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Examining the Witnesses

Bonnie Docherty

Bonnie Docherty, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and instructor at the Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic

The following story appeared in the Fall 2002 Harvard Law Bulletin

When Bonnie Docherty '01 entered the Afghan truck stop, about 100 men put down their kabobs and stared. A red-haired woman not wearing any head covering in a country that until recently forced women to cover themselves head to toe, Docherty stuck out. But that didn't get in her way.

A Schell Fellow at the arms division of Human Rights Watch, Docherty spent a month this spring traveling across Afghanistan with two colleagues to assess damage from the U.S. bombing campaign, focusing on cluster bombs. Human Rights Watch has called for a global moratorium on the use of cluster bombs because of their wide dispersal pattern, which makes them especially dangerous when used near civilian areas. Docherty received a crash course on the forensics of bomb sites, but because of her experience as a journalist (she'd worked as a reporter for a Boston-area paper before attending law school), she focused on interviewing witnesses, talking to hundreds of people about where bombs had been dropped and who had been injured or killed.

Docherty and her colleagues did much of their traveling by car, and wherever they stopped--even in the remotest villages--they found themselves surrounded by people eager to talk.

"Sometimes people who had been injured by bombs asked, 'Why did they do this to us? We're not the enemy,'" Docherty said. "But there seemed to be some recognition--at least a feeling--that the Americans were helping the country."

In a country known for its oppressive treatment of women, being a woman sometimes helped Docherty. She was allowed inside Afghan houses to talk to women where her two male colleagues couldn't follow. "I sensed somewhat of a double standard," she said. "An Afghan woman couldn't have had the freedom to travel like I did. But as a Westerner, I was somewhat of a curiosity."

Docherty had heard stories of women throwing off their burkas when the Northern Alliance moved into Kabul, but she saw only a few dozen women not wearing the head-to-toe coverings in public, and most of them still wore full-length garments that hid everything but their faces.

The Afghan men she worked with--translators and mine sweepers--loved to show her their Taliban I.D. cards. "Look how funny we looked with long beards and the black turbans," they'd say. Yet they didn't shave off their beards altogether. "My sense is," said Docherty, "that every time over the last 20 years that something has gone well, it didn't last very long. This could be a turning point. Or it could all fall apart. So they are optimistic but wary."

Docherty says although the State Department had advised Human Rights Watch to delay the trip, she never felt in danger while she was in Afghanistan. In fact, the only danger she experienced was unrelated to being in a war zone. After her traveling party had been stuck in a car for six hours in the Salang Tunnel 12,000 feet up in the Hindu Kush Mountains, they lost their steering when the tie rod snapped. They made it down the icy roads only because of the ingenuity of their driver and the pieces of rope and bits of scavenged metal he used to patch it together.

Docherty says she won't forget the resourcefulness and toughness of the Afghan people in the face of adversity any more than the ruined beauty of Kabul's streets. But she has also taken away with her the hope she felt when she was introduced to a little girl who was going to school for the first time: She shyly told Docherty that she hoped someday to be a doctor like her father.

--Emily Newburger

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