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. Johns, 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
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 Axworthys 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.
Kabuls 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
The academy in Canada can contribute to this, following the lead of
Afghanistans 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 Afghanistans
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 Canadas will and ability
to contribute to Afghanistans reconstruction is at least equal
to this countrys willingness to contribute to the military effort
against terrorism. Lets hope that in this and other ways the
word and the pen, along with some cash, can be mightier than missiles
Dr. John Molgaard is a professor in
the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.