Friday March 22, 2019
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Afghan Girl Coders Design Game to Fight Biggest Problems of Their Country

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Like the team of Afghan schoolgirls who rose to fame last year when they competed in a robotics competition in the United States, the coders show what reserves of talent there are to be tapped when Afghan girls are given a chance.
Afghan Girls design games to fight opium and inequality, wikimedia commons

Think Super Mario Bros., but with an Afghan twist. This is how Afghanistan’s first generation of female coders explain their abilities as game-makers after uploading more than 20 games on digital app stores this year.

More than 20 young women in the western city of Heart have established themselves as computer experts, building apps and websites as well as tracking down bugs in computer code.

Like the team of Afghan schoolgirls who rose to fame last year when they competed in a robotics competition in the United States, the coders show what reserves of talent there are to be tapped when Afghan girls are given a chance.

“Coders can work from home and it is in this process women are building a new career path for themselves and for the next generation,” said Hasib Rasa, project manager of Code to Inspire, which teaches female students coding in Herat.

One of the games designed by the all-female team has caught the eye of developers and gamers as it illustrates the scourge of opium cultivation and the challenges the Afghan security forces face as they try to stamp it out.

The 2-D game “Fight Against Opium” is an animated interpretation of the missions that Afghan soldiers undertake to destroy opium fields, fight drug lords and help farmers switch to growing saffron.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest source of opium but it also grows saffron – the world’s most expensive spice – which has long been pushed as an alternative to wean farmers off a crop used to make heroin.

Despite a ban, opium production hit a record in 2017, up 87 percent over 2016, according to a U.N. study.

The 2-D game "Fight Against Opium" is an animated interpretation of the missions that Afghan soldiers undertake to destroy opium fields, fight drug lords and help farmers switch to growing saffron.
Afghanistan Flag, wikimedia commons

Khatira Mohammadi, a student who helped develop the anti-opium game, said she wanted to show the complexities of the drug problem in the simplest way.

“We have illustrated our country’s main problem through a game,” said Mohammadi.

At the institute, more than 90 girls and young women, wearing headscarves and long black coats, are trained in coding and software development, a profession seen by some in conservative Afghanistan as unsuitable for women.

In Afghan society, it is unusual for women to work outside the home. Those who do, are mostly teachers, nurses, doctors, midwives and house helpers.

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After the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, women regained freedom to work in offices with male colleagues – but many consider working as a software developer a step too far.

Hasib Rasa said girls are encouraged to design original player characters, goals, and obstacles that reflect Afghanistan’s ethos.

The course is exclusively aimed at females, aged 15-25, who are unable to pursue a four-year degree due to lack of funds or hail from families where they are prevented from enrolling in co-education schools.

“In Afghanistan the ability to work remotely is a key tool in the push for equality,” said Rasa. (VOA)

 

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Soviet War in Afghanistan was No Less Than a ‘Hell’, Say Survivors

Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the memories are still fresh.

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Soviet War, Afghanistan
FILE - Tatyana Rybalchenko, who worked as a nurse during the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan between 1986 and 1988, holds a photo of her taken in June 1986 in Kabul, Afghanistan, during her interview in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 10, 2019. VOA

Sitting in her living room, 65-year-old Tatyana Rybalchenko goes through a stack of black-and-white photos from more than 30 years ago. In one of them, she is dressed in a nurse’s coat and smiles sheepishly at the camera; in another, she shares a laugh with soldiers on a road with a mountain ridge behind them.

The pictures don’t show the hardships that Rybalchenko and 20,000 Soviet women like her went through as civilian support staff during the Soviet Union’s 1979-1989 invasion of Afghanistan. Although they did not serve in combat roles, they still experienced the horrors of war.

As Russia on Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the memories are still fresh for the nurses, clerks and shopkeepers, predominantly young, single women who were thrust into the bloody conflict.

Rybalchenko enlisted on a whim. In 1986, she was 33, working in a dead-end nursing job in Kyiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, and was going through a breakup. One day, she joined a colleague who went to a military recruitment office. The recruiter turned to Rybalchenko and asked if she would like to work abroad — in Afghanistan.

She recalls that she was fed up with her life in Kyiv, “so I told him: ‘I’d go anywhere, even to hell!’ And this is where he sent me.”

Family and friends tried to talk her out of it, telling her that Afghanistan is where “the bodies are coming from.” But it was too late: She had signed the contract.

