A whole new experience

10/08/2018 Posted by admin

by Crystal Goomansingh

I can’t say this was a bucket list item because I could never have imagined it happening. I drank tea surrounded by roughly 30 Panjwaii district elders.

Gen. Walter Natynczyk was also there. He sat at the front of the room along with Defence Minister Peter MacKay and a number of other Canadian officials. Haji Fazluddin Agha, the Panjwaii District Governor, reclined behind a large desk in the corner of the room. In front of him on the desk were two large plastic flower arrangements, and a photo of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The gathering is called a Shura. Elders come and discuss community problems, hopes and needs. The elders lining the outside of the room were mostly barefoot and swathed in cotton wraps and turbans. Occasionally, a cell phone rang. Some took the calls but I saw many texting. A young man seated in front of me snapped a number of photos. Many of the shots included Minister MacKay and the General. I think the group was impressed by its visitors but looking around the room, I couldn’t get a good read. Many of the elders were expressionless. Just sitting and listening, eating nuts and sipping tea.

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Today, one elder presented a petition to Minister MacKay requesting Canada build a juice factory in the district. The locals want to process the pomegranates and grapes grown in the area. They were quick to acknowledge the work of Canadians in the area. They appeared grateful for the security and progress slowly starting to take shape in the Panjwaii district.

For me, the shocking part of the Shura came when the district governor stood, turned to his distinguished guests and announced that many of the elders in the room used to take up arms against “you.” Sitting together, he peacefully spoke to the degree of change in the area, but this little nugget of information did not make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I started glancing around the room and saw elders giving small smiles of acceptance on their faces. Heads were nodding as if to say, “Yes, I have shot at you all before. But we’ve moved on.”

There is an ongoing effort in Afghanistan to convert Taliban members. There is money to support these men and get them vocational training. I suppose when trying to win over a divided country, you do whatever is possible to reduce your opponent’s numbers. Can you imagine sitting back at home having coffee and finding out the person beside you has attempted to kill you? Would you or could you sit there and say, “It’s OK. We’re good now”?!

The Shura continued with a number of speeches. The words were friendly, but carefully chosen. Terms such as partnership, equals, peace and independence were used often.

District Governor Haji Fazluddin Agha shakes hands with Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner.

The international community needs the locals to support the district governor and to believe he is their best opportunity at a better life. If a government structure can be established and maintained at lower levels, it adds to the stability of the country’s administration.

One of the elders brought his little boy to the gathering. The man, I assume his father, held him gently in his arms.

It was a beautiful sight, but I wondered about his future. Will he being having tea with some Canadians in 20 years – and what will they be discussing?

Crystal is Global National’s Manitoba correspondent, based in Winnipeg. She is currently covering the war in Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter: @CGoomansingh.

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