After the Taleban seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the lives of millions of Afghans changed overnight. While these events have had a negative impact on the lives of many, some have seen positive changes. The end of the conflict meant that many urban dwellers who had been born in rural areas and had not returned home for the past two decades, mostly due to security concerns, could safely revisit their home villages. In this report, guest author Sabawoon Samim listened to the experiences of four such individuals and found they had mixed feelings about returning to their home villages, where happy memories mingled with the harsh realities of rural life.Afghan children harvesting potatoes in Bati Kot district, Nangarhar province.
Photo: Shafiullah Kakar/AFP, 12 January 2023
Afghanistan’s cities are home to a large number of Afghans originally from rural areas who have left their home villages in search of security and better opportunities in urban areas. As the war between the resurgent Taleban forces [on one side] and Republic and NATO forces [on the other] raged in most provinces, Afghans who had joined the government quickly came under direct threat from the insurgents. The cities, particularly the capital Kabul, enjoyed better security throughout the two-decade-long conflict. The quest for security, however, was not the sole driver of rural-urban migration. The large amount of foreign aid flowing into the country since 2001 allowed the Republic to invest vast sums of money in developing the capital and other major cities, creating jobs and building infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, that were not available in rural Afghanistan.
The war, however, made it difficult, if not impossible, for many of these new city dwellers to even pay short visits to their villages. Even those not directly connected with the post-2001 government and its international allies were exposed to many other dangers while travelling or in the villages, including firefights between government forces and the insurgents, roadside bombs and criminals. These dynamics meant that many seldom, if ever, returned to their villages.
The Taleban takeover in August 2021 ended the conflict and changed the situation drastically. The Taleban declared a general amnesty for their erstwhile enemies: those who had worked for or cooperated with the Republic. In the months that followed, many Afghans who had previously been unable to visit the rural areas made their way to the villages they had left years or even decades earlier.
To understand how they felt and what they experienced, we interviewed four individuals who had visited their home villages for the first time in many years. Our interviewees originally hailed from Paktia, Kunduz, Ghazni and Nangrahar provinces and have different backgrounds and professional experiences. Three of our interviewees lived in Kabul and one in Jalalabad. Two held positions in the previous government: one as a civil servant and the other as a member of the now-disbanded Afghan National Army (ANA). The third interviewee worked as a civilian contractor for the United States and the fourth continues to work for an international organisation. The interviews were carried out in October and November of 2022; three were face-to-face and one was conducted by phone.
For three of our interviewees, the Taleban takeover has not proved as challenging as they had anticipated. Two of our interviewees, the former US contractor and the government official, have built considerable businesses in Afghanistan and abroad using the vast profits they made over the past two decades. The international organisation employee has retained his job and has an adequate salary. None has seen their lives disrupted in the aftermath of the regime change. In fact, they availed themselves of the newly offered opportunity to travel throughout the country in safety to visit their home villages. Two of them reported smooth and even jovial interactions with the Taleban. One interviewee has befriended his former foes and built ties with some of their commanders; another secured official permission from the Taleban’s Ministry of Interior to keep a pistol for his protection while travelling; the third interviewee said he hardly noticed any Taleban presence in the rural areas.
However, things turned out very differently for the former army officer from Nangrahar. After the Taleban takeover, he lost his job and currently struggles to provide for his family’s basic needs. Finally, the cost of living in Jalalabad proved too much for him, and he decided to move back to the village with his family. While he is no longer at risk of being killed on the battlefield, he is still in danger of being arrested by the Taleban or targeted by his foes.
By contrast, the other three respondents continue to live in Kabul. They were keen to visit their birthplaces and appreciated their time there. However, they felt the villages have remained too ‘backward’, having scarcely benefited from the development that altered the country’s urban centres. They noticed how villages have grown larger and crowded with new young faces and how the village youth have few prospects for a bright future.
Our interviewees extolled many aspects of village life, such as the warm social relations and clean air, and showed interest in refurbishing their properties there to serve as second homes, but they admitted that they could not forego all the modern comforts of the city in favour of returning to the village permanently.
30-year-old father of five, Nisar Ahmad, was born in Zurmat district, Paktia province when the mujahedin were in power. After the fall of the first Emirate in 2001, his father moved the family to Kabul and secured a position working for the government. After he finished his studies, Nisar was able to get a senior post in the Republic with the help of his father, a job he held until the fall of the Republic when he fled the country along with the rest of his family to Turkey, where they had already obtained citizenship, presumably by investing part of the wealth the family had amassed during the Republic.
