Memories of Afghanistan

A Chico woman remembers the faces of those she knew and tried to help

All of the photos accompanying this story date from late 1993, when Kim LeBlanc worked in Afghanistan. The two children shown here were internal refugees displaced by war. These kids lived just outside a school that served as a refugee center, in a “tent house” formed from their own rugs and coverings.

All of the photos accompanying this story date from late 1993, when Kim LeBlanc worked in Afghanistan. The two children shown here were internal refugees displaced by war. These kids lived just outside a school that served as a refugee center, in a “tent house” formed from their own rugs and coverings.

Photo by Kim LeBlanc

Kim LeBlanc remembers Osama bin Laden and his cohorts all too well. Her recollection of the day some of those cohorts attacked her on the street is especially vivid.

She was living at the time—the year was 1990—in Peshawar, the Pakistani frontier town bordering Afghanistan, near the fabled Khyber Pass. She was there with her husband, a Harvard-trained consultant hired to help improve the country’s schools.

She herself worked for a non-governmental aid organization, the International Rescue Committee, interviewing Afghans living in a nearby refugee camp. Her job was to determine whether a campaign to educate them about the millions of land mines remaining in their country had been successful. If she determined it had been, they could go home with some assurance, or at least hope, that they wouldn’t be killed or maimed in an explosion.

Then as now, Peshawar was a tough town, especially for women. Weapons left over from the Afghan war were everywhere, and a kind of incipient violence permeated street society, which was dominated by restless young men. LeBlanc felt relatively safe inside the refugee camps, but to get there she relied on a driver.

She did walk to the market just a block or two away, however. It took courage to do so—"a huge amount of inner strength,” as she puts it—and she covered herself head to foot, as local women did. It was impossible, however, for this tall woman with long, strawberry-blond hair and fair skin to hide the fact that she was a Westerner.

A street scene in Kabul (note the one-legged man on the right, a victim of one of the country’s millions of land mines).

Photo by Kim LeBlanc

One day, about a block from her home, she passed by the offices of a group of Wahhabis, members of an ultra-conservative Islamic sect based in Saudi Arabia that has inspired Islamic radicalism throughout the Muslim world. At the time Osama bin Laden, who is also Saudi, was affiliated with that group and had an office there, she says.

As LeBlanc walked by, a group of Wahhabis passed in a truck. Rolling down the windows, they spat on her, covering her in saliva.

“I felt so dehumanized,” she now says. “It was so frightening, mostly because they didn’t think of me as human.”

They attacked her simply because she was a Westerner, she believes. “Mind you, they weren’t Afghans. No Afghan ever spat, and no Pakistani. I’m sure they weren’t Pakistani.”

Kim LeBlanc’s wanderlust first struck in 1978, when she was 16 and left her childhood home in Oregon to move to Chico. Here she lived with her aunt and uncle, Bill and Kathleen Hees, and attended Pleasant Valley High School. She loved theater and did plays in high school and with such community groups as The Other Theatre, moving on to Chico State University in 1980.

She was in several plays there, but in 1982 she moved to New York City, where she studied for a year and a half with the National Shakespeare Company’s conservatory.

Women and girls, and a few small boys, at a school in Kabul (girls in Afghanistan today, under Taliban rule, are allowed to attend school only until age 8).

Photo by Kim LeBlanc

Another fascination, politics, began calling on her, and she started getting politically involved. For several months, she traveled around the country with the first Gary Hart for President campaign. Following further political work, she moved to Boston and went back to school, first at Suffolk University, then at UMass Boston, graduating in 1990 with a major in political science.

By then she’d met and married her husband Tom, who was doing graduate work at Harvard. He’d been in the Peace Corps and wanted to work overseas. For their honeymoon, in 1988, they went to Guatemala. Despite the “culture of fear” created by the civil war there, she was entranced by the beauty of the countryside, by the “different smells, different sounds. I fell in love with that whole idea,” she says. “And when you leave America, you begin to see so much more about America. You become so much more patriotic and feel so much more responsible [for your country’s role in the world].”

