THE PERFECT ACTIVIST in what she calls "THE PERFECT PLACE"
American activist Sarah Chayes finds her calling in Afghan hot spot.
Click on this to see ^ her amazing history as "The Perfect Activist"
i.e. someone who is really a JOURNACTIVIST. This type invariably
falls in love with the distressed country that she has covered in the course of her
work as a war-reporter, and puts her feet where her mouth is,
moves there, and then, creates a TRADE COMMUNE to get the war-torn
country put right. Mother Teresa almost made it. SARAH CHAYES DID!
By Declan Walsh, Boson Globe Correspondent | May 9, 2006
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- In a city where women are rarely seen, never
mind heard, Sarah Chayes talks tough politics with rough men, drives her
own car, and keeps a gun under her bed.
''It's a Kalashnikov. I've never had to use it except for a little
target practice," she says.
The macho image has helped the impassioned campaigner -- a
self-described idealist from an accomplished Cambridge family steeped in
academia and government service -- to carve out a role for herself in
the troubled landscape of southern Afghanistan.
Since completing a tour as a reporter for National Public Radio in 2002,
Chayes, 44, (in 2006,) has made a home in Kandahar, became fluent in Pashto, one of
the main Afghan languages, and devoted her energies to rebuilding a
country gutted by two decades of war -- a unique mission for an American
in a conservative city that was once the headquarters of Taliban rule.
She has helped rebuild homes and set up a dairy cooperative. Her latest
venture involves encouraging farmers to grow roses instead of opium
Yet lately her enthusiasm has dissolved into disillusionment with the
US-supported new order, which she describes as discredited, corrupt, and
infected with drug money. But her biggest disappointment is President
''I once believed passionately in President Karzai and his family. Not
any more," Chayes, a talkative, tall woman with striking green eyes,
said during a recent interview at her Kandahar office.
The same Taliban warlords who presided over the destruction of
Afghanistan have been allowed return to power, she says, and the
US-backed regime is fast losing legitimacy. For Chayes, a moment of
truth came nearly one year ago with the death of a close friend,
Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal, the burly former police chief of Kandahar.
The two were unlikely buddies. They met shortly after Chayes arrived in
Kandahar, when Khakrezwal tried to expel her from the city, claiming
foreigners were not allowed to live there without official permission --
and was astonished at her stubborn refusals. But after several chats,
they discovered they shared many ideas about the shape of the new
''He was the most gifted public official I have known -- unerringly
sophisticated and always trying to turn things for the better," Chayes
said fondly, hooking a thumb toward a picture of Khakrezwal on the wall
of her office, a discreet one-story building in a residential
Last June, he and 19 others were killed when a bomb ripped through a
Kandahar mosque during a prayer service. Although government officials
blamed the explosion on a suicide bomber, Chayes conducted her own
investigation and concluded her friend was assassinated by a device
planted at the behest of agents working for neighboring Pakistan, which
many Afghans believe is continuing a decades-old policy of meddling in
their affairs -- an allegation Pakistani officials strenuously deny.
The killing is the opening scene of her book ''Punishment of Virtue," to
be published in August 2006 by Penguin Press. She describes the book as a mix
of history and contemporary reporting and as ''an ant's view of how
things developed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001."
Activism runs in Chayes's blood. Her father, Abram Chayes, was a legal
adviser in the Kennedy administration and a distinguished law professor
at Harvard. He died in 2000. Her mother, Antonia, served as
undersecretary of the Air Force during the Carter administration and
currently teaches at Tufts University.
That record of public service inspired Chayes to pursue journalism, and
After graduating from Harvard and spending two years in the Peace Corps
in Morocco, she returned to Harvard to study for a graduate degree in
Islamic history, but she struggled in academia, and became a researcher
for Christian Science Monitor Broadcasting in Boston.
She reported for National Public Radio from 1997 until June 2001 from
her base in Paris, and then agreed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to
take on a three-month assignment for NPR covering the war in
Afghanistan. She made her way to Kandahar, and lived with a family to be
closer to the lives of ordinary Afghans. And still she was frustrated.
As the US-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan abated, and the extremists
melted into the countryside, she found it was more fulfilling to become
part of the story instead of reporting it.
''Four and a half minutes [her longest report on NPR] can't convey
much," she said. ''You want to roll up your sleeves and see if you can
do it yourself."
There was plenty to do in Kandahar, a city of high-walled houses on the
edge of a parched desert plain that has played a pivotal role in Afghan
history for centuries.
With the encouragement of Azizullah Karzai, an uncle of President
Karzai, Chayes collected money in the United States, established an aid
agency to fund rebuilding projects, and set about repairing a bombed-out
village on the outskirts of Kandahar. She also became something of a
curiosity in a city where most women slip silently through the streets
covered in powder-blue burkas.
Even now, she says with a smile, stallholders in the bazaar whisper
among themselves ''Who is this animal?" when she passes, dressed in
pants and a long-sleeve top. ''Then I reply in Pashto, and everyone
laughs," she said.
''I don't back down easily," Chayes said. ''I think that wins me some
It has also won her some enemies. Last year, Chayes found a bomb in a
drain outside her front gate. The device didn't explode but the message
was clear: Stay quiet.
Since arriving in Kandahar, Chayes has waded deep into the murky waters
of local politics, criticizing the policies and conduct of such powerful
figures as Gul Agha Sherzai, a onetime warlord who was appointed
governor of Kandahar after 2001. Afghan critics say she has meddled in
areas that are none of her business.
President Karzai moved Sherzai to Nangarhar Province in June 2005, but
Chayes says that Kandahar politics is still rife with unsavory
characters, some related to Karzai. So now she has turned to business to
make a difference.
In May 2005, Chayes set up the Arghand cooperative (www.arghand.org), a
privately funded venture that buys products from local farmers and turns
them into seven varieties of soaps. The scents are extracted from roses,
wild apricots, pomegranate seeds, and various herbs. The hand-molded
soaps resemble lumps of polished marbles and reflect the rich terrain of
southern Afghanistan.(they seek american distributors, Write ARGHAND.)
Become a distributor, help Afghanis live without growing Heroin.
''The fruit in this area has such mystique," she said. ''The 11th
century Persian poetry talks of the pomegranates of Kandahar."
The project is funded with about $70,000 in private donations from
across the United States. A lawyer in San Francisco gave $15,000;
smaller amounts came from donors in Massachusetts towns including
Concord, Lincoln, and Lexington, she said.
Chayes admits that the many hurdles of running an export business from a
war-ravaged city make her venture quixotic. The soaps, which retail for
$6 each, are shipped from the local US military base, and she relies on
volunteers to find buyers in the United States. In the Boston area the
soaps are stocked at Essentia in Wellesley.
And achieving the project's principal goal -- weaning frightened,
poverty-stricken Afghans off poppy, the crop used to make heroin -- is
not easy. The handful of farmers who grow roses for the cooperative live
in Panjwayi, 20 minutes from Kandahar and the scene of a major Taliban
battle three weeks ago. It is so dangerous that Chayes dares not visit.
But she insists that small starts can make a big difference. ''This is
the only way to beat heroin," she said. ''We have to re-weave the
economic fabric of the country so that people will have too much to lose
from a return to war."
Chayes dreams of the day when Kandahar's citizens will reclaim their
city from the extremists now threatening it. ''This could be a beacon
for this country, if it were turned around," she said.
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