There were no schools or madrasas [in the village when I was growing up]. We went to the village mosque every morning and studied Qaida Baghdadi [the book Al Arabiya Qaida Baghdadi teaches how to read Quran using a gradual system that starts with the Arabic alphabet and reading to beginners]and later the Quran Karim with our village mullah.
After the new government was established [in 2001], my father, who was [associated] with a mujahedin tanzim [name of the party withheld] during the jihad [against the Soviet Union], went to Kabul and got in touch with his comrades. By then, many of them had become officials in the Karzai government. He was fluent in English and easily got a job in the new government and later on was promoted to more senior positions. Around this time, the Taleban also began an armed struggle against the Karzai government, which made it difficult for my father to return home. So, he took our entire family to Kabul, and we never returned to the village.
The biggest reason we moved to Kabul might have been the Taleban, who didn’t allow my dad to return home. But I sometimes ask myself, if there was no war and threats to my father, would we still have stayed in Zurmat, which was severely underdeveloped and where there were no schools, hospitals and none of the facilities we have in Kabul? Anyway, if there were no Taleban at all, I assume, the situation in Zurmat might have also been different. The new [Republican] government might have started development projects there too.
After we moved to Kabul, my siblings and I started school. I was in the 7th grade. After graduating high school, I studied for my bachelor’s at Kardan University in Kabul and later an MA in Europe. With my father’s help, who had retired during the Ashraf Ghani government, I got a senior post in the ministry of [name withheld].
And, you know the rest: the Taleban came and my family and I all left the country and went to Turkey, where we have citizenship.
After some time, when we contacted our relatives and friends in Afghanistan, the situation appeared to be settled. In fact, what we expected, that people who had held senior positions in the Republic would face difficulties and persecution, never happened. I don’t consider the Taleban to be the good guys, but what they did was a great [act of] generosity [by announcing a general amnesty for those who had worked for the Republic].
My elder brothers own a number of markets and businesses in Kabul, which require some management. We talked to our relatives about our return and they all backed the idea. So, two of my brothers and I returned to Afghanistan in March . We went to our home in Kabul, and after dealing with the businesses and some other stuff, we decided to go to our village. Our relatives there had contacted the local commanders to ask for permission, which was granted.
Since we were going there for the first time in around 15 years, I felt a sort of joy that I had never felt in Europe or Kabul, despite all the improvements and higher [quality] of life we’ve had there. Before going there [to the village], my brother went to the wazarate dakhila [Ministry of Interior] and talked to them about allowing us to carry a pistol for our protection. They often let businessmen carry them for security, and we were also allowed to do so.
In Afghanistan homecomings are characterised by rituals of hospitality, but for our interviewees, the return was also marked by the grim realities of life in rural Afghanistan. They noted the villages’ demographic growth had not been matched by adequate improvements to infrastructure, facilities or living standards. The joys of rediscovering the simple pleasures of country life quickly gave way to the realisation that not much had improved:
When I saw the village, there were some new modest houses, more cars, a paved road and improved living conditions, but only for some people. I didn’t notice much difference from when we had left. We went to our cousin’s home, and people came to greet and welcome us. To be honest, we’d helped the villagers who travelled to Kabul a lot and now it was their turn to pay it back.
On the second day, my elder brother bought a cow and slaughtered it. We distributed the meat in the village. We also held a collective ceremony for those who had died since our departure. I’d seen many of the villagers when they had come to Kabul for [medical] treatment and other reasons, but now I could see a new young generation. I noticed that the number of people living in the village had increased and there were more houses. As I remember, our village was small and only had one mosque. But now there were two new ones.
We went around all the district without any problem. It was because my father and our entire family worked on the civilian side [the Republic] and had not been involved in fighting the Taleban. So, there wasn’t any direct interaction between us [and the Taleban] during the Republic.
Also, the Taleban from our area were all sent to Kabul and other provinces. The Taleban [who are] in Zurmat [now] are from other provinces and districts and don’t know much about us. The villagers may have informed them, but our relatives had contacted the commander who used to operate in our village during the war, and he had told them there was no problem with our return.
