Czechs in Afghanistan, Pt. II: The “Afghan Czechs”

The idea of long-term humanitarian work in a developing country is not for it to be run ad infinitum by a team of expert foreigners. The work must eventually be put in the hands of the people themselves to continue it on their own, and the same goes for People in Need in Afghanistan. In the years to come, the work of the Czech charity foundation will continue, but without the Czechs. In the next of Radio Prague’s series on Afghanistan, Christian Falvey meets the Afghans who will gradually take over the ground laid by Czechs.

Amirzada Ahamadzai is pretty much as Czech as they come. Taller and darker than your average Czech he is, but there is this look of friendly scepticism on his face that, after all my years in the Czech Republic, I think I could pick out of a crowded Kabul market. In short, I knew he was the Czech Afghan (or Afghan Czech), that I’d heard so much about – who runs one of the most important parts of the mission there – straight away; if not by the slightly Bohemian air about him then by his perfect mastery of the language. In the PIN courtyard in Kabul, I asked him what he felt like, a Czech or an Afghan.

Feda YariFeda Yari “That really is the key question! When I’m in Afghanistan I feel very much an Afghan. But when I go back to the Czech Republic I really do feel like a Czech through and through. I spent my childhood in Afghanistan, but I’ve spent most of my life in the Czech Republic”.

Amir, like a few hundred other Afghans, came to Czechoslovakia on a Soviet-sponsored study-abroad programme in the late 1980s when he was only 16 years old. Feda Yari who also came to study construction explains what drew young Afghans to Prague:

“It was interesting back then, that they would send people who had the best grades and wanted to go, to Czechoslovakia, because it was the first place where students wanted to go. And because of that, Czechs sent people to Afghanistan to build huge factories staffed with Czech engineers, and so Afghans had that kind of mutual experience with Czechs.”

The years when most Afghan students were coming to Czechoslovakia also happened to be years of extreme transformation for both countries. While a bloodless, velvet transfer of power was underway in Czechoslovakia, in Amirzada Ahamadzai’s homeland the withdrawal of the Soviet troops had brought on a civil war, just as his studies abroad were blooming. At the end of his five-year scholarship he may have been the only Afghan chosen to continue in higher education, but the Afghan ambassador was personally bent on getting him back and into the army. That he is now a Czech is a twist of fate owed ultimately to one of his tutors, who believed strongly in him.

KabulKabul “It’s not just thanks to her that I stayed in Czechoslovakia – it may be thanks to her that I’m alive today. My younger brother did not have the luck to study abroad, he studied economics at Kabul University. When the Mujahedeen came to power and partisan war broke out, he was kidnapped and as of today we have never even found his corpse. He had an old little car that he drove to school, and he would take passengers like a taxi to make extra money. All I know now is that he is not alive. But I had the good fortune to be able to study abroad, and so I’m still alive.”

Other members of Amir’s family were killed by mines or were blown up as children while salvaging scrap metal. He says that the fact that his mother could rely on his survival abroad was one of the things that kept him above water in a foreign country. Happily, several of his former schoolmates in Czechoslovakia now work for People in Need. But they had been forced back to Afghanistan in the 1990s. Qalandar Anwari was perhaps lucky to get a desk job in the army when he returned from his agricultural studies in Prague, and unlucky to get a field position in the Ministry of Agriculture afterwards.

“It was very difficult. I was put in charge of a vegetable farm and there were many problems, working in a civil war. [Because of anti-communist Mujahedeen] I could not work voluntarily, the workers would come and look around or do a little work, but I couldn’t make them do anything, or even ask why they came late or why they weren’t working [because of their political affiliations]. That’s the kind of disorder there was. When there is war, there is a lot of ambiguity.”

Ehsanullah AseerEhsanullah Aseer The uncertainties of life in war were felt again and again for over seven years by Ehsanullah Aseer, now a deputy project manager for People in Need, but in the 1990’s just a boy who wanted to learn English, hiding his books in his pants to avoid being found out by the Taliban. His family fled the Taliban advance during the civil war only to find prices on their heads everywhere else, because they were Pashtuns. And so they packed their possessions onto donkeys and went to Taliban-controlled Kabul, choosing oppression over execution.

“We knew that in the areas under Taliban control you should have a hat on your head, but my young brother had put his hat on the pack on the donkey. When we arrived at the Taliban checkpoint we were scared, because we didn’t know their faces. They stopped us and they asked my brother, ‘where is your hat?’ to which he replied, being very young, ‘it’s on the donkey.’ ‘Your hat is on the donkey!” they said. My father went and told them, ‘No, his hat is on the bag on the donkey, not on the donkey’s head,’ but they had already started beating my brother. This was our first experience after arriving in an area under the control of the Taliban, by which we understood that there would be a heavy punishment for every single mistake made under the their regime.”

The students chosen for study in Prague, truly the crème-de-la-crème of academic potential in Afghanistan, found, with the onset of the Taliban regime that all their learning and knowledge was not only for nought, it was a risk to them. Karim Zahmat was a student of construction in Czechoslovakia.

“The Taliban wouldn’t let me work anywhere, because they said I had been a student in a socialist country, and I was therefore a communist. It was a surprise, because we had never imagined that kind of life – that the Taliban would come, and prohibit everything imaginable. You couldn’t work, go somewhere with someone, there was no kind of entertainment, they only pushed people to go to the mosque and pray and that was everything. My wife had to wear the burqa, because it was obligatory, and stop her practical studies as a teacher. She couldn’t work for seven years and she stayed at home.”

Amirzada Ahamadzai once returned to his Afghan family with the request that the women not wear the burqa in his presence. They refused. The Afghans who managed to stay in the Czech Republic after their studies are now Czechs, with wives and children in the Czech Republic. And through their work with People in Need, some of them, like Feda Yari, who has an 11-year-old Czech daughter of his own, are revisiting the country of their youth for the first time in two decades.

“Afghanistan has changed greatly since 2001, but of course you can’t change any country altogether in just 10 years. Look at the Czech Republic, and what it has taken 20 years to change. There the people are very well educated and they have opportunities that the people here unfortunately do not have. These changes have their advantages and disadvantages. The people here are largely illiterate, but you are going now into the countryside where you will see schools where they are learning about the rest of the world, and gradually I hope we will have a different Afghanistan in ten years than we have in 2010.”

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