Window on Afghanistan

February 5, 2002

Fall 2001, the world’s attention suddenly became riveted on Afghanistan, that land-locked, unhappy nation dominated by religious warriors who overran the capital September 27, 1996. Their take-over was a late chapter in a brutal civil war, which followed the Soviet occupation. Since then, the United States has invested billions in bombs, and has now committed its foreign policy to a new government whose path is as fraught with danger as the mine-strewn fields that stretch across the barren landscape.

Behind the political drama live the Afghan people —
virtually unknown to Americans making decisions that have enormous impact over their lives. In 1998, hosted by the UN High Commission on Refugees, I spent six intense days in Kabul and the surrounding countryside and in an Afghan refugee camp just across the border in Peshawar, Pakistan.
These are edited excerpts from my journal.

The Remnants of Kabul

Lying in bed at the UN Guest House in Kabul, I let sensations, impressions, and briefings blend like the seasonings in our lunch of mutton biryani. It’s hard to fully enjoy a meal, knowing that a government worker (when paid) receives $6 a month; but a 100 kilo bag of wheat, which will make some 400 pieces of flatbread, costs $20. There is little employment in this capital city of 1.2 million. Relief organizations like CARE and UNHCR feed tens of thousands. Many more are hungry.

Sandbags line the entrance to the guesthouse, which serves
the international community. I’m warned that tomorrow is a holy day for the Shia, but not the Suni’i. Since the two Muslim groups represent majorities on opposite sides of the on-going civil war, the holiday might spark an attempt by the Northern Alliance to retake the capital. The front line, which once divided the city, is now about 14 miles north. Should we hear gunfire or an explosion while we’re out on the street, we’re to dive for sandbags. If the attack is successful, anarchy will likely reign, and looting will be rampant. The historian laying out that apocalyptic scenario adds a spicy story of fingers being amputated by impatient thieves when wedding rings don’t easily slip off.

Before coming, we were advised that the plane that brought
us from Pakistan would not delay its departure for us. A half-hour ceasefire of anti-aircraft guns each day creates a window — just long enough for the 12-seater to touch down and take off again from the Kabul airstrip. If the pilot misses that window, he won’t land.

The proximity to the front line is an ever-present thought.
Soldiers cruise the streets perched in the back of pick-up trucks, excited grins on their bearded faces, black turbans their only identifying uniform. This army of religious extremists swept up from the Pashtun south. They call themselves “the Taliban” — “the students.” They are armed with AK-47s, and their trucks have missile launchers on the back — remnants of three billion dollars of US military aid, augmented by captured Kalashnikovs and other Soviet equipment. They are fighting a holy war… and have the passion to prove it.

That passion is channeled not only into violence, but also
what appears to American eyes as an energetic sexual repression. An elderly American woman, Nancy Dupree, who has lived in the area for decades tries to explain in terms I’ll understand. The young zealots, she says, are from the most conservative region where females are illiterate; where a girl is married off at puberty to a man she may have never met; where a father may kill a daughter caught in adultery. The Taliban went as young children to live at Pakistani seminaries where they absorbed passages of the Koran — but apparently little else about getting along in the world. They have emerged as adolescents with raging hormones, yet extremely uncomfortable with women, who in that culture bear not only endless progeny, but also the honor of the family.

During ten years at the seminaries, Taliban boys, many of whom were orphans or otherwise lacked normal familial female contact, were inculcated with polarized views of women needing to be protected and honored, or as temptresses who elicit the worst impulses in men. The views of the students are even more extreme than those back home; their life experiences are devoid of heterogeneous social interaction that can add nuance to absolutist ideology. Now these fierce men — young enough to be my sons — are trying to fight a civil war and at the same time rule a shell-shocked country without the benefit of travel, literary, or administrative experience. Rupert Colville, our UN escort, tries to put all this in context. Government stability is an oxymoron. “Kings tended to get assassinated in Afghanistan,” he explains, casually. “The world has never seen anything like it. Out of nowhere emerge these religious fanatics, from 500 years ago.” There’s nothing with which to negotiate. They come from villages with dirt floors, straight out of Biblical times. Many are illiterate, but they speak on behalf of God. how do you threaten sanctions to a person who doesn’t know how to spell UN?