For people like us, life was really restricted during the Republic. Due to the security situation, we barely even went to Qargha. The Taleban were not the only challenge or even the main threat to the security of the [political] elite. The mafia, thieves and other criminal gangs were the biggest threats. My father was posted to Kandahar [for a time], but he never went there by car. When we visited him in Kandahar, we went by plane. Nowadays, we go to Paktia by car without any problems. The last time I went there, all the villagers and friends proposed we go for mila [picnic] to Aryub Zazi [a district in Paktia]. We went there, cooked kabab and enjoyed the breathtaking natural scenery. It was really a great experience.
Seeing the natural scenery and breathing the clean air in the village was something special to me. In Kabul, and also in Turkey, we’ve been living an unhealthy, artificial life. Unlike in the cities, you can find wholesome food in the village. It was a great experience and the fulfilment of an old wish to see the village where I was born. But it was also a bitter [experience]. The war in these areas had shattered entire villages and left people in the same underdeveloped situation they had 15 years earlier. Another devastating feature of village life that always hits me hard is the poverty people experience.
Despite the village’s backwardness, one cannot avoid yearning for the place he’d grown up. Although it’d be naive to hope this government would do construction work, I still want to see my village experience the many facilities people enjoy in the twenty-first century.
Abdul Qadir, 45, is a businessman from the Deh Yak district of Ghazni province. He is a father of seven. Before 2001, he lived in Peshawar with his extended family, some of whom had joined a mujahedin organisation during the war against the Soviets. He returned to Kabul after the fall of the Taleban’s first Emirate. He soon became a US contractor, building military bases for the NATO troops, and made huge profits. He remained in Afghanistan after the fall of the Republic in 2001 and has managed to establish good connections with the new authorities.
Our family lived in Pakistan until America ousted the Taleban. Then we returned to Kabul. My brother took a senior position in the new government, and I worked with the Americans as a contractor in the construction of their [military] bases.
When the Taleban returned to our district [during the conflict], we were branded with different [derogatory] names and local commanders threatened to kill us if they had the chance. We didn’t return to our village after that. For the past seven years, we couldn’t even get as far as Ghazni city.
But, the suqut [fall] of the Republic brought a sudden transformation, and so many things that we never expected would change in decades vanished overnight. Initially, we were very afraid of the Taleban, but it turned out that they were sincere and committed to the amnesty they had announced. After observing the situation and seeing that other friends who had held senior positions in the [Republic] government didn’t flee the country and started travelling to the countryside, my family and I also wanted to go to our mantiqa [rural areas]. Through our village elders, I contacted the senior commander in our area who, only a few years ago, had called our family murtadeen [apostates]. He had been appointed to a job in Kabul, and I invited him and his group to dinner. They accepted my invitation and came to our home. During the dinner, we talked a lot, and I also asked him if I could return to the village. He agreed and told me that he was going to Ghazni the following week. He proposed we go together.
The readiness to reconcile is apparent on both sides, indicating a pragmatic attitude on the part of the Taleban towards a prominent family, arguably in a position to play an important role in the community, and on the part of the family who sees the value of good relations with the country’s new leaders.
The following week, we went to Ghazni together and I then made my own way to the village. Many villagers and relatives came to Ghazni city to greet us. I went to our home, where my cousins had lived while we were away. The following day, the villagers came to our home because when someone returns from Dubai [the United Arab Emirates] or Arabistan [Saudi Arabia], it’s customary in our village for people to go to his house for breakfast. We talked a lot and I saw many new faces.
The youth are particularly amazing but face severe problems. Instead of studying, most of them go to Dubai and other countries to work and earn a living. Their talents are wasted in foreign countries for the sake of their family’s [financial] needs. I hope they get the chance to study in better schools and universities and work and serve their country. The boys in our village also have a cricket team, and as a gift, I bought them new kits and bats. They were all delighted.
In our village, there is a madrasa built by locals. Most of its [construction] was completed with donations from villagers, but its rooms didn’t have roofs and the yard lacked an enclosure. I donated 1,500,000 kaldar [Pakistani rupees, roughly 7,300 USD]. They appreciated it very much.
On my first visit, I spent a week in the village seeing relatives and friends who also invited us for lunch or dinner. Around this time last year, I went there again. I had bought three sheep during my first visit and gave them to my cousins to take care of so we could slaughter them before winter and make lahndi [a delicacy of dried lamb. See more on lahndi in this AAN report]. I really love lahndi and, in the past years, we could not find such watani [homemade] lahndi in Kabul.
