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Afghanistan topic of YVCC speaker's address

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Dr. Ken Zontek, history teacher at Yakima Valley Community College's Yakima campus, spoke in Grandview Tuesday, Jan. 30. He educated several members of the community and YVCC campus students about his experiences in Afghanistan.

GRANDVIEW - Community members and students of Yakima Valley Community College were treated to a guest speaker at the Carl Stevens Senior Center in Grandview Tuesday night, Jan. 30.

Dr. Ken Zontek spoke to an audience of more than 40 regarding his experiences while deployed as a NATO liason to Afghanistan for 18 months.

The history teacher and captain with the National Guard spoke at length about his time in Kabul, Afghanistan and his efforts to help Afghani women at the House of Refuge.

Zontek told his audience, "I'm really glad to be here." He said he was especially grateful to be in Grandview due to the assistance provided to him by members of Grandview's YVCC campus. He said he sent what were called "Kabul cables" to the campus while he was in Afghanistan. YVCC students and staff, in turn, sent pencils, candy and various comfort items to him to help his efforts with the people of Afghanistan.

He said prior to his time in Afghanistan, he had limited knowledge about the country and its people.

He recalled hearing about the Afghanistan war with the Soviet Union and the help the United States provided to the Mujahadein in defeating the Soviets. He recalled the civil war that broke out in the country after the Soviets left Afghanistan, saying, "We didn't worry because without the Soviets, there was no strategic interest." And, he stated that the United States generally does not like to get involved in civil wars.

"Gender relations, color, honor, shame, revenge need to be understood," he explained. He learned how important these elements to the culture in Afghanistan are while he was deployed.

Zontek's job as a liason was to coordinate U.S. forces with NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

He said it was a diplomatic job, moving information between NATO and the U.S. forces.

"I was asked questions such as 'What do Americans feel about this'?" he explained.

He told those in attendance that the answers given were answers people's lives depended upon.

A risk assessment had to be done whenever he and his fellow NATO and/or U.S. comrades went out, however he was not in the field or in firefights. So, his deployment was "pretty safe."

He recalled the Taliban moved into Afghanistan and brought stability to the country in 1993 to 1994, but said there wasn't much information about them. "They seemed extreme, and intolerant. But, we still didn't have serious concerns," he said.

He further explained that the thought that Islam is first in the minds of Afghanis is a misconception. "Culture is first," he said.

Zontek said being in Afghanistan he wanted to do more than just his job.

He made the decision to seek out humanitarian work, feeling he could ease some of the Afghani people's frustrations and needs.

"I found out the Brits were doing civil military cooperation," Zontek recounted. He approached some of the British military members and discovered they were more prepared for what he wanted to accomplish.

He worked with Captain Lama, who was a Gurkha, a very elite branch of the British military. They pooled together goods and reached hearts and minds of the Afghani people through their efforts.

"It is different than the Iraq theatre. You have to be soft when the people are soft and you have to be hard when the people are hard," Zontek said. "Gaining the people's support really helps win efforts."

While working with Captain Lama, Zontek was given the opportunity to visit a women's garden. Word spread that he wanted to do more for the women of Afghanistan and a woman invited him to meet with her so she could find out more. She interviewed him and brought him to House of Refuge, a women's shelter.

As a teacher, he looked at the school at the shelter and was impressed that the school was able to educate approximately 30 people when it was designed for 20.

During a question and answer period Tuesday evening, Zontek was asked, "Does success depend on a combination of the experiences and preparation in combination with the mindset of the culture?"

"Yes. It is not black and white," he said. "There are various shades of gray and it is very complex," Zontek responded. "There is no one hard solution."

Another audience member asked if the only citizens the allies in Afghanistan were fighting were the Taliban, and Zontek said, "They are fighting whoever shoots at them." He said drug lords are not necessarily Taliban. Yet, the allies are still fighting them.

He told the audience that the real key to success in Afghanistan is by winning the support of the people and dealing with the economy. Because the economy is largely dependent on the profits of poppy crops, there needs to be a source of growing the economy and getting rid of the poppy crops.

Another key to success in helping the country, according to Zontek, is for Americans to realize "...a quick fix is impossible."

He said the educated people in Afghanistan have speculated that "...the U.S. and the allies need to be in the country at least 25 years, a generation."

Zontek said replacing poppy crops with wheat is not a good solution for the economy since the profits are not the same. "Give them jobs," Zontek said. He explained that the economy needs to be built up to help create stability in Afghanistan.

"It costs money, but it costs more to fight a war," he said.

Zontek's experience at House of Refuge included meeting young girls who had been sold into marriage as young as age of six, women who had a price on their heads, girls who had been enslaved to the Taliban so they could be raped and tortured and much more.

He said the women at the shelter have escaped extreme oppression and they still have to be careful. "They are in danger and the shelter has to remain very secretive," Zontek explained.

The women who have legal documents are more fortunate than those who don't because they can get a case in court. Because the courts work under Paktun traditions, however, the women and girls need support from their families and community to survive. If they have families and communities who support them, they no longer need the shelter.

The culture is divided into four distinct groups in Afghanistan. According to Zontek, approximately 40 percent of the 30 million people are Pashtun (or Paktun). The people of the Pashtun culture would like to see part of the country become "Pashtunistan."

Another 40 percent of the culture are Tajik who speak Dari like the Kurds. Dari is mostly spoken in Kabul. The Tajik are considered by the world as moderates.

Approximately 10 percent of the culture consider themselves Hazara. The Hazara are treated terribly, according to Zontek, and are often the common laborers.

And the final culture, making up less than 10 percent of the population, are the Turkic.

The Pashtunwali is the hospitality of the Pashtun culture. The Arabs are allowed to remain in Afghanistan because of the culture's tradition of "malmastia." "This belief system is strongly embedded in the culture," Zontek explained to the audience.

"Women are worth less than a cow," Zontek explained. He told the audience that women are worth approximately $500 and the more women a man can afford, the more influence he has.

More questions were asked of Zontek at the conclusion of the evening's events. Several were centered around the progress being made and the various news reports surrounding the culture of Afghanistan.

One audience member asked if there are "honor killings" in Afghanistan. Zontek gave a short response confirming there are.

After the questions, Zontek had several items from Afghanistan on display for purchase. All proceeds are sent via Western Union to the founder of House of Refuge.

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