KABUL, Afghanistan — It was an engaging idea.
Hundreds of children would gather on the iconic Nader Khan Hill in the capital, Kabul, on a gorgeous Friday in September and fly kites emblazoned with slogans lauding the rule of law and equality for women. The kites, along with copies of the Afghan Constitution and justice-themed comic books, would be gifts of the United States, part of a $35 million effort “to promote the use of Afghanistan’s formal justice system.”
“The mere portrait of 500 kites soaring in the winds, against a backdrop of beautiful mountain ranges, is enough to instill hope in even the most disheartened observer of the war-torn country,” said a promotional release for the festival, organized by an American contractor for the United States Agency for International Development.
What could possibly go wrong?
Almost everything but the wind.
For starters, Afghan policemen hijacked the event, stealing dozens of kites for themselves and beating children with sticks when they crowded too close to the kite distribution tent. To be fair, the children were a little unruly, but they were also small.
Sometimes the officers just threatened them with sticks, and other times slapped them in the face or whacked them with water bottles. “I told them to stop the policemen from taking the kites,” said Shakila Faqeeri, a communications adviser for the contractor, DPK Consulting.
But the policemen appeared to ignore her. Asked why one of his officers was loading his truck with kites, Maj. Farouk Wardak, head of the criminal investigation division of the 16th Police District, said, “It’s okay, he’s not just a policeman, he’s my bodyguard.”
The District 16 police chief, Col. Haji Ahmad Fazli, insisted on taking over from the American contractors the job of passing out the kites. He denied that his men were kite thieves. “We are not taking them,” he said. “We are flying them ourselves.”
At least he had not lost sight of the event’s goal. “It is so people can understand the rule of law, and it lets the kids get together instead of wandering on the streets,” he said.
It was not clear that the children had a much better grasp of the concept, but some did manage to get kites and were flying them, irregularly shaped patches of color soaring to impressive heights.
Most bore messages about the importance of gender equality, but there was hardly a girl with a kite, although plenty of girls were around. One DPK staff member pushed through the crowd to give 10-year-old Shaqila Nabi a kite; her sister Farzana, 8, had wanted one, too, but a policeman had just swung at her with a stick and she had darted out of harm’s way, and out of sight.
Shaqila raced back to her father, Gul Nabi, a horse wrangler peddling rides. He promptly took the kite and gave it to a boy.
“He is my son and he should get the kite,” he said.
The law and justice comic books were also a big hit. Some of the boys snatched them up and hid them under their shirts so they could come back for more. At one point, fed-up policemen, most of whom cannot read, just tossed piles of them in the dirt.
Mike Sheppard, the DPK project head, pronounced the event a success. “We just gave out a thousand kites in 20 minutes,” he said.
But another DPK staff member, Abdul Manem Danish, stood watching the kite thievery and casual police brutality with disdain. His job was to administer a “kite event effectiveness survey” at the end to see if the festival had affected anyone’s attitudes about justice.
“That’s not a very good example of rule of law,” he said. “Maybe it is the nature of these people that needs to be changed.”