My mother passed away in the winter [of 2022]. We carried her to our village, arranged a funeral and buried her there. When she became ill two years ago, she made us promise that we would bury her in the village. Although we promised, we were worried about how that would be possible. My elder brother died of a heart attack that same year, and we couldn’t bury him in the village because the Taleban wouldn’t allow it. We held both the funeral ceremony and the burial in Kabul, where we struggled to find a place for his grave. But my mother was fortunate and blessed to be buried where she wished. We couldn’t have delivered on our promise if the Republic hadn’t fallen.
We’ve not yet faced problems with the Taleban. Those who were once thirsty for our blood have now become friends. Three months ago, I invited most of our district’s commanders to my daughter’s wedding in Kabul. All who were [present] in Kabul came to the wedding and even allowed us to have the dhol [traditional drum] and dance the attan [traditional Afghan dance].
Now, I travel to the village frequently, but I don’t want to live there permanently. Rural areas in Afghanistan lack very basic facilities, and it’s impossible to live there when one is used to living in a city. Still, I might accept life in the village for the many good features it has, and in fact, I once discussed it with my family, but neither my wife nor my sons and daughters agreed. The former government was so corrupt that, apart from a road constructed by the Americans, a school and a hospital, it did not do any construction and development work in the entire district. One can’t hope the current government will do better because their entire system is based on taxes and they are stuck in an economic crisis.
Hamidullah, 35, is from the Khanabad district of Kunduz province. He works for an international organisation as an administrator, having moved up the ranks over the years since he was first hired as a driver.He moved his family to Kabul in 2009 because suspicion was raised in his village about the nature of his job in the capital. Here is his story:
I was 19 years old when I came to Kabul. I had not studied in a school but had learned to read and write from the village mullah. When I arrived in Kabul, I started English and computer courses and, with a fake school document, got admission to a university. I was also looking for a job, and a friend introduced me to an [name of organisation withheld] officer who was searching for a driver. I got the job, and at the same time I continued my university studies and other courses.
My family still lived in Khanabad and I used to go there regularly. After two years of working as a driver, the officer hired me for a junior job in the international organisation. By then, I had mastered [the] English [language] and [the use of] computers and got my bachelor’s in political science. Over the years, I quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted to higher positions, but I still told people in the village that I worked as a driver.
The Taleban war against the government and the foreign forces was in full swing, making it increasingly difficult to travel to Kunduz and our district. We were often stuck in firefights, and roadside bombs blew up civilian cars, killing and injuring dozens of people every day. The Taleban were arresting people who lived in Kabul on charges of spying for the Americans. So, facing all these difficulties, I moved my wife and children to Kabul.
For a few months, I could still visit the village to take care of our home and land. But, since my salary was good and my living standards had improved, the villagers who came to Kabul for [medical] treatment or other reasons started to be sceptical about my job, doubting that a driver could pay such a high rent and buy a car. The word soon reached the Taleban, and they thought I had a senior government position. So, from around 2009, I couldn’t go to the village anymore.
Since the Taleban takeover, despite the many problems it has created for Afghans, in particular women, I am again able to go not only to Kunduz but also everywhere in Afghanistan. In the past, when someone travelled on the highways, he’d surely face a firefight or a Taleban checkpoint on his way. Many of our friends were injured during the clashes. I once decided to travel to Herat, but when I spoke to friends about whether I could go there by road, they told me doing so was suicide. So, I travelled by air, which cost me 5,000 afghanis [around 100 USD].
Now, I have gone to Kandahar twice without any security problems. The only positive thing Afghans have seen with the arrival of the Taleban [in power] is security all around Afghanistan, except Kabul and Panjshir.
I decided to go to the village a month after [the Taleban takeover]. The commanders and fighters who knew me had been killed or relocated to Kabul and other provinces. Since I didn’t have a high profile or position in the previous government, I didn’t even ask for permission from the [local] Taleban, something many former government officials do. I went directly to the village. My uncle was using our house. When I went there, I decided to refurbish the house so I could come on vacation and spend time there with my family. I also talked to a farmer about starting work on our large parcel of land to grow some crops.
