California Boy Becomes Teenage Embed in Afghanistan

Extraordinary recordings to be heard Dec. 13-14 on KRCU 90.9 FM

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., Dec. 5, 2003 — What happens when an American teenager moves from his Bay Area house to the governor’s compound in rural Afghanistan?

Hyder Akbar, an 18-year-old Afghan-American who grew up in California, spent the summer of 2003 in Kunar, one of Afghanistan’s most volatile regions. He took a minidisc recorder with him to document his experiences, recording even as he ducked for cover on the floor of a U.S. Special Forces Humvee during a 20-minute ambush.

The public radio program “This American Life” will broadcast a full hour of his extraordinary recordings on KRCU, 90.0 FM at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 13 and at 9 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 14. The dates coincide with the convention at which Afghans will ratify their new constitution.

Hyder’s powerful work of first-person journalism also includes an eyewitness account of a secret U.S. military interrogation of a suspected terrorist. The suspect, Abdul Wali, later dies while in the hands of U.S. forces, and Hyder becomes personally involved in the aftermath of his mysterious death. Wali remains one of only three prisoners to die while being held by the United States in Afghanistan.

Last spring, Hyder’s father was appointed the governor of Kunar, a rural province with a lingering Al Qaeda presence that borders the tribal regions of Pakistan. Hyder joined his father and his uncle, a one-eyed war-hero, in Kunar in June.

Because Hyder speaks fluent Pashto, he became a teenage embed (unofficially, of course), sometimes traveling with the U.S. Special Forces in their convoy and translating for them, while recording their awkward interactions with the Afghan villagers they are meant to liberate and protect.

In addition to providing an unusual glimpse of the U.S. military at work, Hyder discovers that the reality of Afghanistan is much different than what has been reported about it. He witnesses Afghanistan’s newest challenge, something barely noted in the American media’s assessment of the country’s growing unrest: the return to power of Afghan Communists. To illustrate how their rising profile is devastating rural villagers, Hyder interviews survivors of a little-known 1979 massacre during which Afghan Communists gunned down 1,200 people in, it’s said, a half-hour. Standing atop the mass grave, a survivor bursts into tears and explains to Hyder how the ground underneath shook with people buried alive, trying to get out. Before Sept. 11, Hyder lived the life of a regular American high school kid. He hung out with his buddies, listened to U2 and shopped at Banana Republic. But then, everything changed. Hyder’s father, a scion of an Afghan political family, sold the family business–a hip-hop clothing store in Oakland–and left for Afghanistan, where he became President Hamid Karzai’s chief spokesman. Hyder joined his father in Kabul for several months during the summer of 2002.(Recordings he made in Kabul were turned into an award-winning documentary, “Come Back to Afghanistan,” that aired on “This American Life” last February.)

Hyder is the first American teenager to spend significant time in Afghanistan as a civilian. He provides a personal and accessible perspective into a country that many Americans still think of as backwards, full of caves and bearded holy warriors. He is also one of few people to have witnessed the reconstruction of Afghanistan (or lack thereof) from both Kabul and the countryside. He has sat with President Hamid Karzai in his office and with jailed Al Qaeda suspects in one of Afghanistan’s most remote regions. From palaces to prisons, Hyder’s experience of the country is complete.

Hyder is now back in the States, a college student in California. His radio stories are assembled from his tapes by producer Susan Burton.

“This American Life” is produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International. The program is heard each week by 1.5 million listeners on more than 460 public radio stations.

KRCU 90.9 FM is Cape Girardeau’s local Public Radio International affiliate and a National Public Radio member station, providing national and local programs that are both informative and entertaining. For more information, go to http://www.krcu.org.