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Healing touch for children of Afghan war

world Updated: Mar 26, 2010 22:40 IST

As US-led coalition forces attempt to drive out Taliban insurgents from Afghanistan, the intrepid frog and his friends — the 8-foot-tall goofy yellow condor, the two bickering bachelors and the trash-can-dwelling misanthrope — could pick up where the troops leave off.

Some educators and television producers here hope that Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street could one day be on screens across Afghanistan with their letters, numbers and messages of fair play, ethnic tolerance and national unity to help heal and shape the country’s young minds.

Even the luckiest children in Afghanistan have childhoods defined by the specter of danger. Many parents limit their children’s outdoor playtime because of fears about roadside bombs, land mines, shootouts and thugs.

Afghan television is filled with US imports featuring characters searching for ever more elaborate ways to pummel one another, such as the Tom and Jerry cartoons and World Wrestling Entertainment matches.

Some child psychologists say the aggression in these programs is cathartic in a place where tanks, armed guards and roadblocks are posted in front of schools and near soccer fields.

Some parents and educators say Sesame Street, or similar shows, could kick-start the process of healing by targeting children before their brains are hard-wired with all the baggage left by three decades of war. Some children have been victims of sexual abuse. Others simply spend their days selling trinkets and candy at intersections or transporting brick pyramids on old wheelbarrows.

Throughout a trip I took across Afghanistan, Sesame Street kept coming up. Parents and educators said they thought the TV series was a genuine tool that could teach the children of war that revenge wasn’t the answer, that every ethnic group had dignity.

The program could “do everything from empowering women to teaching parents and kids not to throw trash on the ground,” said Saad Mohseni, director of Tolo TV, a private station. Sesame Street had its origins in social engineering: The show premiered in 1969, during the social upheaval of the civil rights movement and the desegregation of American classrooms.

The Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organisation behind Sesame Street, produced a 2004 Afghan Sesame Street test video series shown in schools and women’s centers.

Grover wore a sparkly kurta (a long shirt), pajamas (baggy cotton pants) and an Islamic prayer cap. It also had a playful hot-pink female Muppet who couldn’t decide whether to be a pilot or a doctor. That was a controversial message in a country where girls had been forbidden to go to school under Taliban rule.

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