Embedded With Afghan Civil Society – Part 5 – Bathing in Yakawlang

In May 2010, I was given the opportunity to accompany the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO), an NGO that promotes human rights through arts and culture, as its staff conducted participatory theater workshops as psycho-social therapy and organized civilian war victims to take an active role in shaping the national debate over the government’s intention to negotiate with some of the insurgent factions currently battling Afghan and international forces.

Series introduction. Part I. Part II. Part III PartIV.


My first morning in Yakawlang I oversleep, eat a hasty breakfast of bread and tea with the AHRDO employees, and go to wash my face before venturing out. There is no more water in the water tank in the bathroom, so Bisharat tells me we’ll use the public bath in Nayak, the biggest village in the valley below.  

From the porch of the guesthouse, I can see for at least twenty miles, past the green farmlands, rivers, and woods, to the large, modern Nayak schoolhouse, the clusters of adobe homes, the sand-colored hills and the blue mountains beyond.

The descent from the mountain proves more difficult than the hike up the night before. “If I go down, I’m taking you down with me!” I yell to Bisharat ahead of me.

On our walk into town, we pass villagers washing clothing in the river and children casting fishing nets. Through the muddy lanes, we make it to a short wood and cement building.

Inside, a young man hands me packets of shampoo from a large basket and directs me to a free room. I thank him, shut the door, and undress in the steam. Mushrooms are growing from the slick walls. The taps produce wonderfully hot water, and I use buckets to wash myself.

Afterward, I join Dr. Sharif in the waiting area.  Young Yakawlang men are drinking tea and chatting. A sharply-dressed man in his twenties asks me how I am –in Spanish. For a moment, I’m not sure what I heard.

Six years have passed since I last used Spanish. The young man tells me he studied the language at Kabul University before joining the Afghan National Army. For the past four years, he has been stationed in Kandahar. He’s home for a brief family visit. Shortly, he’ll be sent back to take part in the coming US-Afghan military operation aimed at driving the Taliban from Afghanistan’s second largest city.

After we leave the bath house, Bisharat asks me what I thought. It was fine, I say. He tells me that the public bath in Nayak is for men, because women typically wash at home. But Yakawlang is a different kind of place, he adds, a relaxed, liberal place. The people here aren’t titillated by the thought of a foreign woman using a village bath house, or, if they are, they keep it to themselves.

What would scandalize in Kabul doesn’t raise eyebrows in a village with no paved streets.

When my party reaches the center of the village, Bisharat points to wooden sticks tied with colored cloth. This is one of the places where the Taliban killed Yakawlang residents, he says. Men were lined up and shot execution-style.

The mid-day sun beats down and my mind can’t focus. I think about the people who were killed where I’m standing. Were they, like the men of Srebrenica, forced to stand in the heat as they awaited their deaths? No, I remind myself, they were killed in Januaury. It must have been painfully cold then.