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Rebuilding Akokolacha

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By September, we'd held several shuras - or council meetings - with the villagers. Top of the repair list were houses rendered truly uninhabitable by the bombing - we weren't doing cracked ceilings. The villagers wanted to start with the mosque and the house of a crotchety, feisty elder called Hajji Baba. Least popular was our decision to build standard houses for everyone: three rooms, a veranda, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The decision was a result of the impossibility of getting good-faith descriptions of the houses that had been destroyed.

At first, I was hurt and offended by the villagers' attitude. Abdullah has remained so. He's run rebuilding projects for 20 years and has seen boundless permutations of ingratitude, theft, and corruption. He's bitter about those of his people he feels dishonor the rest. Akokolacha's residents disgust him, and he shows it.

I'd been describing Afghanistan to friends as a society suffering from collective posttraumatic shock. Now I was seeing the reality behind the metaphor. For a quarter century, Akokolacha inhabitants have been deprived of a future, of the wherewithal to think ahead, to husband resources for later wise investment. Their destiny - appalling suffering or sudden bounty handed out for no apparent reason - has come down upon them arbitrarily, usually at the hand of outsiders. So what matters is right now. And the villagers were trying to leverage as much as they could get right now.

I learned to deflect their complaints and requests with bluff repartee. And so, despite some nagging internal misgivings, I informed them of the dimensions of their future standard houses at the shura.

Hilarious old Hajji Baba, who is toothless and wears dark glasses with one lens poked out, balked. First he insisted he didn't want a house at all unless the rooms were seven meters long. Then he tried to bargain down to six. We'd agreed on five, and we were sticking to it. We told Hajji Baba we wouldn't force him to have a house and we turned to someone else's. He caved and told us to get cracking - and he was on it like a hawk, complaining and adjusting and pitching in, and cackling and throwing tantrums. Every time I'd show up, his pout would crack into a smile; he'd let me kiss his dirt-caked hand and tease him, and he'd grudgingly agree that the work was OK.

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