One day we visited the village of Lalander, south of Kabul, for a tribal meeting at a CAI school. It was a brand-new whitewashed, plumb-walled building amid helter-skelter mud homes. CAI schools are joint projects: The costs of construction and paying teachers are split between the CAI and the village. (Most of Greg's work is financed by private donations; the CAI receives no U.S. government funding.) With few exceptions, its schools are coed.
At the Lalander school, boys and girls were lined up in their Friday best to present Greg with wreaths of paper flowers. After the welcoming ceremony, he spoke at the jirga—the council of elders—which met inside the village mosque. Forty stone-faced, bearded men sat cross-legged on worn Afghan rugs. Greg asked for Allah's blessing, thanked the greatness and wisdom of Allah, asked Allah to guide the judgment of the jirga. Lalander, he said, would be recognized as the most powerful village in all of Afghanistan, because of its courage to build a school that both boys and girls could attend.
Later, Greg told me that some of the men at the jirga were Taliban. "My dream is to build a school in every village from Kabul to Kandahar right to Deh Rawood, the village of Mullah Mohammed Omar, fugitive leader of the Taliban."
As we were driving out of Lalander, Greg saw a man standing on a hillside near a pile of rocks and stopped our van. We walked over to talk to him. He was Gulmarjan's father; in June 2004, the boy had been blown to pieces by a land mine just a hundred yards from the half-completed school. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, leftover land mines and ordnance killed or wounded some 847 people in Afghanistan in 2004; despite determined de-mining efforts, the carnage continues.
The man told us how excited Gulmarjan had been about going to school with his younger sister. As he spoke, he raised his arms in the air, as if expecting his son, alive and whole, to drop back into them.
IT TOOK US THREE DAYS to drive to Faizabad, home to the northernmost American military base. En route we passed dozens of stripped Russian tanks, most of which had been repurposed as bridges, retaining walls, storage units, and playground equipment. Even art installations: In a field by the side of the road we saw a row of three half-buried tanks sticking out of the ground like an Afghan version of Cadillac Ranch.
In Kunduz, a jovial Afghan teacher helped me order charcoal-grilled sheep shish kebab from a street vendor, and we struck up a conversation. "It took the Russians only a few weeks to take Afghanistan—just like you Americans," he said. "And I believe the regret began immediately."
We spent a night in Faizabad, then drove a few hours east to Baharak, the last town in which we could buy provisions. Doug, using his avalanche forecaster's waterproof pad and clear script, was our quartermaster. A veteran of extended climbing expeditions to Pakistan, he knew exactly what we needed. He'd announce the acquired item, then mark it off his list.