Kabul, hardly a swinging metropolis, once bore the marks of modernity and a thriving international community of French, Germans, Americans… Women with a macabre cloth grid over their faces walked the sidewalks beside women wearing make-up and miniskirts. Some 5,000 students were enrolled at the technical university. By 1998, that entire segment has disappeared. The middle class, the glue of society, is living in the Diaspora in the U.S., Britain, Italy, and elsewhere.

In Kabul, physical destruction ranges between 10% and 95%, depending on the neighborhood. The worst damage was not at the hand of the communists, but during the civil war that raged in the vacuum that followed the Soviet pullout. Our driver is fearful as I bring my camera out; he could be beaten and jailed for my offense because of the Taliban prohibition of images of living creatures. I rest the lens on the window ledge and drape the end of my long headscarf over it, pressing the shutter as we drive through the town, without holding the camera to my eye. Their spies are everywhere. We are not immune. While we are out of our rooms, our suitcases are rifled.

The capital was without electricity for a year and a half, just before the Taliban arrived. In the civil war lawlessness, women were abducted and raped. Is it any wonder that the orthodox Islamic students entered Kabul–with its cinemas and nightclubs—and saw Sin City? No longer. Now vice squads beat up citizens who transgress: a beard is not trimmed correctly, a prayer time is ignored, the 9 p.m. curfew is missed. The Taliban have banned paper bags, which might have been made from newspapers with Koranic writings on them. They have banned applause; instead one may shout, “Allah is great!”

We drive by the stadium where public punishments are meted out on Fridays, a 20th Century revival of the Roman Coliseum. Hands of thieves are lopped off; adulterers are executed. Homosexuals are buried beneath a wall, pushed over by a bulldozer. On the streets, a Suzuki pick-up passes us with tinted windows, a red alarm light, and white flag fluttering righteously on top. It’s a patrol from the Department for the Prevention of Vice and Promulgation of Virtue. We pass another Taliban on a bicycle, the tail of his black turban clenched between his teeth, a gun in a holster slung over his shoulder.

Humanity’s vicious streak weaves its way through Afghanistan’s history. We hear stories of the Mujahedin, U.S. supported religious fighters, skinning Soviet prisoners alive. As I listen to tales of barbarism – heads, noses, ears cut off – I imagine sitting down with my family in quiet Cambridge, and how impossible it will be to communicate what I’ve seen and heard, and connect the two worlds.

Taliban Tête-à-Tête

The holy warriors who conquered the capital — many of them 15 or 16 years old — not only disarmed the population, they also enforced much-needed security. They went further, forbidding puberty-aged girls to attend school. Highly educated professional women have fled Kabul and are now trying to organize resistance from outside the country. Inside, life has become almost unbearable for modern women. Female Afghani aid workers have been beaten because they dared leave their homes to go work in an office with non-family men. In the Kabul markets, about 10% of the shoppers are women (up from 0 a year earlier), and all must be covered from head to toe in the billowing burkha.

With the imposition of the burkha, women realized only their feet could betray a flair of fashion. For awhile, stylish fishnet stockings or gold anklets added a Felliniesque quality to the tented fantasies strolling through the markets. That fleeting nod to couture was followed by a government edict banning white socks (which might call attention to feet) and “noisy shoes” (i.e., high heels). But fashion has its way of prevailing. A woman in a taxi returns my wave, her palm red with henna. Beneath the blue burkha of a pedestrian, I spy the alluring edge of a fire engine red ruffled skirt.

More insidiously, women are denied treatment in Kabul hospitals, save one, which I visit, with an operating room that lacks electricity or anesthetics. Into that dire scene have stepped western political figures and journalists, who caught the world’s attention but dismayed international aid workers. The cultural dissonance of taking television cameras into a women’s hospital was seen as self-aggrandizing by the local diplomatic community, trained as they are to paddle through postings with minimum boat rocking.

