Going to Bamian and Yakaolang brings up a lot of memories and shows how times have changed since Taleban times. An AAN ‘travel blog’, by Kate Clark, currently a Senior Analyst with AAN.
Getting out of Kabul for me usually means heading to the hot and dusty south or south east to report on the insurgency. This week, with no excuse of work, I drove west for the ten hour journey through Shomali and Ghorband to Bamian and then on to Band-e Amir. The province is looking greener than I have ever seen it. Winter snows were good this year and even the bare, rocky mountains around Bamian were slightly tinged with green. The willows were flowering, as were aromatic sinjad trees and, in the mountains, there were buttercups, yellow crocuses and wild peas and vetches. There should be a good harvest and for those with livestock, richer grazing means more milk and more dairy products. This is what Afghanistan can be like, given good winter snow or spring rains and security.
We ate bread and qaimaq (clotted cream) for breakfast in a small chaikhanain the uplands between Bamian and Yakaolang and I thought of the last time I ate qaimaq here. It was July 1999 and we had walked up to the mountain pastures, the ailaq, where people camp out in the summer months, grazing their flocks on the grass that has been under snow all winter. In 1999, we also found families who had fled the Taleban takeover of Bamian town. It had first been captured after a long, hard siege in September 1998, then following a brief re-capture by Hezb-e Wahdat forces in the spring of 1999, a 4000-strong force of Taleban led by Mawlawi Kabir (one of the Taleban commanders now in Pakistani custody) finally and decisively took the town in May 1999. Reprisals against the civilian population followed.
The displaced families I spoke to in the mountains described the terrors of staying – summary executions, burned houses, people taken for forced labour (*) – and the horrors of leaving – whole families struggling into the mountains through snow to find safety. One woman described how her small baby had died in the cold and dark. The ground was frozen, so she could not dig a grave and had lifted up a stone to bury the tiny corpse under – only to find another dead baby already there.
Travelling in this region brings back a mix of good and bad memories. Even the heart-stopping beauty of the Band-e Amir lakes reminds me of the old keeper of the shrine and owner of the tiny hotel there, Sayyid Ismail. He was nick-named ‘the Diver’ because he had been a champion swimmer in his youth and I interviewed him about tourism in September 2000 after the Taleban government had just started to issue tourist visas. He had lost a leg during the anti-Soviet jihad, but happily undid the bandages and took off his prosthetic leg and lolled around in the lake, unconcerned by the freezing cold water as he gave a television interview. He also traced out verses of the Qur’an carved into a rock in the shrine built by his grandfather in honour of Hazrat Ali (cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet) who prayed there after miraculously creating the lakes, killing a dragon that was eating people in Bamian and converting the local tyrant to Islam. Unconcerned about the Taleban ban on music, he invited some local boys to the hotel that night to play music in the noisy light of hurricane lamps. Four months later, he was dead, killed by the Taleban after Wahdat forces captured and lost nearby Yakaolang, in a reprisal massacre of non-combatants which left scores of people dead.
More killings and house burnings around Bamian and Yakaolang followed in those last months of Taleban rule, but, ten years ago, it was not just the war that was driving people from their homes. The worst drought in living memory had brought catastrophic crop failure and livestock deaths across Afghanistan. From Bamian province, I saw hungry families, down to their last few weeks’ of food, trekking west through Ghor to camps in Herat. Their young men were sent to try their luck crossing illegally into Iran to look for work to send money home. I also drove to Herat and, one dawn in Ghor saw a whole valley covered with families camping out in one of those epic scenes of desolation that look so stunning on a camera.
‘Oh let it rain, let it rain on the fields, let it drench the head scarf of my beloved,’ sang a worker in an NGO that I stayed with in Behsud in 1999. The traditional Hazaragi song convinced even this Englishwoman that rain could symbolise passion and the best things in life. Seeing Bamian today after a winter of good snow and at peace reminds me again that it is not aid or foreign intervention, but good weather and security which remain the bedrock of wellbeing in Afghanistan. Impressions gathered during a short trip can be wrong (and I would welcome corrections from any readers), but it also seemed there were fewer complaints about government corruption in Bamian than I am used to hearing. Maybe the past was bad enough for the present to look better than it does elsewhere. Maybe there is less corruption; there is certainly less to steal – no money-spinning customs posts, a PRT with not much money to spend and so no really lucrative contracts to enrich the few and aid apparently being delivered in absorbable quantities (it was good to see some decent road-building, rather than the endless food-for-work annual repairs to dirt tracks which I used to see). Even north-south opium smuggling routes pass further west and further east of where I was.
Haji Ismail’s desire to see tourists back at Band-e Amir again has not yet happened, largely because security around Bamian makes road travel difficult. There were only a couple of other parties of visitors enjoying the swimming – cold but invigorating -, the birds, flowers and hiking.
(*) For details see: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan Document A/54/42230/09/1999 here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020