Afghanistan, soviet War
FILE – In this undated photo, medics and nurses work to treat a casualty in a military hospital in Afghanistan. VOA

At least 15,000 Soviet troops were killed in the fighting that began as an effort to prop up a communist ally and soon became a grinding campaign against a U.S.-backed insurgency. Moscow sent more than 600,000 to a war that traumatized many young men and women and fed a popular discontent that became one factor leading to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Rybalchenko, who worked as a nurse at a military hospital in Gardez, was stunned by the many casualties — men missing limbs or riddled with shrapnel. But there was so much work that she found herself shutting off her emotions.

“At the end, I did not feel anything anymore. I was like a stone,” Rybalchenko said, shedding her normally perky persona.

Friendships helped, and she befriended a young reconnaissance officer, Vladimir Vshivtsev.

He once confided to her that he was not afraid of losing a limb, but he would not be able to live with an injury to his eyes. She recalled him saying “if I lose eyesight, I’ll do everything to put an end to it.”

In November 1987, the hospital was inundated with casualties from a Soviet offensive to open the road between Gardez and the stronghold of Khost, near the Pakistani border.

One of the wounded was Vshivtsev, and Rybalchenko saw him being wheeled into the ward with bandages wrapped around his head. She unwrapped the dressing and gasped when she saw the gaping wound on his face: “The eyes were not there.”

Afghanistan, Fintech
Vladimir Vshivtsev, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, right, and Gen. Col. Boris Gromov, former Commander of the 40th Army in Afghanistan, greet each other during a meeting at the upper chamber of Russian parliament in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

She persuaded her superior to let her accompany him to a bigger hospital in Kabul as part of a suicide watch. She stayed friends with Vshivtsev, and he later became a leading activist in the Russian Society for the Blind. Decades later, he briefly served in the Russian parliament.

Raising awareness

Alla Smolina was 30 when she joined the Soviet military prosecutor’s office in Jalalabad near the Pakistani border in 1985. It wasn’t until 20 years later that Smolina started having nightmares about the war.

“The shelling, running away from bullets and mines whizzing above me — I was literally scared of my own pillow,” she said.

She put her memories on paper and contacted other women who were there, telling the stories of those who endured the hardships of war but who are largely absent from the male-dominated narratives.

She is trying to raise awareness of the role the Soviet women played in Afghanistan, believing they have been unfairly portrayed or not even mentioned in fiction and nonfiction written mostly by men.

The deaths of Soviet women who held civilian jobs in Afghanistan are not part of the official toll, and Smolina has written about 56 women who lost their lives. Some died when a plane was shot down by the Afghan mujahedeen, one was killed when a drunken soldier threw a grenade into her room, and one woman was slain after being raped by a soldier.

In an era when the concept of sexual harassment was largely unfamiliar in the Soviet Union, the women in the war in Afghanistan — usually young and unmarried — often started a relationship to avoid unwanted attention from other soldiers.

“Because if a woman has someone, the whole brigade won’t harass you like a pack of wolves,” Rybalchenko said. “Sometimes it was reciprocal, sometimes there was no choice.”

She said she found boyfriends to “protect” her.

Denied war benefits

While the war grew unpopular at home, Soviet troops and support staff in Afghanistan mostly focused on survival rather than politics. While Afghans largely saw Moscow’s involvement as a hostile foreign intervention, the Soviets thought they were doing the right thing.

“We really believed that we were helping the oppressed Afghan nation, especially because we saw with our own eyes all the kindergartens and schools that the Soviet people were building there,” Smolina said.

After Rybalchenko came home, she could hardly get out of bed for the first three months, one of thousands with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

When she asked officials about benefits for veterans and other personnel in Afghanistan, she faced hostility and insults. She said one told her: “How do I know what you were actually up to over there?”

In 2006, Russian lawmakers decided that civilians who worked in Afghanistan were not entitled to war benefits. Women have campaigned unsuccessfully to reinstate them.

Rybalchenko eventually got an apartment from the government, worked in physiotherapy and now lives in retirement in Moscow, where her passion for interior decorating is reflected by the exotic bamboo-forest wallpaper in her home.

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Smolina, who lives in Sweden, is wary of disclosing all the details about her own Afghan experiences after facing a backlash from other veterans about her publications.

“Our society is not ready yet to hear the truth. There is still a lingering effect from the harsh Soviet past,” she said. “In Soviet society, you were not supposed to speak out.” (VOA)