Context & Culture

Flash from the Past: Taleban Independence Day 2001 (now with video) (2)


This is a follow-up to Kate Clark’s blog describing how Afghan Independence Days were celebrated during the Taleban rule. In 2001, the Taleban indeed organised some events in order to give Kabulis, who had not experienced much of this under their rule, a rare day of joy, with a small festival, students’ parades, exhibitions and even a Buzkashi match between a Kabul and a Paktika team during which a high-ranking Taleb enjoyed playing the referee (with whom you could not argue much). Thomas Ruttig has been at there and reported to friends in a roundmail.

Sunday 19 August 2001. Today was another hot summer day in Kabul so that I was grateful that my bosses in Islamabad had decreed that I cannot attend the Taleban military parade on the occasion of Afghanistan’s independence day. (They felt that it wouldn’t be good to project ‚normal relations’ while the Shelter Now people were still in custody). By the way, the invitation called for all guest to show up by 6.30 am.

As a result, only a few officials of UN humanitarian organisations and some journalists were present, from [German TV channels] ARD and ZDF as well as from Spiegel magazine. One of them commented afterwards that he had seen a lot of odd things during his career but was definitely amongst the oddest. Unfortunately, I can only report second-hand:

The event took place on the traditional parade ground between the Chaman-e Huzuri (the fairground at the end of Jada-ye Maiwand) and Idgah mosque. On the stands which had been used 15 years ago by Babrak Karmal and other PDPA leaders to watch the 1 May parades and which had been badly battered during the 1996 street fighting, some chairs were arraged, and tarpaulins gave some shadow.

The Taleban really took trouble in opreparing the event. The location was cordoned off, and even special passes had been issued. This was inorder to prevent bomb attacks. (In Mazar-e Sharif, reportedly, a bomb had been found before the independence day celebrations and defused by the Halo Trust). The UN had to submit the numbers of their cars’ licence plates and even their serial numbers.

When they arrived, chaos already had set in, and they were placed on the journalists’ stands. The population was sitting on the walls and rooftops of the destroyed buildings around, making the scenery rather pittoresque.

Then the parade began. It started with two trucks which drew two tiny British artillery pieces behind them which had fallen into Afghan hands during the 1919 war of independence. In the past, the cannons had adorned the independence columns, not far from the Arg, the former King’s palace. But the column is not accessible anymore, and also covered by corn fields which now grow there at the banks of Kabul River.

The trucks were followed by two men in historical costume, protraying Afghan fighters who had defeated the Brits and their Army of the Indus in an earlier war – when only the famous Dr Brydon was allowed to survive the massacre so that he could carry the information about the defat to the Jalalabad garrison.

Then the pick-ups came, the charakteristic battle chariots of the Taleban. There must have been more than 200 of them, each of them carrying 10 to 20 men. (‘Guests’, meaning Arabs,  had not been spotted.) Then, in turn, 20 tanks followed, half of them loaded on tractors. Those and most of the following rocket launchers and artillery pieces did not look servicable, the guests reported. (Most of the servicable ones will be needed at the front lines.) Then, ‘a nice collection of Stalin’s Organs’ (i.e. lorry-mounted multiple rocket launchers) followed, as one observer put it, and even some of the notorious crane trucks with which public executions are conducted. Finally, the infantry marched by, and the fire brigade, in asbestos suits which must have been pretty cosy in the August heat.

During the parade, fighter jets darted through Kabul’s sky for four times so that also not participants at the UN Staff House pool notices that the parade was still ongoing.

But the highlight of the event was a single parachutist who, instead on the parade ground, landed amongst the spectators. That might have cost him some days of arrest, with dry nan and tea only.

After all, no vilifications of foreigners in general, UN people or Christians were heared during the speeches, say Afghan participants. Only the British were blasted again, in retrospective, and banners condemned all colonialists and invadors across the board.

At 11 am, everything was over and the traditional trade and commerce exhibition on the Chaman was reopened. According to rumours, ‘the Arabs’ had splashed out a million dollars so that the deprived Kabulis could have a nice holiday.

With a few colleagiues, we decided to visit unofficially in the afternoon, and we were not disappointed: The fair probably was the most effective reconstruction measure Talebanistan had ever seen. A number of the civil war-damaged pavilions of the old Nandartun (exhibition area) had been provisionally repaired and painted. Even some flower-beds had been created in between them. Between the pavilions, the completely wrecked main building of the Nandartun pointed like a memorial into the cloudless sky.

First we came across the exhibition pavilion of the ministries of education and higher education that was mainly staffed by the Kabul University. It displays all text books and teaching material currently used there. The architecture department of the engineering faculty displayed a few design models, even of high-rise buildings, but of course of mosques, also.

