American Major's Secret Afghan Meeting

Girls in this conservative part of Zabul province - where the female literacy rate is just 1 percent among women - are only allowed to attend school through the 4th grade, a rule created by the Taliban which remains a powerful force here.

Hot cups of chai warmed their hands as the American soldiers waited in the bitterly cold room, its windows shattered from a recent suicide blast.

They had ridden for hours in heavily armored vehicles, driven slowly with frequent stops to inspect the road for buried bombs, to speak with a small group of Afghan women who wanted a school for their daughters and vocational training for themselves.

Girls in this conservative part of Zabul province - where the literacy rate is just 1 percent among women - are only allowed to attend school through the fourth grade, a rule created by the Taliban which remains a powerful force here.

"There is a security issue," explained a young mother, through an interpreter. By that, she means the girls could be killed on the way to school, whether by a roadside bomb or an attack on them or their families.

So the Afghan women reached out to the Americans for help. They contacted the women's affairs office of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Zabul in Qalat, a city about 40 miles away. Unlike traditional American military bases, PRTs are a civilian-military operation with a focus on supporting local governments and communities.

That's why these two female American soldiers, Major Elizabeth Erickson, a medical doctor, and Staff Sgt. Sarah Saelens, a medical technician, travelled to listen to these women at their district headquarters. But the male village leaders had heard about the meeting at Afghanistan's version of a town hall, and promptly cancelled it.

So the soldiers sat, waiting for their male counterparts to finish their meetings with the men when suddenly they were told their meeting would be held - in secret and they needed to hurry. They were quickly led outside, around the building, through a small metal gate and then jogged down a narrow dirt path as the men continued their meetings. The soldiers passed tall stone fences until they were finally waved into the doorway of a courtyard where a house sat in the far right corner.

After taking a few steps inside, Erickson quickly ran back to her security team, alerting them to the fact that she had no radio communication and needed them to remain close. The recent suicide blast targeting American soldiers had not been forgotten.

Taliban Limit Girls' Education in Afghanistan

The seemingly endless brown and dusty landscape surrounding the town faded quickly as Erickson and Saelens ducked under the low doorway and into the room full of waiting women, all gathered on the floor surrounded by brilliantly decorated walls that were covered in turquoise, pink and yellow tapestries.

As the soldiers removed their helmets, body armour and weapons, the Afghan women pulled off face-concealing veils and burkas. They sat on opposite sides of the room and the conversation began. One of the women (whose name will not be used to protect their identities) said they wanted to a school, but needed help.

Erickson asked how this could be done safely.

"Is that allowed? It seems like Taliban has a lot of control," she asked through an interpreter. "How many girls do you think would attend the school?"

"Maybe 300 to 400 children will go to that school," replied women.

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