For this interviewee, establishing a connection with the Taleban was unnecessary: potential threats were no longer present in the village, and as the employee of an international organisation rather than of the previous government, he managed to keep a low profile. Like the previous respondents, mutual help – such as hospitality in the city and the guarding of properties in the village – kept alive the relationship between those who had settled in the city and the villagers who had stayed back:
In the village, people’s attitudes towards us were very positive because many of them had come to Kabul over the years, and as they had no relatives or other places to stay, they stayed in my house. I’ve helped them a lot to get doctors’ appointments and gave them advice when they needed it, for example, on how to get a passport. So, they were very happy with me. Villagers are very hospitable, and everyone wanted to have me over for dinner. I spent four days there and didn’t even have a single meal at my uncle’s house. They also helped me decide how to restore and farm my land.
The number of youths has probably doubled in our village. Most lack quality education and educational facilities that can develop their capacities. There are a couple of schools in the district, but they don’t meet the needs of an entire district. These schools barely have qualified teachers and [lack] books and other basic material. Most of the youth spend their time playing football and cricket. Apart from working the land, they struggle to find jobs. The only thing that bothered me was this new generation’s directionless life and uncertain future.
I’ve gone to the village often since then, most of the time with my family. We haven’t yet faced any trouble from the Taleban. To be honest, except at the checkpoints on the highway, one hardly sees them in the villages. It’s like they’ve totally abandoned villages and come to the cities. But fear of them virtually rules over these areas and security is still good. Sometimes, I even leave for Kabul after sunset and arrive there at dawn.
I also planted an apple orchard and sowed potatoes and wheat on our land. So, I didn’t have to buy flour from the bazaar this year because we had our own [wheat] harvest. It saved me 50,000 afghanis [550 USD].
Rahmatullah, 30, is originally from the Achin district of Nangrahar but was born in the Shamshatu refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, where many Afghans settled as refugees in the 1980s. He is married and father of four. Rahmatullah’s family returned to Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province after the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001. As he did not have a formal education and lacked marketable skills, he struggled to find a job and eventually joined the national army. After the collapse of the Republic, he lost his job and returned to the village due to economic problems.
I was born in Shamshatu, Pakistan. I spent 15 years there and then, with the fall of the Taleban regime [in 2001], we returned to Achin. I only went to elementary school in Pakistan. Upon my return, our economic situation barred me from continuing my studies. Finding work was hard for someone like me with neither higher education nor other skills. I struggled to find a suitable job. After a few years, some friends from our area advised me and convinced me to join the urdu [Afghan National Army].
I joined the army, and after completing the training, around 2009, I was deployed to the battlefield. At that time, the war against the Taleban was a very high-intensity one. I’ve been to many provinces on missions and operations and fought in many battles. I lost many comrades. Sometimes, looking back, I’m stunned at how I made it out of that bloody war alive.
When I travelled to Achin in the first years after I joined the military, the Taleban didn’t control the district but had access to every part except its administrative centre. Still, local elders and the Taleban had agreed that they wouldn’t bother the soldiers deployed in other provinces who came to the district on leave. A huge number of army soldiers were mashriqi [from eastern provinces of Afghanistan such as Nangrahar, Kunar and Laghman] and frequently returned to their homes on leave but, in those early years, based on their agreement with the elders, the Taleban didn’t arrest or bother us.
But with the emergence of Daesh [Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP], the situation changed and we were barred from going to the village. So, I moved my family to Jalalabad [Nangrahar’s capital].
When the Taleban began their intensive final wave of offensives on the provinces, I was in Nimruz, the first province that fell to them. We surrendered. After two days, they let us go and gave us taslim khat [surrender letter] along with 5,000 afghanis [around 65 USD at the exchange rate of August 2021] and new clothes. After that, I went directly to Jalalabad.
The end of the conflict meant only the beginning of a different ordeal for this interviewee: he found himself deprived of his tenuous economic assets, and his former military experience meant that the Taleban did not view him as a candidate for reconciliation, but rather somebody to intimidate and monitor. For him, the ancestral village represented the last resort to cope with the prohibitive costs of living:
After the Republic collapsed, the troubles in my life began to increase day by day. The first were economic problems. I lost my job and had no other source of income.
