Spring is here again. With the first warmth, AAN staff starts its occasional migration to higher pastures, Bamian in this case. The Nowruz holidays offer a much appreciated opportunity (and the announcement of Bamian as one of the first seven areas where Afghan security forces will take over from July onwards) to do so without feeling guilty for the colleagues who stayed back in Kabul, and likewise the chance of random talk on different subjects, as Fabrizio Foschini experienced.
Almost any talk, or tour, in Bamian must start, of course, with the Buddhas. Our guide, while leading us up the steep stairs reaching the top of the small Buddha niche, recalled how he could almost watch in live broadcast the destruction of the statues. He was 16 at the time, and already a fighter with theHezb-e Wahdat front that, led by Commander Jowhari, held some positions in the Dara-ye Fuladi, at shooting distance from the central valley of Bamian (see our earlier guest-blog here). He further narrated how the Taleban burned down his family house there along with many others in a fashion resembling what they did more systematically in Yakaolang. ‘People rebuilt their homes after the Taleban burned them down, why shouldn’t they rebuild the buddhas? If you do not rebuild things that got destroyed then your life is over’ he commented.
There are scars, however, more difficult to heal than material ones, as it is apparent when a jet plane suddenly passes over our heads, making the man flatten himself instinctively against the wall of the cave even while he keeps talking. When he realizes that, he feels somewhat embarrassed by his body’s now superfluous self-preserving reaction. He is not ambivalent about his past as a mujahed, though. He liked it – he was just a kid then, as many were. ‘Most of my former comrades now sit at home idly, they have not been lucky as I am (having mentioned the hardships caused by his 100 dollar monthly salary as a guard of the site, he is clearly being ironic), without education and the possibility of a good job, many of them took to drug addiction.’ He climbs onto the upper level of a cave to show us the blackened aluminium paper used to smoke opium.
That Bamian is a province neglected by the government is a perception shared by many. ‘Notwithstanding its good security’ is not what many would say. They would rather point out how it is actually because of this security that nobody among the government or the international community heeds locals and their problems, turning their ears and pockets to more problematic provinces.
‘The mother does not breast-feed the baby until the baby does not cry’. With this piece of traditional wisdom we are introduced to the already heard argument – and often experienced situation, always with dire results – that only if you raise your voice or actually do create security problems somebody will step forward to offer you a contribution for your other difficulties. Apart from dozens of underground storage cells for potatoes built with UN support (there are plans to provide the province with 350 more), some generators (albeit without spare parts for when they broke down) and solar panels (the last item gifted by Norway), nothing has been done in the last ten years, some people say.
One must not think about the Bamian people as an ingrate lot, however: some thankfulness has indeed been expressed. In an apparently spontaneous initiative, a big manifestation of donkeys took place on 9 March. Several dozens of asses, gathered in front of the Buddhas, were then given certificates of merit for the good services provided to their owners, for example bringing them everyday’s water from the wells, while ‘others’ (read, ‘the government and the PRT’) did nothing. ‘We the people of Bamian, are honoured to present you with this award for your years of service for the poor villagers of Bamian…’ recited the certificates, all crowned by a majestic horseshoe, or better, donkey-shoe on top.
The unfavourable comparison with the government official must not surprise. Usually, during a conversation governor Habiba Sorabi receives first some positive comments for being a woman, then gets labelled for the same reason as inexperienced and unsuited for tough political work. But what about the PRT run by the tiny New Zealand contingent (140-strong) and its supposed imminent withdrawal (New Zealand’s Foreign Minister declared yesterday that the troops will stay at least one more year)?
‘Well, why should people be crying for that? The Kiwis here did nothing, they did not have business with anybody (kar hamra-ye kas na-dashtand), they minded their own’s. We won’t see a difference. Do you think the good security here derived by their presence? It came but by the will of the people of Bamian. Should we be concerned with a possible drop in the flow of aid money? There has not been enough to be concerned with. So, do they leave now? Have a nice trip, you have been welcome! Come back to visit us sometimes if you want!’
A much talked about alternative livelihoods sector in Bamian is without doubt tourism. It is not a wild dream of foreign visionaries, but actually a reality of pre-war times well remembered by elderly people. If then it was not fully exploited, one cannot say the situation to have improved much now. Hotel owners complain about what has not been done to facilitate tourists’ access to the province, first and foremost, the complete dearth of civil flights. Apart from Pactec or UNHAS, which are all but easily bookable for tourists, and exceedingly expensive, no company links Bamian to Kabul. The local airfield would of course require some transformation to allow ‘normal’ aircrafts to land. This, however, has been done instead at as remote and un-touristy places as Uruzgan’s provincial capital, Tarinkot.
On the other hand, the major land route to the province (the one crossing the Shibar pass, the route to the Hajigak pass being risky since years) has not been improved much in technical terms and is, since last summer, deteriorating steadily as for security. Right in the Nowruz days, a group of Taleban established in Parwan’s districts of Shinwari and Ghorband has resumed its insurgent activities after the winter lull in a grand style, by setting up a check-point on the main road on Tuesday morning, and searching cars for government employees.
But there are other problems, for example a lack of professionalism, not on the part of the local tourism workers, but of the would-be tourists themselves. ‘In a year I may not see more than ten ‘real’ tourists’, complained one hotel owner, ‘all the rest are UN or NGO workers living in Kabul who come for a break. But they have tight security rules: they book rooms, then an explosion occurs in Kabul, or they receive a security alarm and they simply do not come. There is nothing certain with them, they say “inshallah” more than the Afghans themselves!’