Still, thanks in part to the sound and fury of that exposure, policies of the Taliban have been scrutinized, with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicly pronouncing their treatment of women “despicable.” The UN has increased pressure on this regime — unrecognized except by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Emirates — to moderate its practices or face withdrawal of UN relief.

That pressure is the backdrop for my hour-and-a-half meeting with the Deputy Foreign Minister. I sit on a bench, clad in long sleeves and pants, an orange chador covering my hair, but my face exposed. About six feet away sits the young official, sideways to me, with three aides clustered around him. The men look at each other or stare at their feet so as not to be tempted by my face. I, in turn, gazed out a broken windowpane, onto uninspired brown ridges ringing the city. There I find my opener; commenting that seeing the distant snowy peaks from our Red Cross Beechcraft made me think of my home state of Colorado. While it’s doubtful the 25-year-old minister could find the United States on a map (reports are that he learned to eat with a fork and knife only a month earlier), the home-to-home connection seems to register, and he looks up from his shoes to steal an immodest glance.

It’s his turn. I listen patiently as my host explains his regime’s enormous progress combating crime. I tell him his account has been corroborated in several conversations I’ve had with refugees who fled the violence. He and his colleagues can feel proud, I concur.

Next follows the deputy minister’s description of the utter destruction of the economy since the Soviets laid waste to the land in an invasion bitterly resisted for more than a decade by the religious warriors. “We bought the end of the Cold War with our blood,” one of the officials explains. Why shouldn’t the international community now step forward with development support?

There’s one problem, I point out. Rightly or wrongly, the perception of the outside world is that this regime is repressive to women. There’s little hope for donor generosity as long as that impression remains. “If I were in your chair, I’d be thinking very hard of dramatic ways to convince the world that you honor Islam’s injunction to lead all people into knowledge.” The benefits would be internal as well, I suggest, explaining how women-owned businesses are fueling the booming American economy.

Our discussion of the confluence of economic and social strategies notwithstanding, I’ve no assurance that my Taliban host understands the concept of either an economy or a society. To ensure that we connect on some level, I shift from policy to personal, asking my turbaned interlocutor where he hails from. He looks up, surprised. First Kandahar, in the south, then refugee camps in Pakistan. “Kandahar? I’ve never been there. Perhaps I might come some time and visit your family.” He begins to grin. Everyone in the room smiles, then begins shifting in their chairs, as if amusement is uncomfortable. “You’re most welcome,” the interpreter passes on. The deputy minister is looking into my eyes, to judge my reaction. “You can come visit my family too,” I offer, promoting the impossible to the implausible — merely by formulating the idea.

In the Village

Outside the capital, life is desolate. We’re taken to a village where a group of refugees have just been repatriated. The monochromatic scene is 3-D: one-story mud brick dwellings pocked with giant craters from bombs, souvenirs of decades from fighting. As a woman, I can enter homes for images a male photographer would be denied. I’m allowed to join in a meeting of the elders and sit on the floor of a dark room, with a dozen men. A young girl fidgets restlessly on her father’s lap. The elders report to Rupert their satisfaction with the UNHCR gift of wood doors and windows, which made possible their return. I wonder what kind of community they can build in this barren place. I’ve seen women making bricks. Will they let their girls learn to read? “The Taliban want our women to be like animals,” one elder mutters. I thank them for letting me be part of the meeting. “Where I come from, women can even be village elders,” I explain. They smile, bemused.

Khyber Pass

It’s time to make our way to Pakistan. A car with armed escort now follows our van. Children fill potholes and ask for spare change. The land is terraced, with smugglers’ routes winding throughout the hills.

The climb up the pass is tortuous, blocked by slow moving trucks. Buses are packed: 50 inside, 30 on top. Bicyclers peddle up the pass, each pulling two more bikes still in their protective wrapping, to be sold at the Smugglers’ Bazaar. “Everything under the sun is smuggled along this pass,” Rupert explains. Reaping the benefits are masterminds whose fortresses we see along the razor edges of the surrounding ridges.

