanage’s 30 high school graduates last year might be susceptible to the insurgency’s recruitment tactics. The sons of fallen Taliban fighters have always been easy targets, he said.

“That’s just how Kandahar is. It was the Taliban heartland. There will always be a Taliban presence. They will always look for young fighters,” he said.

For Hamidullah and Rahmatullah, graduation is more than a half-decade away. They have more immediate concerns. Hamidullah has a Pashto exam coming up. Rahmatullah is struggling to learn addition. Every evening, they study together.

They want to be doctors or teachers or something else that doesn’t involve carrying a gun. Their fathers’ jobs, both said, “were too dangerous.” But they’re in no hurry to leave the orphanage.

“We like this place a lot,” Hamidullah said. “Everything we need is here.”

 
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