Baryalai leaned against the wall of the university next to the bus station. He held a bucket and a small piece of cotton he hoped to use to wash one of the approaching cars. Suddenly two boys rushed past him towards a car. Baryalai followed.
“Can I wash the car?” asked all the boys.
The driver got out of the car smoking a cigar. He pushed Baryalai. “Don’t shout. Go,” he said.
Baryalai insisted. “May I wash the car? May I wash the car?”
“You eat my brain,” the driver said, using insulting Afghan slang. He told another boy to wash the car.
While other countries celebrate children’s days and work to protect children, Afghanistan still tolerates child labor. According to a recent study, of the 8.4 million children ages 17 and under in Afghanistan, 1.2 million are working. This is 17.4 percent of all boys and 9.4 percent of all girls.
What effect will this have on Afghanistan’s future? Will these children become filled with hate? Will they join groups that are against the government? And how do they feel now? Here are the stories of Baryalai and two others.
Baryalai lost his chance in that case and was worried because he promised his mother he would bring some medicine. She is sick with tuberculosis.
He sat where he was before and started to cry. One passenger from the car, an old man, asked why he was crying.
“I decided that today I will wash lots of cars to find money for buying medicine for my mother,” he said. “Yesterday the doctor told me if I don’t buy medicine my mother will die. I only have one person in my life and that is my mother.” He rubbed his eyes.
“What is your father’s occupation?” the old man asked.
“Don’t speak about my father. I wish he was not alive. He is an addicted person. I hate my father. He doesn’t care about my mother. He beats her and tells her to give him money. If he would take care of my mom, she would not be full of grief and sorrow. He threatens me too. He pressed my throat and asked me where our money was. He searched my pockets.”
“Yesterday I worked until I was dead tired – until night. I worked in a vegetable market as a laborer. No one hired me to work. They told me to go. But I insisted and worked voluntarily. They said they would never give me money. They said they had enough laborers. ‘Why are you working?’ they asked. I told them that my mother is sick and I need money to buy medicine for her. But none of them believed me. One of them whispered, ‘Look at his clothes. He looks like an addict. The decision is on your hand.’ Then that person went to his shop.
”No one believed me. They said I was lying to get money for something for myself. But thanks be to God that one of the businessmen gave me money just to buy medicine for my mom and told me he believed my story. ‘Take care,’ he said. ‘Don’t spend this on other things.’ I nodded.
“I was happy and went directly to my house as usual. My father is never home at night – just during the day sometimes. When I entered, I shouted with pleasure, ‘Mother, I found enough money to buy medicine for you!’ But my father was there in torn and dirty clothes, messy hair and a dirty face.
“He rushed towards me and told me to give him the money. He fell down, but when he got up, he shook me and pressed my throat and demanded the money. But I had hidden it under a corner of the mattress. He didn’t see me put it there. He searched my pockets. ‘Where is it?’ he shouted. He pushed me into the wall and then he fell down again. When he got up, he went towards my mother and started beating her and continued beating her – trying to get me to give him the money. My mom didn’t even have the energy to shout. I was afraid he would kill her. When he pressed her throat and her eyes bulged like a frog, I knew I had to give him the money.” Baryalai sobbed.
The old man who listened to this story advised Baryalai to have patience. Then he told the other boys to give their turns to him. All of them shouted at Baryalai: “What did you tell him? Our problems are worse than yours!”
Yama has a dusty face, messy hair and wrinkled hands from the water he used to wash the car. He spoke to the old man. “Kaka jan (dear uncle), Baryalai’s problem is that he can’t bear the thought of losing his mother. But he is lucky he has a father and mother.
”I lost my parents when our house was bombed. My father was blown up in the house. My mother was wounded. She had blood springing from a wound. She was covered in blood as if she was wearing red clothes. I put my hand on her head and she said, ‘Swear to Allah that you will take care of my four daughters.’ She died with her eyes open as if she wanted to see her dear son who will face lots of difficulties and ups and downs. I would become the father, mother, big brother and supporter of my sisters.
“I closed my mother’s eyes with my hand and put her head on my knee. I saw our house was full of dust. I couldn’t see my father. I heard my sisters crying outside the house in our yard where we usually cooked. I left my mom and went to them to see if they were alright. They were. They asked me what had happened and why my clothes were filled with blood. I told them nothing. ‘I am ok. Mom is asleep,’ I said. The youngest sister was crying and wanted Mom to feed her. I said I was sorry in my heart, and I gave her a piece of bread. I carried my sisters to the garden and told them all to sit there.
”All the neighbors dug through the rubble to find my father’s body. First they found his leg, then his head. All parts of his body were cut. I was shocked and fell down. The neighbors carried me to another house. I couldn’t bear to start crying so I shouted a lot. Then I remembered my mother and our relatives told me to be silent otherwise your sisters will know. So I closed my mouth just for my sisters.”
After telling his story he rubbed his eyes. He said, “Now I am like their father. Whenever my friends want to play, I start to join them, but then I remember my sisters and leave it. My sisters are always waiting at the door for me to bring them something to eat.” Then he continued cleaning the car.
Zarif, another child laborer, also shared his story. “I am helping my disabled father. I study school subjects. The teacher told me that tomorrow everyone should have the textbooks and a notebook with no excuses. If we don’t have them, the teacher will cut our exam scores by five points. So I must find money to buy books. Tomorrow is the deadline.”
The Ministry for Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled says they supported about 63,000 children in 2008. This is a small percentage of the children in need of help.
The International Bank has promised to give $8 million in aid for disabled families and children. This is good news but there is a concern that the needy will never get the money – that it will end up in the pockets of greedy people instead.