(December 13, 2001, Gazette)

What can we do?

Grenfell College visual arts students Davie Jones and Matthew Hollett, both of Corner Brook, tried to capture the tragedy of Sept. 11 with a performance piece. The matchstick “skyscraper”, constructed by Mr. Jones, was captured on film by Mr. Hollett as it burned down. Mr. Jones explains that the sculpture disintegrated not unlike the tall buildings in New York — the stages of fire, collapse and rubble, while on completely different scales, were at the same time eerily similar.


Who among us had heard of Konduz, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, before? Did we know where Kandahar was, even Kabul, on a map of Afghanistan?

Before the nightmare of which the recent Taliban period was just the most recent desperate episode, Kabul clearly was a sophisticated large cosmopolitan city, with wide tree-lined boulevards, beautiful parks, handsome public and private buildings, in a mixture of oriental and European styles, as well as the crowded districts and bazaars we usually associate with ancient Asian cities.

We have had a rapid lesson in geography since Sept. 11. The pictures we have seen of Kabul since remind me of the rubble of Hamburg and Berlin at the end of the Second World War. A former palace in Kabul now looks a bit like the ruined Reichstag or “ground zero” in Hiroshima. A young Afghan baker who was in Kabul until about two years ago, even working for the Taliban until he got out and by a tortuous route landed in St. John’s, estimates that about 75 per cent of the city is indeed rubble.

The recent address at Memorial by Lloyd Axworthy, brought the plight of Afghanistan and its people home to us. A former minister for external affairs, Axworthy could have lectured us on many foreign policy topics, but drawing mainly upon his recent experience as emissary for OXFAM to Pakistan and the refugee camps in Pakistan, he chose to challenge Canada to review and broaden its policy towards Afghanistan, and challenged academe to be more active in this. With the plight of the refugees he encountered so fresh in his mind, Axworthy clearly did not want to engage in an “academic” discourse, but brought the immediate situation and immediate needs to the fore.

How, indeed, can the academy deal with these issues? How can the academy influence policy?

The think tanks, centres, call what you will the institutions which seek to examine public policy, are but one expression of the desire of the modern university and academically trained minds to influence society. My reaction, as an academic, to Axworthy’s challenge was to think of the needs of the academy and academics in Afghanistan, to consider the role the Afghan academy could play in the country. Clearly, in this regard, as in more material things, the situation is desperate and help is needed from outside.

Kabul’s University is wrecked. Years of oppression, war and civil war have destroyed physical plant, institutional structures, and all that constitutes university life and culture. The Taliban provided “merely” the final, most destructive, stage in the demise. Administrators, faculty, graduates and students have dispersed to other countries. Some, who left early and were young enough, have continued academic and professional careers elsewhere. Many recent exiles are probably keeping themselves alive in non-academic or non-professional jobs, or are stuck in refugee camps. A few serve their country and people from bases outside the country, such as Dr. Sima Samar who runs Shuhada, an organization which has been providing health care and education for women and girls in refugee camps and in “underground” schools in Afghanistan.

Was there ever a greater need to help an academic institution in another country? If ever a country needs to recover its academy to provide it with graduates to re-build its physical infrastructure and the means to take care of its health, education and social services, this is it. If ever an academy needs help to recover its intellectual life, to be able to examine and debate issues, to examine the past, present and future, this is it. If ever a country needs the means to examine itself, to form sensible and productive policies, to find to its soul and heart again, this is it.

Notwithstanding the past record of the Northern Alliance/United Front and the other factions, one must hope that there will now be a new and open beginning with the involvement of the United Nations and the influence of the United States and other countries, moving away from the imperatives of petty war lords and tribal chiefs, and religious fanatics.

The academy in Canada can contribute to this, following the lead of Afghanistan’s intellectuals and professionals and working with the academy in other countries. My impression is that most exiled Afghan academics are in the United States, and that they and their US host institutions will be active in rebuilding Afghanistan and its institutions. For example, a former dean of engineering of Kabul University, Dr. Zarjon Baha, has been at Purdue for a number of years and has been active there in overseas development. He tells me that he is now contacting as many engineers and academics from Kabul as he can to help organize their contribution towards rebuilding Afghanistan’s technical education and infrastructure in agriculture, transportation, energy, and water resources. Considering all facets of a university and its potential role in its community well beyond the technical, the task ahead is certainly big enough for academics and academic institutions in many countries, including Canada, to take a share if the will is there.

As Canada is a key member of the United Nations and a good ally of the United States, one must hope that Canada’s will and ability to contribute to Afghanistan’s reconstruction is at least equal to this country’s willingness to contribute to the military effort against terrorism. Let’s hope that in this and other ways the word and the pen, along with some cash, can be mightier than missiles and bullets.

Dr. John Molgaard is a professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.