We all know bits and pieces about Afghanistan. Images of the Taliban, Al-Qaida, and women hidden away under burkas are what usually come to mind. But Afghanistan is a country that has endured extraordinary hardship: ongoing drought, Soviet invasion and occupation, ethnic conflict, civil war, Taliban oppression, US military retaliation, and refugee displacement of staggering proportions.

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In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, thus beginning the country’s twenty-three years of war from which it is only now struggling to recover. After years of Afghan resistance and the eventual fall of communism, the Soviets completely pulled out of the country. As a result, a violent civil war ensued among the various ethnic groups to regain control of Afghanistan. The conservative Taliban formed a militia and ultimately seized control over much of the country.

The Taliban imposed an extreme form of Islam on the people of Afghanistan, enforcing harsh laws under the threat of violence and death. Women were forced to wear the burka and females were not permitted to receive an education or even to leave their homes without being escorted by a male family member. The Taliban inflicted public executions, amputations, beatings, stonings, torture, and imprisonment as terrorizing punishment for the long list of offenses to their strict moral code. The Taliban also committed serious atrocities against minority populations, particularly the Shi’a Hazara ethnic group.

During these years of war, an estimated four million Afghans fled the country in fear for their lives, escaping across borders into neighboring countries only to live in refugee camps under horrible conditions for many years. And then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In response, the U.S. and coalition forces launched air strikes and military attacks when the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. By the end of the year, the Taliban regime was forced out of power; but over two decades of war had left the country utterly destroyed and its people devastated and without hope.