Much has happened since Jill Vickers was among 18 young vaccinators traveling through the towns and villages of Afghanistan as part of the Peace Corps’ participation in a project to help eradicate smallpox. That was the early 1970s.
In recent years, Jill, who lives in Bridport, has mentored a number of young Afghan women, some of them students at Middlebury College. With the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the rise of the Taliban, those young women are watching with horror either from the United States or, facing a perilous future, from within Afghanistan itself.
My time as a Peace Corps volunteer overlapped with Jill’s, and I encountered her one time when she passed through the town in northern Afghanistan where I was working as an English teacher. Many years later, Jill produced a documentary film featuring interviews with former vaccinators plus old footage from their time in the country. And she took up her volunteer work supporting education for women in Afghanistan and in the United States.
In the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, I decided to check in with several friends I knew from my time in Afghanistan. Over the years we have witnessed the nation’s torment from afar, but our time there, living and working among the Afghan people, has allowed us to see the human dimension of what became a geopolitical disaster.
Jill, a retired teacher, described the anger she has felt that such a small, poor country had been used as a battlefield by the Soviet Union and then the United States. And yet, even if the swiftness of the Taliban takeover was shocking, the ultimate outcome has been less than surprising.
Jill recalled hearing in the spring of 1970 about what was described as a “mullah uprising” in Jalalabad and how Zaher Shah, the king, had used the military to put it down. The mullahs are the religious leaders who during the decades since then have spearheaded the fundamentalist movements resisting modernism and the incursion of Western ways. Ultimately, they produced the Taliban.
It is evident that unrest beneath the surface has always been there, bursting forth over the years in various iterations of revolution, invasion and civil war.
I also checked in with Greg Kopp, a retired psychologist living in Las Cruces, N.M.
During my first year in the small city of Khanabad, Greg and I shared a rented house and taught English in the local school. This week Greg volunteered to help as a translator with refugees arriving at nearby Fort Bliss in Texas.
“You can’t help but feel for them,” he said.
As with all of us who spent time in Afghanistan, revolution and war have left us wondering about the people we knew — the students in our classes, the fellow teachers and government officials with whom we worked, the servants who cooked for us. They are the human faces retained within our memories, replicated by the thousands in the crowds now swarming outside the airport in Kabul.
Greg and I became involved in a program near the end of our time in the country to help distribute wheat to the countryside in order to avert an impending famine. He remembers the warehouse manager we both had to deal with in an effort to free up shipments of wheat without allowing him to take his own personal cut.
The customary levels of corruption that we encountered have made the failure of the national government to stand up to the Taliban, if not inevitable, at least plausible.
During that period, Greg was stationed in the capital of Badghis province, Qala Nau, and I was at a remote village called Ghormach, living with the local sub-governor — the man appointed by the government as the top official in the area. Most nights he was joined by his assistant, a warm, engaging man from a distant province, to share dinner and play cards.
I remember the evening when it fell to me to demonstrate by circling a teapot around a lantern how the earth actually moved around the sun. The government assistant had read in the Quran about the four corners of the earth and so assumed that the earth was flat. He was a bright, conscientious man, but the chasm of understanding that existed between ordinary people and the modern world was evident that evening.
When I was in Khanabad, another volunteer, Chris Bateman, was living an hour away in the city of Kunduz. After he returned to the U.S., he worked for many years as a reporter at a newspaper in Sonora, Calif., and I called him to talk about recent events.
He acknowledged that his memories of Afghanistan were distant, but he said he had been skeptical about the “staying power” of the Afghan government. He was surprised at how quickly the government had fallen, but he remembered that even when we were there, the reach of the central government out to the provinces had been tenuous.
He recalled that even in those relatively peaceful times we heard stories of mullahs throwing acid in the faces of women who went about uncovered in Kabul. And he mentioned the girls’ school in a town where another volunteer was stationed that someone had burned.
The reasons for skepticism about Afghanistan’s prospects have been real, but there have also been reasons for hope. We became acquainted with bright, ambitious, open, friendly people caught between two worlds — the isolated, rural, medieval world of traditional Afghanistan and the beckoning opportunities of the modern world.
The hard-working and brilliant young women I have met through Jill are part of the latter, and it is a cause of profound grief that education and opportunity for Afghan girls and women are now in jeopardy.
Jill, Greg, Chris and I all remember the pervasive hospitality we encountered in Afghanistan. On one exploratory trip to a poor village high in the mountains, with famine looming, a Peace Corps staff member cautioned us that our hosts would offer us sugar with our tea and we should be sure not to take it. They would need it. But first they offered it to us.
In the coming weeks, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan will be arriving in this country. It will be up to us to repay the hospitality.