So when her husband was offered a job in Pakistan, she was willing to go, even though she’d heard horror stories about how oppressive it was for women. “I was afraid,” she says, but thought that they would stay for just a couple of months.

Today, from the bucolic tranquility of Chico, where her husband now works for Chico State University, LeBlanc looks back on her nearly four years in Pakistan with a mixture of appreciation and abhorrence. Her sons, Joe, who’s 10, and Chris, 8, were born there, and she has many Pakistani friends. But living with the constrictions conservative Muslim society places on women was “very painful,” she says. “I felt like a butterfly whose wings had been ripped off.”

At the same time, her heart goes out to the people of Afghanistan, not only because their country is under such intense bombardment by U.S. forces, but also because she knows just how much they have suffered in the past 20 years.

She began working with Afghan refugees in 1990, shortly after Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan. “I was told by my colleagues not to look Afghan men in the eyes and not to sit alone in a room with a man,” she says, but the advice turned out to be largely unnecessary. In putting together a team, she hired Afghan men and women, and many of them had gone to college with members of the other sex. “There was a lot more freedom than I thought,” she says, and she had no trouble in her role as the boss of several male Afghan employees.

In fact, at that time the Afghan people, particularly those living in the cities, were coming off an extended period of liberalization. What most Americans don’t realize, LeBlanc points out, is that the war against the Soviets was a war on the part of radical Islamic fundamentalists against Western liberalization, Soviet-style. Women in Kabul had equal rights, could attend college, held down important jobs and dressed like modern women everywhere.

LeBlanc with, on the left, one of her colleagues at CARE International and, right, the former manager of the Intercontinental Hotel, once the city’s best but by then a wreck and abandoned.

Photo by Kim LeBlanc

In the refugee camps, however, the conservative, often poorly educated village-based mullahs ruled, and everyone, no matter how educated or urbanized, had to abide by their rules. Stark segregation of the sexes was practiced, and women had few rights. Women who had been judges or doctors or relief workers before were now relegated to purdah, virtual imprisonment in their homes.

“These are women who had risked their lives to go to school and work for non-governmental organizations and dreamed of when they could go back to help the future of Afghanistan,” LeBlanc explains.

“I fault the United States and the international community for failing to push for liberalization,” she continues. In their Cold War-era desire to defeat the Soviets, “they acceded to the conservatives. … Young Taliban boys [raised in the refugee camps] grew up thinking [segregation of the sexes] was normal.”

In late 1993, LeBlanc was hired by CARE International to do a needs assessment of women in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, so she began flying in regularly, staying three or four days at a stretch. She was the only American woman in the country at the time.

Her mission was to find out which women were most vulnerable, either because they had no local family support or because they weren’t being served by the NGOs already in place there.

Kabul was much more comfortable for her than Pakistan was. She walked freely around the city, and although people looked at her “differently, like I was a foreigner,” it wasn’t awkward, as if she had no right to be out on the streets.

A cobbler brave enough to ply his trade on the streets of Kabul, despite the civil-war-related bombing then taking place.

Photo by Kim LeBlanc

She interviewed a wide range of women, from those working in government ministries to war widows living on the outskirts of town. She visited people in their homes, in hospitals and in schools, where thousands of refugees “internally displaced” by war had been given shelter. She talked with mujahedeen fighters, teachers and women affiliated with the former communist regime. She interviewed children and mothers and grandmothers.

“I learned first of all what beautiful people they are,” she says. “Some of their faces are amazingly beautiful.”

Life in Kabul was hard for everyone and “horrific” for some, she says. The victorious mujahedeen coalition had splintered, and although the consensus government was in power in Kabul, it was under attack by former allies led by an Islamic militant named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known infamously for once having thrown acid in the faces of young women attending Kabul University. Electricity and supply routes to the city had been cut off.

