Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Distant Afghans never far from mind

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 26, 2009


Kathy Santini offers advice on “self-actualization” and “growing your possibilities.” She cites Tony Robbins in conversation, quotes Oprah Winfrey’s philosophy on her Web page.

For the past four years, she has operated a business from her home in which she offers clients advice on making the most of what life has to offer.

This week, she has taken a moment to glance at a photograph of herself four years ago. She wears a flak vest, press credentials dangling from her neck, a headscarf ready for those moments when religious mores demanded a more demure headcovering than that provided by her helmet.

As the brave Afghanis once again defy the Taliban by voting in a national election, Ms. Santini wishes she was back in their land. She found much to admire among people with so little for which to be thankful.

Election officials continued the slow counting of ballots yesterday, showing a close race between incumbent President Hamid Karzai and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Allegations of voting fraud were being investigated by Grant Kippen, a Canadian appointed by the United Nations. Meanwhile, a car bombing in Kandahar killed 36, including women and children.

“Whoever is elected faces an incredibly challenging situation,” Ms. Santini said. “It’s become like juggling grenades.”

Though half a world away, the landlocked nation grips those who visit, however briefly. The author Terry Glavin offers a fierce defence of the cause of protecting the Afghanis from the Taliban and their supporters on his Transmontanus blog. “The courage of ordinary people is breathtaking,” he wrote in reference to those who cast ballots in the face of Taliban threats.

Another Victoria man deeply involved in events is Gordon Smith, the executive director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria. Mr. Smith, who was named winner of the Vanier Medal for service to Canada earlier this week, has offered proposals for a self-sustaining peace in the war-torn nation.

On the day she arrived four years ago, Ms. Santini recalls being stunned by a moonscape in which war’s terrible cost was all too evident. Hardly a tree could be seen. Half the country’s forests had been devastated.

“How dry. How desolate. The geography is incredibly unkind,” she said. “A lot of the buildings had been bombed out and despite many years had not been repaired. It was quite depressing.”

She arrived four years ago in time to cover the first elections in a quarter century. Ms. Santini was hired as an editor for Sada-e Azadi, a trilingual newspaper known in English as the Voice of Freedom. The paper, funded by the International Security Assistance Force, also printed articles in Dari and Pashto, though the high number of illiterates in the population made it necessary to publish many photographs. The Kabul newspaper had a circulation of 300,000, the largest in Afghanistan.

On election day, she and her co-workers were nervous at the prospect of violence. One male copy editor from Boston handled the tension by repeating the Lakota battle cry attributed to Crazy Horse, “It’s a great day to die.”

Because of her gender, she was a rare reporter to be able to accompany woman into their segregated voting area. She remembers their sky-blue burkhas and the eagerness with which they showed her fingers dipped in indelible blue ink as a signifier of having voted. She proudly noted the ink came from Canada.

“Did your husband influence your vote?” she asked them.

She recalls their reply. “They were quite indignant,” she said. They voted as they wished.

Ms. Santini had been working as a spokesperson for the provincial health ministry when a cancer diagnosis in 1999 convinced her to alter her working life. She took a job as an aid worker in Sierra Leone and worked as a journalist in Afghanistan before returning home to Victoria, where she opened her home-based Arbutus Coaching business.

She would rather follow the elections in Kabul than Victoria, which is a great distance from people never far from her mind.

Vancouver team knocks it out of the park

A tip o’ the ball cap to the spunky kids from Hastings Community Little League who showed good sportsmanship and undying East Vancouver spirit at the Little League World Series.

Katie Reyes, a rare girl to have competed in the tournament, knocked in the game-winning run in a sloppy, thrilling, heart-stopping, back-and-forth 14-13 win yesterday over a team of American kids representing Germany.

The Hastings squad completed the official part of the tourney with a record of one win and two losses. They’re sticking around Williamsport, Pa., for a few more days to play some games for fun.

The Hastings team of 11- and 12-year-olds are the first from Vancouver to win the Canadian championship, a Cinderella team in a sport dominated by wealthier teams from the suburbs. The Hastings kids play on diamonds looking onto six forbidding asphalt lanes of Hastings Street, across which can be seen the alluring thrill rides at Playland.

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