We pass a pick-up truck. I quickly turn my head. Best not to be seen taking pictures. Taliban in a patrol car behind us turn on their siren…then pass us. Cement anti-tank pyramids line the road. I’m warned that only the pavement itself is guaranteed safe. We’re in the domain of fierce tribes; if I step out of the car, I could be shot.

Danger lies buried as well; the landscape is littered with landmines. Soviet helicopters, flying low like perverted dust croppers over Kansas, scattered the pernicious, non-discriminating weapons across the plains. Rupert describes his first day in Afghanistan, hearing an explosion — then coming across a still-warm torso with head and legs blown off: a man had been walking along bent over with wood on his back. As Rupert stared at the carnage, another man calmly walked past him, into the same minefield in search of more firewood. In the mid-1990’s, Kabul hospitals were treating some 50 mine victims a day. That number didn’t include those killed — mostly children — who were buried where their bodies were blown apart.

The Koochi — a tough nomadic tent people — have the right idea. They drive their goats ahead to explode the mines. When the Taliban insisted that Koochi women cover their faces, the nomads told them to go to hell. I point my lens at one of the women. She throws stones at me.

At last we’ve made it to the top of the pass and step out of the van. Waiting at the border crossing, I whip out my emery board and give three little girls a quick manicure. Friends for life.

The Twenty-Year Wait

On the other side of the Pakistani border, Peshawar was a sleepy town before the refugees came. It’s been transformed by the transit of drugs and guns, and as a center for humanitarian aid. Trucks, buses, taxis, even tractors are transformed into playful works of art. They make their clumsy way through the congested streets with an infinite variety of ornamental whimsy. Eye-popping colors depict a jungle of designs with dramatic birds, garlands of flowers, and magical visages staring out from the backs and sides and metal chain skirts dangling across front bumpers. Every square inch is decorated; even the tops are bedecked–with human cargo perched on mounds of parcels and young men, heads bare to the sun, holding on by one hand, hanging precariously over the edges. In a clash of form and function, even windshields are painted with patterns or embellished with colorful stickers.

The vehicles carry everything from water buffalo to petrol. They pass fields of tied bundles of grass, converted by sun and shadows into an open-air sculpture garden. Camels strolled by indolently, oblivious to their loads, led by white turbaned men. A wild boar lies on his back: exotic road kill. Amid the collusion of colors is a drab olive bus. In buttoned-down shirts, six-buttoned down boys, on their way to school. The purity of men’s simple white robes provides visual calm. The women, even on the hottest tropical days, are draped in nine meters of cotton and silk, dyed bright ochre, fuchsia, Kelly green, yellow, fire engine red, and all hues of blue. In a natural balance, the flowing veils contribute graceful elegance to this hard life. Those elegant lines and rich colors belie the poverty of the people — or undermine the assumptions in the concept.

Shunted into semi-permanent mud villages, Afghanis have been taking refuge in Pakistan for two decades. Fleeing violence, physical devastation, and political oppression, millions have poured across the borders on their east and west, seriously taxing the already burdened governments of Pakistan and Iran. The conflicts they have fled are superimposed in layers: tribal warfare fanned by ethnic and linguistic differences; the superpower standoff between Soviets and Americans; and, the repression of the Taliban.

According to Rupert, life inside Afghanistan has become intolerable for whole groups. He describes the Hazaras, a people living in the central high mountains. With Mongolian features, they subsist on the lowest rung of the Afghan economy. The several million Hazaras — Iranian-backed Shia Muslims — are completely cut off by snow five months of the year. The Taliban are blocking the highway that is their lifeline, and they’re on the brink of starvation.

