One of Nangyalai Attal's earliest memories is of watching foreign aircraft bomb the Afghan countryside.
"I remember the people running and screaming," he says. "I don't remember if it was being done by the Soviets or the mujahideen who were trying to expel them. But I can still remember the horror of it."
And while many of his childhood friends never made it to adulthood — many fell victim to land mines — Attal has just celebrated his 25th birthday. A room at the RIT Inn and Conference Center overlooking the parking lot has served as Attal's dorm for the last two-and-a-half months. A desk has almost disappeared under a heap of half-eaten snack foods, fruit, and the remains of a gift basket. And a small sign taped to the wall says, "Keep Calm and Carry On."
Attal has been a television reporter for an English news broadcast in Afghanistan, worked briefly for the United Nations, and is now earning his master's degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology through a Fulbright scholarship.
But in 2002, Attal's life was completely different. He worked as a shepherd, herding sheep near his family's home, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. Attal says he is still adjusting to living in the United States and its completely open culture after coming from an extremely closed society.
But in many ways, Attal is emblematic of the contradictions and harsh extremes that are today's Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — a country nearly calcified in tradition struggling to find its way to modernity. Even though much of Afghanistan has been in turmoil for years, Attal says he's convinced that a new, more stable country is emerging. And after he finishes his education, he says he wants to return home to support that transition.
While he's in the US, however, Attal says he hopes to educate more Americans about Afghanistan. Even though the war in Afghanistan is the longest in US history, Attal says most Americans know relatively little about the country.
Modern Afghanistan arose from an ancient society dating as far back as 3000 BC. The country, which connects the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent, has long been a human migration route between early civilizations. Afghans were a mainstay in the Silk Road trade route to the Far East. After countless wars waged by everyone from Genghis Khan to the Soviet Union, Afghanistan has remained a largely tribal culture.
Many things in Afghanistan culture have been done the same way for thousands of years, Attal says. In the US, children often leave home when they turn 18. "But in Afghanistan, we all live together with the parents," Attal says. "Daughters will get married and they will leave to go to another household. But the sons and their families will stay until the parents decide when they should go."
Education is another issue where tradition is clashing with the aspirations of many young Afghans, he says. Attal's father, like some older Afghans, didn't envision an education for his children, especially his daughters, much beyond traditional schools where religion is a core subject. Attal says it was his strong-willed mother who supported the children's education by making and selling handcrafted items and raising chickens.
But public schools in Afghanistan after the departure of the Soviet army were not entirely about education. The Taliban, which had gained control of the country, would essentially raid rural schools for young boys to enlist in fighting, Attal says. One period of violence was followed by another, he says, and the young boys were sent to a variety of fronts.
"They [Taliban leaders] would come into the room and they would look and check for the moustache," he says. "With no discussion and no decision on your part, they would say, 'this is what you must do.' My classmates, many of them were taken and never seen again. I was fortunate since I did not have the moustache, yet."
While most textbooks in his school were in Arabic, Attal managed to learn rudimentary English using a worn book titled "Beginner English 1." The title still makes him grin. Attal says he studied English partly out of his interest in public speaking.
"In my heart, I've always had the confidence of speaking to the people, and to go further," he says.
And a strange set of circumstances eventually gave him an opportunity in 2002 when he heard someone speaking English in his village. The Western media were following the US response to September 11.
"Some foreign journalists came to our valley, and all these people were curious about who they were and what they were doing there," Attal says.
He surprised a woman by asking her name in English. Their immediate friendship and correspondence, which continues to this day, encouraged Attal to find work as a translator and to advance his education.
While the US-led coalition crushed the Taliban-run government and gained control of most of Afghanistan's major cities, the Afghans' initial jubilation was replaced with a new terror, particularly in the mountainous countryside. Taliban insurgents began a brutal assassination campaign.
"The insurgents began hanging the public notices and warnings everywhere," Attal says. If you knew English, he says, you could be targeted.
In a matter of a few short years, Afghans went from dancing in the streets, grateful for their newfound freedom to having the doors to their homes busted down. Taliban insurgents searched homes for Western supporters and coalition forces searched them for Taliban supporters.
"When you break into someone's home, you're breaking down the door to an entire culture," Attal says. "You're breaking the spirit."
Attal says there are many encouraging signs of redevelopment in Afghanistan that don't receive much attention from Western media — girls attending school and a virtual explosion of non-state-controlled media are among them.
Education remains a critical ingredient to a prosperous and secure Afghanistan, Attal says. While the country sits on one of the world's largest reserves of rare minerals essential to the creation of many high technology products, Attal says that many young Afghans lack the necessary skills to find employment.
"I can tell you personally that if people [Western governments] spent $2 billion helping to create employment, the insurgency will drop dramatically," Attal says. "If people have some kind of income to support their families, why would they turn to violence?"