A quick visit to Bamyan to see the sights and enjoy its beauty – no politics intended. But in between the magic of the Band-e Amir lakes and the Dragon Valley, the ancient cities of Zuhaak and Gholghola, the awe of waking up to the view of the Buddha silhouettes, the walks through the fields and up the hills – in between all of this, politics was never far away.
It started with the visit of the Ministers. Roughly half Cabinet had chosen the same few days to go to Bamyan for a planning retreat and everywhere we bumped into the traces of their presence. So during the whole visit there were rows of rented cars with coded signs (saying things like A23 or C17) all over town, people saying the Ministers had lunch here or will have dinner there, contradictory sightings of who was in the delegation and musings on what they were doing, how much such a visit might cost and what it might bring for the province.
In Band-e Amir we passed the big pots at the side of the road where the palau for the evening was being cooked. We ran into the thirty-car convoy on the way back, as the weather was whipping itself into an impressive storm. I can still see the look on the face of the policeman at the checkpoint as the wind ripped a stack of papers from his hand and scattered them all over the mountain in a cloud of dust and rain. (For a moment I thought it was the NDS list on which all foreigners passing checkpoints now have to fill in their details, which made me smile – but it wasn’t). The Ministers made their way back that evening and we woke up to stories the next morning, probably somewhat exaggerated, of all the cars that had gotten stuck on the way.
And then there were the demonstrations. When the crowds gathered on Saturday afternoon they seemed to be part of the nation-wide Hazara voicing of discontent over the kuchi issue. The yearly dispute over grazing rights had been used as an excuse for violence against the Hazara settles, as in past years. Reports of a large number of houses having been burnt in neighbouring Wardak province and television images of people leaving with all their belongings, kindled fears of a larger displacement and inspired calls for resistance. There had been demonstrations in the various Hazara areas of the country, including Bamyan, for days, calling on the government to act, and more were yet to come.
So far everything seemed straightforward.
Later that afternoon, to emphasise their point, the demonstrators put up tents and closed off the town’s two squares, effectively blocking all traffic on the town’s main roads. The visiting Ministers who were in a building down the road were unable to leave, at least by car, which most people found quite amusing. The demonstrators demanded to talk to them, which didn’t happen, and that evening and the next morning there were stories all around of Ministers and their entourage spending the night in the building, escaping by foot through the fields or hiding somewhere in the village (most of which were probably exaggerated). In the meantime the focus of the demonstration had shifted. What had probably started out as a way to attract more attention, had now become an end in itself. So when on Saturday afternoon the governor came out to talk the demonstrators, their spokespeople – including several provincial council members – demanded to know what the Ministers were doing in Bamyan and why they had not thought it necessary to speak to the people and more specifically to the provincial council. The kuchi issue was dropped and the attention turned on the governor.
Habiba Sorabi is the country’s only female governor. There has been a regular lobby to have her removed ever since she was appointed in 2005. She is usually accused of having done nothing for the province and sometimes there are stories of insults to the community or its leaders, but as an outsider from Ghazni with no strong party links she mainly seems to be the target of a local political lobby that would like to have one of their own in her seat. This seemed to be the latest attempt.
So the next morning the crowd, now several hundred strong, moved to the governor’s compound. They chanted slogans against Sorabi, demanded her resignation, smashed a few windows and returned to the main square. After a few more speeches they dispersed, leaving behind a core group of somewhat unpleasant young men to guard the tents, prevent any cars from passing, and to wait and see whether the ultimatum for the governor’s resignation would be met. At the time of writing it is unclear whether the situation will fizzle out or escalate. It can go both ways.
A crowd like this is not harmless. As we walked through the fields towards the train of moving people on Sunday morning, a group of women watching from a rooftop called us: don’t go, there is trouble there, what if they hit you. The day before, the mood at the square had been rowdy but good-natured, but by now the atmosphere had turned slightly more grim, so we kept a safe distance. The bazaar was reported to have been closed after shopkeepers had been threatened that they would face the consequences if they opened that morning. And although many of the “demonstrators” seemed simply to be milling around to see what was happening (like us), there were several young men carrying large pieces of wood. Some of them had gathered stones as they crossed the gravel air strip on the way to the governor’s compound. And although only a few windows were shattered, it was a very thinly veiled threat.
Demonstrations like this are rarely spontaneous events, particularly in the Hazarajat. Networks are mobilized, people called up (often without knowing for what) and stories spread to stir up emotions. A crowd once gathered can be used for many things. But most of all it asserts influence. Whether the governor resigns or not is ultimately not that relevant, what counts is that the leaders and party networks have flexed their muscles and reasserted their position. They have demonstrated that the government is largely powerless once they choose to mobilize. They have shown that their power is still based on the threat of violence.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020