No less safe is northern Afghanistan, the battleground of several Mujahedin warlords who have consolidated into an uneasy alliance to face off against the Taliban, who, like their Pakistani neighbors, are ethnic Pashtun. The fractious northerners are supported by Iran, Russia, and India, once more making Afghanistan a theater for the conflict of greater powers. The Northern Alliance has components of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, who maintain natural ties to neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

I’m familiar with such cultural cacophony. One of many ironies punctuating this chaos is the connection to the war in Bosnia, where the very Mujahedin whose training the US supported to thwart communist expansion in Afghanistan were a major thorn in the side of US policymakers. As a diplomat, I was sent several times to insist to Muslim leaders in Sarajevo that the imported holy warriors should be expelled.

Plenty of other international subplots carve the geopolitical landscape in which the refugee camps are wedged: opium production that provides the economic lifeblood for the government, and which Western Europeans blame for the heroin flooding across their borders; heavy-handed multi-national corporations protecting their interests in a lucrative gas pipeline, whose development is dependent on a cessation of hostility and political stability; and the Iranian government, which has contributed arms to the Northen Alliance to protect their Shiite sympathies. Meanwhile, removed from all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the suffering of the Afghan people stretches on, unabated. They have the sense that they are pawns in a game of greed and power being played by outsiders at the expense of their families, their fields…and their future.

These are the residents I encounter in Haripur, a Pakistani refugee encampment with 100,000 Afghanis. Wives are bought here, based on their ability to produce carpets or other marketable items. Horse-drawn carriages crowd the market, an odd parody on New York’s Central Park, where my then 11-year-old son and I strolled two weeks before my trip. Nine time zones — and another life — away.

Peshawar hosts a sprawling Afghan market, but the refugees are increasingly resented by the Pakistanis, who fault them for the economic downturn. “It’s the usual thing: blame the foreigners,” says Rupert.

Meanwhile, tall sunflowers nod their heads respectfully as we drive by, and children walk the road with loads of hay on their heads, bigger than their delicate bodies. Bicycles, loaded with impossible bundles, pass a horse-drawn cart, with a boy on the back, licking his ice cream cone. Storefronts boast ludicrous signs; “Oxford College” has apparently joined the Ivy League schools in opening extensions on this chaotic campus. The roadside extends in one continuous, dense strip mall. “Khyber Sweets” the shop sign announces. At a restaurant for lunch, we are surrounded by about 40 men and only two women. Women are hardly seen at all. Men, on the other hand, hold hands and hug each other. But the true infatuation is with color. A rather unsuccessful effort at a park has a sign: “Green area; please preserve it.” A vain wish for that worn patch — like many vain wishes, I imagine, in this dirt-poor country.

And everywhere, everywhere, the children. In a clinic, mothers hold babies who can’t gaze up and see their faces. The mystery of the cover entices me. I wade into an open market with my camera, though Rupert warns that men may hit me on the hip, to shame me. I don’t care. My interest is beyond the artistic. After each shutter click I reach out and take the hand of the woman whose veiled image is now on my film.

Revolution in the Making

Does her covering honor? Protect? Isolate? One of the first tactics of the invading Soviets was to insist on the education of girls, a move vehemently resisted by conservative village dwellers, whom the U.S. supported as they battled our superpower nemesis. We would do well now to reverse that allegiance.

The UN is begging — unsuccessfully — for funds to educate girls in the refugee camps. Nothing fancy. I visit a two-room home: the kitchen four by five feet, and a larger sleeping room. Three families share the space. This hour it’s converted into a clandestine school. I sit in the corner saying little, drinking in the brilliance of fabrics lit by a shaft of window light, mentally sketching profiles of the women’s faces. I smile at their smiles, letting their innocence penetrate straight to a core that is pre-literate — pre-verbal, even. Watching their lessons, I consider telling them I teach at a famous university. Then I realize they well may not know what a university is. Such liberation — the irrelevance of my life.

Twenty-five Afghani girls and women sitting on the mud floor are surreptitiously learning to read, starting with identifying their names on squares of paper spread out in the center. I venture a conversation. An adolescent says she’s there “to send a letter to my father, who’s a laborer in Germany.” Then I ask a wizened woman, middle-aged like me, her motivation. She smiles slyly. “To find out if our local mullah is telling the truth about what the Koran requires of women.”