Notes from Kabul

'Not following the rules is how they have survived': a powerful meditation on life in the Afghan capital.

Carolyn Coe
11 January 2016

Duvet distribution by Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Carolyn Coe. All rights reserved.

Descending from their homes built on the mountainside, the women sit together in Kabul’s Kart-e Sakhi cemetery—not to mourn but to wait for the duvet distribution to begin in the midst of the Afghan winter. When I approach them, each woman extends a hand in greeting. Some have the small stamped pieces of paper they need to receive two duvets, but most of them don’t.

One of the women tells me about the pains in her chest and her legs. She talks about the war. I listen to all the manifestations of her suffering. I understand only a handful of words, but as she clasps my hand I know that she wants my help in receiving a pair of duvets too.

I tell her I don’t make any decisions here. It is the elder representative of the neighborhood who determines who receives the quilted bed covers. Standing with the women, I say “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” All other words fail me.

Someone calls me over to the truck as the distribution will soon begin. In the Afghan gesture of greeting and leave-taking, I place my right hand over my heart and say goodbye.

A balloon seller approaches and a boy wheels a cart of apples nearby. Where a crowd is gathering there’s a potential sale, but no one buys, so the sellers observe the scene as I do. Colorful duvets, like clouds enveloping the bearers, seem to float by. I take a photo of a pair of girls. They become my shadow, following me and requesting more pictures.

The truck piled high with duvets is parked in a narrow gated car park. Perhaps two times as many people arrive as have the paperwork to get them. The crowd presses towards the open gate, hoping. I observe Abdulhai at work, one of the founding members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers. He’s just finished 12th grade at school and has a gift for crowd control.

Instead of pushing the crowd back with outward facing palms, he smiles and snaps his fingers so the children laugh. He speaks kindly and softly. Both children and adults stop trying to edge forward, at least while he’s there. Their shoulders visibly relax. Some return his smile.

“It isn’t that they want to be there,” Abdulhai says to me a few nights later about those who show up without the  tickets they need for the duvets. People are desperate. Understanding without judgment seems to be the key to his gentle effectiveness.


Safeh Zakira is one of 60 women who work in sewing the duvets for this winter’s  project. Before starting with the Afghan Peace Volunteers she would sometimes break the shells of almonds, using the shells as fuel. I wonder how much heat such shells can generate, and then learn that her family also heats with coal. She lifts her hands. They are covered in coal dust. She says she wants to continue sewing.

 Her husband is a day laborer, laying mud on the walls of buildings. Most days he can’t find work, and when he does his average pay is 300 Afghanis a day. But in the winter he earns only 200. So many people are seeking work that employers take advantage of the situation. Officially, Afghanistan has a 40 per cent unemployment rate, but the unofficial estimate is more than 80 per cent.

Safeh’s family lives in a rented home that costs 2,500 Afghanis a month. They also pay another 500-1,000 Afghanis a month for water. I think about her coal-covered hands, and how much water it costs to keep them clean.

Along with the finished duvets, she arrived on the day of my visit with a bag of remainder material—the cover fabric, polyester stuffing and thread were all issued about a week earlier. I remark on this act of returning the extra stuffing. Honesty is important, she says.

She learned about the duvet project from her neighbor, who told her where it was located. A team of Afghan Peace Volunteers visited her home to survey her situation, and gave her employment.

Another woman standing nearby explains that she was hoping to sew too, but when she got here she learned that the project is already full. Ali, a student volunteer, took her name so that the volunteers can help her in some other way. She’ll also receive a duvet.

I worry about the investment in taxi fares since she traveled here for an hour or more. But fortunately the fare is measured by the trip, not by the number of passengers, so she didn’t lose money. Safeh is given money for transportation as well as for sewing, and the women traveled together.

She tells me that she hopes there will always be work for her, not just with this winter’s duvet project. What people need, she says, is work, so that they can provide for their families.


Aaron Hughes, of Iraq Veterans against the War, leads a pair of art workshops at the Borderfree Community Center of Nonviolence in Kabul. The workshops have two rules. First, if you get paint on your fingers, you can’t touch your clothes.

Second, there is no mixing of colors, so a potato dipped into red paint shouldn’t be dipped in green or orange later.

Rule two is blissfully ignored. “Not following the rules is how they have survived,” says Hakim, Borderfree’s international relations coordinator.

Twenty-some child laborers have joined the afternoon workshop. One boy shows me the design he has printed from potatoes cut into the shape of a leaf and a star. The boy names his flower design in English and asks me how it is.

“Maqbool,” I answer, “Beautiful.” Later he approaches me, holding a relief print in each hand, eager for more praise.

Listen for the “chuh-chuh-chuh,” Aaron says, imitating the sound of the roller when it is sucking up blue paint. He directs Imam, another boy at the street kids’ school, to make sure the roller catches the corners of the linoleum. Imam’s eyes brighten as he lifts the paper to reveal his self portrait.

In less than an hour, the children have gone through one hundred sheets of paper, which they’ve spread out on the grass to dry. A few girls and boys walk between the designs, leaning over to pick some up for a closer look before turning their gaze to others.

It’s as if they are smelling flowers.

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