Be pre­pared for mines, mul­lahs: Afghan Scouts re­born

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

IN his blue cap and green Scouts shirt, 16-year-old Aref Qasemi sits in a room in Kabul with dozens of other boys and girls, his eyes barely mak­ing it over the shoul­ders of his fel­low Scouts. Un­der the dim lights they at first ap­pear like any other gig­gling Scout troop. Then the sub­ject of the bright im­ages pro­jected on the wall sinks in: mines, of dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes, and other pieces of un­ex­ploded ord­nance.

Aref and his friends are not learn­ing how to kayak or build a camp­fire, the usual things taught to Scouts in other coun­tries, but how to iden­tify and avoid these deadly, bru­tal weapons.

Mil­lions of mines, im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices (IEDs) and other pieces of ord­nance are scat­tered across Afghanistan, the legacy of more than three decades of war.

They kill and maim dozens of peo­ple each month, ac­cord­ing to UN data – in­clud­ing, dis­pro­por­tion­ately, cu­ri­ous chil­dren at play.

“I once wit­nessed two of my friends killed when they picked up a piece of [un­ex­ploded ord­nance], think­ing it was a piece of metal they could sell,” Aref says.

“Learn­ing how to iden­tify and deal with mines is very im­por­tant. These lessons might one day save my and my fam­ily’s life.”

Scouting has a long and proud history in Afghanistan, where it was first ini­ti­ated in 1931, says na­tional train­ing com­mis­sioner Gul Ah­mad Mustafa. But things fell apart dur­ing the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, fol­lowed by civil war and Tal­iban rule, when tra­di­tional scouting was banned.

But in 2010 the in­ter­na­tional aid or­gan­i­sa­tion PARSA, which works to help chil­dren and women in Afghanistan, be­gan at­tempts to re­vive the move­ment, train­ing troops of boys and girls first in re­mote Ghor prov­ince and in or­phan­ages in Kabul.

To­day more than 400 lead­ers have been trained and some 2000 Scouts are ac­tive in 13 out of 34 prov­inces, ac­cord­ing to Mo­ham­mad Tamim Hamkar, the Afghan pro­gram’s man­ager.

Like fel­low Scouts world­wide, they play games, learn first aid and field crafts – but, lack­ing funds and fac­ing spi­ralling vi­o­lence and in­se­cu­rity, ad­ven­tures such as camp­ing and hik­ing are all but im­pos­si­ble. Some­times even sim­ple mis­un­der­stand­ings can put peo­ple in dan­ger in Afghanistan’s ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive cul­ture.

Some years ago a camp­fire sin­ga­long in Kabul had to be abruptly halted af­ter mul­lahs ac­cused the chil­dren of worshipping fire, says Hamkar.“We were forced to show the mul­lahs our train­ing man­u­als, and ar­gue to con­vince them a camp­fire doesn’t mean worshipping fire or blas­phemy,” the 34-year-old added.

At times the chil­dren are as­so­ci­ated with po­lice, a dan­ger­ous per­cep­tion in a coun­try where law en­force­ment – ac­cused of many rights abuses and widely dis­trusted – are reg­u­larly tar­geted by in­sur­gents.

Ear­lier this month more than 30 young po­lice cadets were killed in a sui­cide at­tack just a few miles from where Aref’s scout troop was meet­ing.

The mis­take stems in part from the 1970s and 1980s, when scouting’s lo­cal Pashto name – “Saran­doi” – was adopted by law en­force­ment.

“While scouting can thrive when sup­ported by peo­ple, some here are tak­ing our boys for po­lice, think­ing we are part of the in­te­rior min­istry,” Hamkar said.

There are rays of light too, how­ever. In a na­tion plagued by decades of vi­o­lence and ram­pant drug use, scouting gives some young peo­ple a path.

“I have learned a lot from be­ing a Scout – dis­ci­pline in life, self-re­liance and how to help oth­ers,” says hum­blelook­ing 15-year-old Eh­san­ul­lah.

“But to learn how to be a good per­son, avoid vi­o­lence and keep away from drug use is what mat­ters.”

It also pro­vides a rare path for girls, who Hamkar says make up nearly 40 per­cent of Scouts na­tion­wide. While troops are seg­re­gated by gen­der, the sexes do mix for im­por­tant sub­jects like mine aware­ness.

The per­cep­tion of Scouts in the coun­try is slowly im­prov­ing, Hamkar says. “We have been hav­ing TV shows on the im­por­tance of scouting, to change the wrong im­pres­sion about scouting.”

“Some­times when I see peo­ple praise our boys for contributing to so­ci­ety, it brings back mem­o­ries of good old times, when scouting was hailed as a good and ac­cepted part of the cul­ture,” Mustafa the train­ing com­mis­sioner says.

It may yet be years be­fore the Afghan scouting pro­gram is once again recog­nised in­ter­na­tion­ally, or­gan­is­ers ad­mit.

“We started from zero, made a lot of un­de­ni­able progress in de­vel­op­ing the Afghan scouting pro­gram, but we have to go much fur­ther to reach a sat­is­fac­tory level,” says Hamkar.

He pauses, then adds, “But we are de­ter­mined. Even if it re­quires the pa­tience of the Prophet Ay­oub [Job], we will do it. We will get there.”

Photo: AFP

Afghan Scouts at­tend a class at the Scouts train­ing cen­tre in Kabul on June 14.

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