The snapshot was taken hastily on a cheap Instamatic camera out the back window of an SUV nearly 20 years ago. But my photo of dozens of joyful Afghan boys racing after an American reporter’s car in the slums of Kabul haunts me more with each passing day.
As I study the tiny faces, I try to imagine what the past two decades have meant in their lives. Despite the regularity of explosions and scattered violence in Kabul, these boys have come of age with a level of security and freedom that was unknown to their parents and grandparents. Did any of them get a full education—and even attend college? Did many of them revel in living ordinary lives free from the heavy hand of the religious police? And, conversely, did a few of them, questing after order instead of liberty, flock to the Taliban?
I make no claims to be an old Afghan hand. As a roving columnist for USA Today, I spent a little more than a week in Kabul in December 2001, during those heady days when the Taliban were routed, presumably forever.
But the memories remain indelible, especially of the women who longed to live in a normal country. I was shown a secret bakery where a group of widows, forbidden to work by the Taliban, supported their families by baking bread. My interpreter—a woman who had defiantly learned English in a United Nations program under the Taliban—was still too frightened to shed her hideous powder-blue burqa on the streets of Kabul. But every time she stepped into a courtyard, she removed the hated headpiece with a hand speed that would dazzle an Olympic athlete.