Rebecca Zimmerman is a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins’ SAIS studying the evolution of the U.S. military since 2001; Parwana was an eight-year old Afghani girl who was, in Zimmerman’s words, “equal parts tomboy and little princess.” Their very different lives were linked by tragedy this month in Kabul, as Zimmerman writes in the New York Times.
As part of her research, Zimmerman is living in Afghanistan to conduct interviews with Afghan citizens and members of the coalition forces. She wasn’t prepared for the small gang of young children who sold bracelets, scarves, and chewing gum along a road that passes by military and government offices. “For many foreign forces, these are the only Afghan children they will meet in their time in country and reactions to them differ sharply: some enjoy the experience, walk and talk with the children, and occasionally buy a little something. Some call the children animals, ignore them or yell at them,” Zimmerman writes.
Parwana (her name means butterfly in Dari) was the undisputed ringleader of the little girls, and Zimmerman was charmed. Yes, she gave her (and the others) money, but not for bracelets; instead, she rewarded the children for teaching her folk songs about flowers, or when they recited their ABCs. She brought them books. She broke up their fights.
And then, last week, Zimmerman mourned when Parwana and several other children were killed by a suicide bomber; they had been trying to call attention to the bomb when they were caught by its blast. Six children died. Zimmerman’s words on the tragedy are haunting:
“Like the rest of Afghanistan, these children are so easy to love, but for some so hard. And, like the rest of Afghanistan, they are largely as we have made them, through a combination of kicking and kindness that has bred dependence and resentment, without leaving much of substance. The corrupt and seemingly helpless side of Afghanistan’s society, born largely of the mess of the last decade, is so easy to mistake as being the entirety of the country’s existence. It may be painless for Washington and the other Western capitals to adopt the strategy of a “decent interval” and declare that they did all for the Afghans that could be done. But they do not have to contend, intellectually or emotionally, with Parwana and her friends, or their fates. I first knew she had gone when I heard that the children had died trying to point out the bomber. Parwana loved nothing better than to stand up to a big “bad boy.” But who stands up for her?”