The following report includes information about the trip made to Shin Kalay, Nade Ali, Helmand, Afghanistan in August of 2004 by Dr. Mohammad Khan Kharoti, Yama Kharoti and Sultana Kharoti. The report also touches on progress since the trip and the future outlook of the GVS program.
After speaking with the holding company in Karachi, Pakistan, Mohammad Khan was able to secure the release papers for the two containers full of school supplies donated by a middle school that was shut down in Ohio. The cost for the release was $1000, the amount offered by Mercy Corps International. The containers were expected to arrive at the school on August 15th, 2004 but did not left Karachi. The reason given by the holding company was that the truck drivers transporting materials to Afghanistan had gone on strike.
U.S. Army Major Mitch Schmidtke's Provincial Reconstruction Team based in Lashker Gah visited the GVS facilities on August 24th. In a meeting with Major Schmidtke, board members were told that the Major had contacts responsible for materials transport and that he would instruct them to work the holding company in Karachi to ensure the containers' transport and arrival. Major Schmidtke also informed the members that a U.S. military program based in Tacoma, Washington allowed for free transport of materials to anywhere in Afghanistan. Details about this program were to be given to Mohammad Khan upon Major Schmidtke's return to the United States, which was scheduled for some time before the end of October, 2004.
After several months of work by the PRT, truck drivers were contracted by the U.S. military to transport the containers to the GVS facilities. On January 6th, 2005 the containers arrived safely. The distribution of materials and placement in the schools was a village-wide effort. School children now have chairs, tables, cabinets, books, etcetera, all of which are of a quality said not to be found in Afghanistan. The arrival of the materials has made the GVS facilities the best funded and stocked primary schools in the entire province and likely all of Afghanistan.
Yama Kharoti was responsible for documenting the trip. Although there was less overall construction and very little instruction occurring during the month of August, almost twice as many photographs were taken as in 2003. Less video photography was taken in 2004 than the in the previous year due to the lack of active work.
The GVS facilities were designated for local polling stations for the nation-wide election. As predicted, the election went smoothly with a very high turnout. Men and women alike voted. In the GVS polling station, the problem with the indelible ink was solved by hole-punching each voter registration card after its use. Locals were proud to be taking part in the voting process. Turnout was so high that voting finally ended in the late afternoon. This is of particular importance as the GVS facilities are located in a rural area.
Upon arrival at the school the amount of construction since 2003 was immediately apparent. Four new classrooms for the boys had been completed, the security wall was complete on all but one side, and the girls' classrooms were operational and near completion. After meeting with the PRT, Major Schmidtke organized a $25,600 building contract which paid for the construction of four more classrooms built across from the four girls' classrooms.
Since the newly built classrooms are larger than previous ones, they are now used interchangeably between boys and girls classrooms with a firm schedule in place to determine instruction times.
The new boys' classrooms are 8 meters by 4 meters. This is in contrast to the older rooms which are, at best, 4 meters by 6 meters. Classrooms for the girls have been wired and are ready for the installation of outlets. The Kharoti family compound's generator is the current source of power. The classrooms have been cemented on the inside and outside.
A three-room cemented latrine is now in place against the south-eastern portion of the security wall. The boys' school uses the original single-room, un-cemented latrine.
The schools were not open for summer school except to 1st and 2nd graders. Private instruction paid for by locals, however, did take place. Some children were in Sultana's integrated classes but attendance was sporadic. Sultana's class focused primarily on English but extended to include hygiene, geography, and music.
Yama Kharoti did not hold his mathematics class as its rigor and accelerated pace left no room for missed sessions. Upon arrival of the two computers given to the Kharoti family, however, the Yama held daily computer lessons lasting anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. These lessons focused on teaching the children basic Windows operation skills, typing, using math programs created by Yama that randomly generated problems, and other basic features. Not less than 30 students were exposed to the computers but only 13 students regularly practiced. The computers are still being used daily by children in the village.
Lashker Gah Provincial Reconstruction Team:
Major Schmidtke's PRT has visited our school on several occasions. In the first meeting with the PRT, Major Schmidtke expressed his happiness with the school and its success. Having worked with reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, Major Schmidtke is aware of the widespread corruption. The Major commended GVS on its ability to do so much with so little.
Soldiers accompanying Major Schmidtke took great pleasure in speaking English with GVS students. Several heart-warming conversations took place along with many comedic ones. The Major had taken an intensive Pashto course through the US military and was able to speak basic Pashto with locals.
GVS's goal of getting the teacher's salaries funded by the Afghan government is another task Major Schmidtke has offered to help with. The Major has weekly meetings with provincial leaders where he will be able to bring our school to the forefront of their plans. A quickly approaching event the Major has involved our schools in is the grand opening of a construction project. Our school children have been requested to sing poetry at the event. This will took place on October 30th in Lashker Gah.
The security situation in Afghanistan is dependent on the individual assessing it. After speaking with soldiers in Major Schmidtke's PRT and based on personal experience, Yama Kharoti has concluded that the security situation in Afghanistan as a whole has greatly improved. Previously, areas in southern Afghanistan were expected to be violent but turned out to be rather peaceful. It is fair to say that ethnic Afghans, such as the three making the trip, have little if anything to fear during their stay. This is a large improvement over the previous year's trip.
Signs of hope are seen in the increased number of U.S. and Afghan soldiers, the improvement of infrastructure, and the rarity of attacks by Taliban sympathizers. Lashker Gah has daily patrols by U.S. and Afghan soldiers. New and improved markets bringing in technology, jewelry, clothing and more have sprung up in several locations. Furthermore, the road to from Quetta, Pakistan is paved for all but the last 30 miles to Shin Kalay, providing for a safe and speedy trip.
Another hopeful sign is that of the increased number of unveiled women in Lashker Gah. Burkas are now a minority; unveiled women walk freely around the city. They do not appear to be bothered or harassed for doing so.
In terms of threats to the school, Yama believes that an organized attack is extremely unlikely. Local support for the school remains high indicating that no attack would come from within the village. Attacks from religious fundamentalists are also unlikely due to the school being on private property and in the same lot as a mullah's home. Former Taliban sympathizers and supporters now enroll their very own children in our schools. One can be assured that the GVS facilities, with their vast support and success, are safe from any attack.
The security wall is at least two-and-a-half meters high and is now complete on all sides. The wall has one main entrance on its south-western edge. This entrance has a recently installed gate with two locking mechanisms. The gates used for the security wall have been created by local craftsmen. The second entrance will most likely be used for girls and is located in the middle of the southern section of the wall. The wall is striking in its contrast with the surrounding environment.
A well was constructed ten meters in front of the girls' school. The initial idea was that the well would have to be 80 meters deep but fresh water was drawn up after drilling only 25 meters. The water is of very high quality. Pipes brought in to cap the well were determined to be too thin. Major Schmidtke's PRT offered to fund the completion of the well and to work on repairing the UNHCR well. As of September 14th the girls' well has been completed. It is now the primary source of potable water for many villagers and is used more often than other UNHCR wells in the area.
The success of GVS, if not already apparent, has been solidified with this trip. All those who have visited the facilities thus far have been impressed. Locals cherish and praise the school for the immediate benefits it has given their family.
As for the general outlook, the security situation in Afghanistan as a whole improves despite what lop-sided attention the media gives it. The infrastructure of the nation is improving drastically which is bringing in many new merchants and bolstering the economy. Women are feeling more and more comfortable unveiling, shopping, and traveling. From any angle, signs of improvement are crystal clear. The dark phase really is gone.