Once LeBlanc had identified the widows on the outskirts of the city as the most destitute group, her job was to find a way for them to work to obtain food. She devised and obtained funding for a program that provided these women with the materials to make blankets, then paid them for their labor. The blankets, in turn, went to the internally displaced refugees.

Only a week after LeBlanc’s fifth and last visit to Kabul, Hekmatyar began shelling the city, destroying vast sections of it and killing thousands of people.

Left to right: Three of Kim LeBlanc’s colleagues at CARE International, all of them engineers, at a farewell party for her.

Photo by Kim LeBlanc

It’s Oct. 8, the Monday following the start of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, and Kim LeBlanc looks tired and worried.

“I think of faces,” she says. She mentions a woman who served as her interpreter and “was always right there for me.” A trained engineer, the woman was working at the time for the United Nations, distributing plastic window tarps.

“There was an incredible demand of people for plastic for windows,” LeBlanc says. In a country with no glass, it was used to keep out winter’s cold.

The bombing makes her sad. It’s not that she doesn’t believe it’s necessary. She’s not sure about that. It’s just that she knows how much the Afghan people want peace, how tired they are of war.

In fact, she says, the desire for peace is what led them, in 1996, to accept the Taliban as rulers. The Taliban were at least organized and seemed capable of creating order in the country, and their worst tendencies were not yet apparent. “The people were totally war weary,” LeBlanc explains.

Today, she says, Afghan women, especially those in cities, are “living in terror” under the Taliban. Women are confined to their homes, cannot obtain medical care, cannot work and cannot attend school.

And yet many Afghan women are highly educated, competent people who want to contribute to their country, LeBlanc says, but cannot do so. That, she says, is “the real tragedy"—and the real hope for the country’s post-Taliban future.

It will do no good, however, merely to replace the Taliban with the Northern Alliance. The two are comprised of distinct and historically hostile ethnic groups—Pashtun in the case of the Taliban, Uzbeks and Tajiks in the Northern Alliance—and will keep fighting endlessly if one is allowed to dominate the other. The peace that the Afghan people so desperately want, says LeBlanc, can come only if the government in Kabul transcends ethnic differences.

Left to right: a portrait of women at a wedding, with the bride in the center.

Photo by Kim LeBlanc

Following her work in Kabul, in early 1994, LeBlanc and her family returned to Cambridge, Mass., where her husband finished his doctorate. They then lived for several years in Africa, first in Guinea, later in Ghana, where her husband worked with the minister of education and she got a job with USAID.

When her husband’s work in Ghana ended, she says, they faced a decision: continue their wandering lifestyle or settle down in the United States. They could have gone back to Cambridge, where Tom would have worked for Harvard, but he was drawn to California, and especially Chico, which he’d visited with her several times.

They moved here in 1999. Tom worked for the state Department of Education for over a year, commuting to Sacramento, before obtaining a job at the university’s Office of Sponsored Programs. Her husband and sons are “extremely happy” to be here, Kim says. Her two sisters also have moved to Chico, further expanding her extended family here.

She’s glad to be in Chico, too, but admits that she’s still got some wandering left in her system. “This is home now, but I see it as a nest to fly back to,” she explains.

A doctor in Kabul, shown while taking LeBlanc on a tour of her clinic (note the Soviet-era murals). Female doctors are no longer allowed to practice in Afghanistan.

Photo by Kim LeBlanc

She’s working on a master’s degree in social science at Chico State. Her thesis will be about an important women’s organization in Afghanistan, the Afghan Women’s Association. She wants to trace the modern history of the country through a recounting of the lives of the women who worked in the association’s Kabul offices. Eventually she plans to go to Pakistan “and hopefully Afghanistan” to complete her research.

In the meantime, she worries and wonders about the women she got to know in Kabul. She’s contacted CARE International and is planning to do some work with the group, helping to get aid to the Afghan people as soon as the bombing and fighting decrease.

“I want my fellow Americans to know that Afghans are like you and me," she says. "Some are more educated than others, but they all taught me a lot about family and about integrity. They’ve suffered a lot. … It’s really their turn for some help from the international community."