In Jalalabad, I was living in a rented house. I moved my family to the village to at least get rid of the rent and then opened a small shop in the district bazaar. I moved to our village and didn’t face any problems in the first week. But the following week, the men of a commander from our district spotted me in the bazaar. They arrested me and carried me blindfolded to Jalalabad. There, they asked different questions and released me after a week. I don’t exactly know why I was arrested, but they said that they were investigating whether I was carrying weapons and whether I was involved in any mischievous activity [against the Taleban].
They finally released me and said everything was fine. But I suspect this was an excuse. Probably, the local commander was showing us his power. The tarburwalai is very strong here. He [the commander] is from our tribe and wanted to show that they have the power now, and he can do anything to me. After that arrest, I was twice more approached by the Taleban in the district bazaar. They left after asking a few questions. Since then, I’ve not been bothered by them.
I now live again in the village I left almost eight years ago. I’m happy with my life since at least it’s safe. Contrary to what I experienced in the army, there is little risk of being hit by a bullet or a roadside bomb, but the economic situation is at its worst. I served in the army to earn a livelihood. My [monthly] salary was 24,000 afghanis [roughly 300 USD]. It was enough for my family. But after the collapse of the Republic, it dried up immediately. Now, the shop I opened is doing relatively well and can earn enough to keep us alive, but the high price of basic goods, such as oil and flour, sometimes makes it difficult to afford them.
On the first days of the Taleban takeover, I feared them a lot and waited for them to arrest and kill me. Once, I even planned to go to Iran to escape both the Taleban and poverty, but those who went there from our area were deported after being tortured and spending months in [an Iranian] prison. Getting to Pakistan and finding a job there is also difficult.
So far, I think the danger from the Taleban has faded, but the risk of poverty is still high, and I don’t know what life will do to me.
Between tradition and change: city-village connections re-established
The Taleban victory and the end of the conflict changed the lives of Afghans in many ways. While the emergence of the second Emirate disaffected many urbanites who blame the Taleban for the crippling economic crisis as well as the social restrictions they have put in place, it has, nevertheless, brought some positive developments; chief among them is the improved security situation stemming from the end of the conflict.
Two decades of conflict had fashioned barriers between rural and urban communities, cutting off many Afghans from their home villages for years because of the dangers awaiting them there or the widespread insecurity on the roads when travelling long distances. The end of the conflict has removed most of these barriers, allowing Afghans to finally reconnect with their home villages and travel across the country.
The interviewees’ interactions with the Taleban also tell us of the changed security environment: two respondents managed to establish contacts and positive relations with their erstwhile enemies, the Taleban. They reached out to the new rulers through their relatives who lived under the Taleban’s control during the insurgency to get their consent for their return to their villages. Our interviewees successfully used the strength of their family and community networks to their advantage to adapt to the changing circumstances, forget old enmities and establish new connections. One interviewee even reported driving across the country by night, a feat that would have been impossible throughout the past two decades due to the conflict and the fear of armed robbers.
The experience of our fourth interviewee stands in sharp contrast to that of the others. He was in the army for several years and lost his job after the takeover. Indeed, he returned to the village only because he could no longer afford to live in Jalalabad. For him, the takeover and his subsequent encounters with the Taleban have not gone as smoothly as they had for the other interviewees. He was arrested and imprisoned for a week and subsequently investigated twice more. In his case, the social network of the village did not protect him from retaliation. On the contrary, he was subjected to a “show of force” by fellow tribesmen who now found themselves on the winning side.
However, not all former government officials’ experiences with the Taleban have been similar to those of our interviewees. The public amnesty announced by the Taleban has curbed systematic retaliatory actions and reprisals against those who worked for the Republic, but there are reported incidents where former security and military officials are harassed, detained and even killed by the Taleban (see, for example, this Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty report and this Human Rights Watch report).
Broadly speaking, however, the security now established across the country, despite the sporadic suicide attacks by ISKP, is the first of its kind after decades of conflict and instability. Respondents found this to be the most positive feature of the post-takeover life.
Can you go home again?
The urban-rural bonds in Afghanistan have a complicated but deeply interconnected history. In fact, they have remained deep and enduring even though they were put under stress by the length and intensity of the conflict. Attachment to one’s birthplace and the economic and social interdependence between rural and urban members of a kinship or village community endured and added to the resilience of Afghan households throughout the troubled past decades. Under the Republic, many urbanites who held senior positions in the government supported their fellow villagers, relatives and tribesmen by hosting them when they travelled to cities for medical treatment, providing guidance on navigating government bureaucracies and attempting to secure positions, projects or educational scholarships for them.
