The Little Picture: Ex-Reporter Fights for Afghan Civil Society

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

We’re told that our “media oligopoly” dumbs down people and distracts them from the important work of democracy. Sarah Chayes wouldn’t mind having a media oligopoly where she lives. It would be an improvement.
Chayes is the former National Public Radio correspondent who quit public radio to become Kandahar, Afghanistan, director for Afghans for Civil Society, one of the few nonprofits still braving the chaotic and deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. She works with the locals to rebuild their villages, educate and empower the women and restore something that Chayes says the country hasn’t had since Soviet troops arrived 25 years ago: a future.
It’s slow work. See for yourself tonight, when the Sundance Channel airs “Life After War,” a documentary by filmmaker Brian Knappenberger. He followed Chayes around as she tried to rustle up enough stone to rebuild the foundations of 13 homes in a village bombed to bits by U.S. forces in 2001. Seemingly modest in scope, the project dragged on to excruciating lengths as Chayes bumped up against every obstacle imaginable, and then some.
“Life After War” is Chayes’ mission to Afghanistan in a nutshell. Tall, strong-eyed and confident, she’s no pushover. “We are incredibly well positioned here as an organization,” she said recently. “I have direct access to the president of Afghanistan and senior U.S. officials when I need it. But I’ve seen how little I can do, even in that position.”
One thing she can do is teach people how to report for the radio, which is how she wound up advising a group of locals who are starting up the province’s second radio station. The existing station is controlled by the area warlord.
Radio may have lost its charm for many Americans (deservedly so), but its role can’t be overstated in Afghanistan. Vendors sell used radios by the tentful. Chayes often sees circles of Afghans huddled around a single receiver. There’s no shortage of audience or appetite for radio-just a shortage of content.
“We’re talking about a country with 5 [percent] to 10 percent literacy and extremely poor,” Chayes said. “There’s an explosion of newspapers in Kabul, which is great, but the problem is it’s Kabul [150 miles away over a treacherous, warlord-controlled roadway] and people can’t read.”
She was telling me this over coffee in Kansas City, Mo. Afghans for Civil Society is supported by the Carr Foundation, and the Soros Foundation is helping fund the radio station. When Chayes visits the United States, as she does a couple times a year, it’s not to raise money so much as to raise consciousness. She knows how slippery places like Kandahar can be in Americans’ recall.
As Paris correspondent for NPR, Chayes covered the war in Afghanistan. She spent months learning the names of all the tribes and their intricate ties. When the action moved to Iraq, she stayed behind. She said she wanted “to stick with something” for a change.
The flip side of American amnesia is the memory of the oppressed, as Chayes discovered in her radio practicum. One day, she and her class got into “the biggest tongs-and-hammer discussion” while brainstorming a report on the history of Afghanistan since 1979. Everyone agreed that American arms shipments to the country’s rebel forces in the 1980s had been destructive. They tore old allies apart while emboldening the country’s most reactionary elements. But no one wanted to publicly criticize the mujahidin.
“That’s when I realized how incredibly debilitating the role of fear is in a traumatized society,” Chayes said. “You don’t even have to put journalists in jail.”
And yet, many of the station’s volunteer staff had defected from the station controlled by the area warlord. Retributions could follow. “They were very visibly frightened, which is what made them so courageous,” said Chayes.
The station’s idea of media oligopoly is to partner with the BBC. Chayes said she has an oral agreement to carry its Pashto service to the station, which will organize its broadcast day around the Beeb’s schedule.
“Frankly, it gives us a little bit of power because it’s a little harder to burn down a BBC tower,” Chayes said.
The station, which plans to sign on in December, may well be one of the few legacies Chayes is able to leave behind. In Kandahar, her ally Ahmad Wali Karzai, younger brother of the Afghan president, barely avoided a bomb attack on his home in August.
“I have the feeling that we’re on thin ice, more so since this summer,” Chayes admitted. “We’re in kind of a race to make this work before we have to leave.”
“Life After War” will re-air on Sundance several times in December.
Aaron Barnhart is a television critic for the Kansas City (Mo.) Star.