‘Tourism in Bamian could have been a model for other areas of the country’, he continued. ‘Badakhshan or Herat could have learned from our lesson and developed their own accommodation, tours and sites, and the country could have experienced the growth of a peaceful industry. In 2004-2005 we had a lot of tourists. But the government did not make things easy for us and them, the security situation got worse, and now there are few tourists who dare come here. They just do not know how safe it is here.’
Security of a Swiss type is in fact one of the first things people coming from outside notice. Locals, too, proudly highlight this situation and the supposed origin of it: ‘This is hundred per cent Hazarajat nationality! We do not like war.’ The local Hazaras certainly deserve much credit for having disarmed to a certain extent the previous militias and having refrained from major acts of violence since 2001. The ethnic quasi-homogeneity of the valley, brought forward as the major reason for its peacefulness, does not exclude occasional bitter feelings towards other ethno-linguistic or religious groups stemming from past wartimes. (And there are weapons distributed by the US to Hezb-e Wahdat factions after 9/11 unaccounted for in this area, too.)
These start from the very dawn of the jihad, when Bamian was liberated for the first time by local mujahedin in early 1979. As a local recalled, the Taraki regime then in power raised a lashkar of volunteers from Paghman, Laghman and other areas around Kabul, giving them ‘rights on the blood and property of the Hazaras’ (they were not the first Afghan governments to quell rebellions that way). ‘A friend of mine, a Farsiwan from Paghman, had gone with them. I was selling carpets in Chicken Street at the time. When I saw him back in Kabul, after a few weeks, I provoked him: So, how many Hazaras did you slaughter? He said that as soon as he arrived there, seeing the atrocities that the lashkar committed, he had deserted and fled through the Paghman range on foot to avoid taking part in it.’
Then of course there were problems with the Tajiks who dwell in the Bamian bazaar, and who constituted the first line of Taleban supporters during the religious students’ occupation of the valley a decade ago. And the Tajiks from Saighan district as well, who led the invaders to outflank the Hezb-e Wahdat defensive positions in the gorge of the Durah-ye Aq Robat. Relations now are fine, say most of the Hazaras, but is a fact that the only district in the province to experience some insurgent activity is Kahmard, with its largely Tajik population.
The easy assumption that ‘Pashtuns do not want peace in this country’, however, finds sometimes a human barrier, like the one in the words of a taxi driver: ‘If there was peace, all of my homeland, all of Afghanistan would be a beautiful place. I was an officer in Kabul, I had 2-300 soldiers under my command, I served the state for 25 years, up to the fall of Najibullah and for three more years under Ahmad Shah Massud, when Rabbani was “king”. Then I saw that brother-killing had become too common a sport and I left the service of such a state and Kabul as well, I came back to Bamian to drive my cab. Before leaving, I had married a Kandahari. People from Kandahar are the most beautiful and excellent in the world. It is 18 years me and my wife are married, we have five sons and two daughters, and a beautiful relationship. We met in Kabul and we liked each other and we decided to marry out of free will. For many years we fell apart from her family but as of late we reconciled with them and last year we finally visited them in Kandahar. All my friends here were saying “don’t go, the Kandaharis will kill you!”, but instead her relatives honoured us in such a grand way. They are all educated people, not pro-Taleban at all! This year they will come and we will visit each other every year. My mother was a Tajik, I myself am a Hazara, a sister of mine married a Pashtun from Kunar, we are a mixed family. I do not see any difference among human beings, why should I behave differently with Pashtuns or Hazaras, Muslims or infidels?’
But the best part of the chakar, a Dari term meaning both a leisure trip and gossiping, was by far a casual chat with some policemen (the notorious ANP!) over a cup of tea on top of Shahr-e Gholghola, the crumbled hilltop ruins which dominate the whole of Bamian:
Panjshiri policeman: ‘If you came to Panjshir you must have seen Fahim’s new house, uh? It’s past Rokha, towards Khenj, just across the river from the main road. Now he is building a private bridge to allow cars directly into the house. It is a big three-storey house.’ Young Hazara policeman: ‘As for that, with all the money he is making he could go on adding stages up to the sky…’ Old Hazara policeman: ‘And did you hear about the hotel Ustad Rabbani has built in Turkey? It has three floors under the sea level, I wonder why did he took the pain to build rooms under the sea?…’ Young Hazara policeman: ‘Well, he must have been concerned about them not getting dusty: dust does not reach under the sea.’
In the plain below, a steady and shiny procession of women in their brightly coloured dresses and headscarves was moving to and fro the shrines of Mir Hashim and Hazrat Yakhsuz (whose miraculous power of melting the ice is highly regarded here), themselves merrily decorated for Nowruz. These were the hotspots of the three day New Year’s celebrations, along with the square in front of the big Buddha niche (illuminated during the night) and the nearby garden. There, the program featured concerts and expositions with a huge and enthusiastic attendance of men and women alike.
Young Hazara policeman: ‘And the mullahs, what did you do with them?’ (Some mullahs had declared Nowruz ‘un-Islamic’ just as the Taleban had done.) Panjshiri policeman: ‘We locked them in the police post, so we can enjoy Nowruz in peace. Do you want a lift, you foreigners? We are going down to the party.’
A good dose of irony and surrealism are no doubt basic body’s defences to face the reality of another year in this new Afghanistan.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020