Even after living for years in urban centres, many of these urbanites did not consider selling their rural properties. Like our interviewees, they maintained a virtual presence in the villages by retaining their homes and lands, which their relatives and fellow villagers took care of. The author knows of many cases of city dwellers allocating their zakat, or the Islamic alms tax, to the poor in their village despite the large numbers of needy people in cities, showing the enduring deep-rooted ties between the city dwellers and their villages of origin. The war’s end facilitated the revival of these persisting interdependent relationships that were never totally lost.
Even so, the social and economic imbalances in the past two decades have, to some extent, created an intractable gap between the two communities. Urban communities, benefiting as they did from two decades of robust economic and social attention from international donors, have adopted more ‘modern’ lifestyles. They have enjoyed years of better access to enhanced facilities and economic opportunities. They now stand in stark contrast to Afghanistan’s traditional and underdeveloped rural communities, which have not benefited to the same extent from the bounties enjoyed by their urban counterparts.
Nevertheless, the urban dwellers who had moved to the city during the past two decades and who make up a sizeable part of Afghanistan’s population can now reconnect with their rural homelands in ways that would have been inconceivable two years earlier. Since the Taleban takeover, Afghanistan’s rural areas have hosted many urbanites for the Eid holidays, allowing Afghans to engage in the age-old tradition of going to the village and visiting relatives during these festive periods. City dwellers from different walks of life can now travel to the village to participate in local ceremonies such as funerals and weddings. They can bury their dead in the plaranai hadira [ancestral cemetery], attend a cousin’s wedding or simply enjoy the natural beauty of their country in the company of their extended family. Afghans from rural and urban areas, who during the conflict were, each in their own way, “living a life under many restrictions,” are now given the chance to overcome at least this barrier.
After enjoying the return and their villages’ hospitality, beyond their idealistic designs of a ‘homecoming’, our interviewees discerned the other side of the coin – their rural communities had remained underdeveloped and largely impoverished. They noted few changes to their communities’ living standards and little economic development. They were troubled by the fact that their villages had not benefited from the vast international grants that had flowed into the country for the past two decades. Some blamed the former government, while others pointed to the war and the destruction it brought to the villages.
The economic crisis and the unemployment these rural communities were experiencing also concerned our interviewees. While they were impressed by the “new faces” of the youth they had seen, they were troubled by the lack of options, including educational opportunities and employment prospects for their villages’ younger population. They must have sensed that the apparently immutable social order of the villages was under pressure from the sheer number of unemployed youth and the lack of opportunities to match their expectations.
Although the interviewees talked about the pleasures of visiting one’s birthplace and praised the fresh air, wholesome food and hospitality, they did not intend to live there permanently, given the lack of basic facilities they enjoy in urban centres. Only one has gone back to live in the village, but only because economic constraints have forced him. The other three expressed their intentions to strengthen their ties with their communities, and at least one has since rehabilitated his lands and gardens and aimed to refurbish his village house as a vacation home.
The end of insecurity has not reversed the trend that has seen scores of Afghans abandon their villages to settle in urban areas in recent decades. Cities continue to represent the only horizon for educational and professional opportunities for the villagers, and the gap between the two has been exacerbated by the two decades of largely imbalanced evolution in Afghan society and the current economic crisis. The kinship and emotional ties to one’s home place, deep as they might be, are not strong enough to persuade city dwellers to abandon the comparative privileges of life in a city and return to the village, nor would they prevent the flight of many youth left without education and jobs, from the rural areas to Afghan cities and beyond in the years to come.
Edited by Fabrizio Foschini and Roxanna Shapour
 The names of respondents have been changed to protect their identity.
 Many Afghans go to the Gulf countries, mostly UAE and Saudi Arabia, for work and when they return, people welcome them by going to their homes. This custom applies to anyone who returns home from a foreign country or even a city in Afghanistan.
 The interviewee later said that he considered Kabul to be insecure because of the recent suicide attacks. He also noted increasing robberies and thefts as another sign of insecurity. On Panjshir, the interviewee referred to reports of clashes in the province.
 Tarburwalai is a rivalry between cousins, relatives and fellow tribesman where individuals and families attempt to have superiority and domination over others.
This article was last updated on 24 Mar 2023