Most interesting were the painting of the ten students of the faculty of fine arts. No living creatures, of course, but harmonic Afghan landscapes (expression of hope, perhaps), historical monumente, all in an undestructed form – the Arc de Triomphe in Paghman, Dar-ul-Aman palace, the arc of Bost, near Lashkargah, the mosque of Balkh etc. Wood carvings, pottery and miniature paintings were also shown. One could even purchase paintings, and I bought some of Dar-ul-Aman and the minarets of Ghazni. [Later stolen with all my dictionaries when my office was relocated in my absence, and most probably resold.] Next Saturday, we can pick them up and pay at the faculty.

Naturally, we were beleagered by curious onlookers the whole time, and some young Taleban guards tried to keep them in some distance. During the whole visit, we did not encounter any unfriendliness, neither by the visitors nor by the Taleban. The latter were even rather shy (towards us) while they visibly commanded some respect amongst the people. But that’s not surprising, given their usual rude behaviour. We were welcomed very friedly everywhere, often greeted in English and once – at the Afghan Postal Service pavilion even in German, by a gentleman who, of course, had studied at the Amani High School and who, as he claimed, had lost the chance for a stipend in Germany due to the Soviet invasion.

Besides a collection of all stamps since Amanullah’s time – only those with no living creatures on them, of course – this pavilion displayed some historical telex mashines (of German and Polish production) and some of the new Chinese digital phones of which some thousand have been installed throughout the country: 7000 in Herat and some thousand each in Kabul, Ghazni, Kandahar nd some other places.

In the open, behind this pavilion, the ramshackle personal vehicles of Afghanistan’s former rulers were displayed, amongst the first ever car imported into the country, King Habibullah’s Rolls Royce. Next to it stood Amanullah’s oldtimer, so badly battered that I even could not recognise its type, Zaher Shah’s black and posh Impala and President Daud’s ‘Fuluks’ jeep, as the popular Volkswagen are called in Afghanistan. (That also had been written on the the little label explaining the exhibits.) Somewhat sanctimoniously I asked for Najibullah’s car, and one of the spectators pointed to a nearby parking Kamaz truck, triggering a wave of laughter and copy-cat behaviour. Somepointed at a blue-and-white Tata bus, the standard vehicle of the Milli (National) Bus Company ascribing it to Babrak Karmal.

On went our visit to the agriculture ministry’s pavilion, with displays of spices, dozens of wheat species and edible pounltry: chickens, ducks, turkeys. In a corner, a banner in Taleban white annonced that the ministy planned to re-capture the world market with Afghan pharmaceutical plants;asa foetida (the latex of the root of a plant growing wild in Afghanistan) once had been one of the country’s major export goods. In another corner, a banner introduced Mulla Omar’s programme of job creation: A house with a jobless person in it, it said, was a ‘house of Satan’.

Apart from those banners, there was not much personality cult at the fair. Only in one corner, a small marble plaque produced by students with the Taleban’s code of arms and the name ‘Amir-ul-Momenin Mulla Muhammad Omar Mujahed’ was visible.

In front of two pavilions, people could buy simple solar collektors, for warming water, for very modest prices. The simplest version was 7 lak Afghani, I think, i.e. 700.000, equal to 10 dollar.

Finally, the obligatory pavilion for handicraft, with carpets, jewelry and leather articles, dependencies of the Chicken Street shops, including Afghan-made shoes for ladies, nicely looking for afar but a bit rough from closer by. [Only that, as Kate explains in her Flash from the Past, see here, women were not allowed into the exhibition.]

On the way back, we passed part two of the parade, organised by the ministry of education, according to the printed programme: a some kilometers-long treck of students from various schools Kabul and from some provinces. Each group was led by someone carrying a signboard, like at the Olympic games, that reached from the National (or ‘Olympic’) stadium all the way to Amani school (and had been rehearsed for days).

 

One marching block were students all dressed in with shalwar-kamiz wth black sashes who carried religious slogans. Behind them came the school’s sport teams with their insignia, footballs, cricket bats, boxing gloves, taekwando belts. All of them were in a good mood, happy about the unusual fun day, waves to us or gave thnumbs up while we drove by

Some students carried political banners but of a peaceful nature, mainly praising Independence Day. From time to time, religious chants or shouts of ‘Allahu-Akbar’ cam up but sounded rather unenthusiatic. Only once, five older students shouted ‘Marg bar Russan’ (Down with the Russians) but grinned towards us while doing so.

A Kabul based correspondent who had watched the rehearsals a day before, had reported about more aggressive slogans like ‘Down with the UN, down with the Christians’. But not today, it seems.

Amendment:

Thanks to one of our readers, we are now able to add a video of the military parade –watch it here.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture, War & Peace