Afghanistan – as only love could hurt (1/2)
- 13 Mar 2017
Notes From A Broken Land
First part of Andre Vltchek’s essay. For the second part click here.
It is now winter in Kabul, end of February 2017. At night the temperature gets near zero. The mountains surrounding the city are covered by snow.
It feels much chillier than it really is.
Soon it will be 16 years since the US/UK invasion of the country, and 16 years since the Bonn Conference, during which Hamid Karzai was “selected” to head the Afghan Interim Administration.
Almost everyone I spoke to in Afghanistan agrees that things are rapidly moving from bad to rock bottom.
Afghans, at home and abroad, are deeply pessimistic. With hefty allowances and privileges, at least some foreigners based in Kabul are much more upbeat, but ‘positive thinking’ is what they are paid to demonstrate.
Historically one of the greatest cultures on Earth, Afghanistan is now nearing breaking point, with the lowest Human Development Index (2015, HDI, compiled by the UNDP) of all Asian nations, and the 18th lowest in the entire world (all 17 countries below it are located in Sub-Saharan Africa). Afghanistan has also the lowest life expectancy in Asia (WHO, 2015).
While officially, the literacy rate stands at around 60%, I was told by two prominent educationalists in Kabul that in reality it is well below 50%, while it is stubbornly stuck under 20% for women and girls.
Statistics are awful, but what is behind the numbers? What has been done to this ancient and distinct civilization, once standing proudly at the crossroad of major trade routes, influencing culturally a great chunk of Asia, connecting East and West, North and South?
How deep, how permanent is the damage?
During my visit, I was offered but I refused to travel in an armored, bulletproof vehicle. My ageing “horse” became a beat-up Corolla, my driver and translator a brave, decent family man in possession of a wonderful sense of humor. Although we became good friends, I never asked him to what ethnic group he belonged. He never told me. I simply didn’t want to know, and he didn’t find it important to address the topic. Everyone knows that Afghanistan is deeply divided ‘along its ethnic lines’. As an internationalist, I refuse to pay attention to anything related to ‘blood’, finding all such divisions, anywhere in the world, unnatural and thoroughly unfortunate. Call it my little stubbornness; both my driver and me were stubbornly refusing to acknowledge ethnic divisions in Afghanistan, at least inside the car, while driving through this marvelous but scarred, stunning but endlessly sad land.
One day you and your driver, who is by then your dear friend, are driving slowly over the bridge. Your car stops. You get out in the middle of the bridge, and begin photographing the clogged river below, with garbage floating and covering its banks. Children are begging, and you soon notice that they are operating in a compact pack, almost resembling some small military unit. In Kabul, as in so many places on earth, there is a rigid structure to begging.
After a while, you continue driving on, towards the Softa Bridge, which is located in District 6.
Where you are appears to be all messed up, endlessly fucked up.
You were told to come to this neighborhood, to witness a warzone inside the city, to see ‘what the West has done to the country’. There are no bullets flying here, and no loud explosions. In fact, you hear almost nothing. You actually don’t see any war near the Softa Bridge; you only see Death, her horrid gangrenous face, her scythe cutting all that is still standing around her, cutting and cutting, working in extremely slow motion.
Again, as so many times before, you are scared. You were scared like this several times before: in Haiti, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste, Iraq, and Peru, to name just a few countries. In those places, as well as here in Kabul, you are not frightened because you could easily lose your life any moment, or because your safety might be in danger. What dismays you, what you really cannot stomach, are the images of despair, those of ‘no way out’, of absolute hopelessness. Lack of hope is killing you, it horrifies you; everything else can always be dealt with.
People you see all around can hardly stand on their feet. Many cannot stand at all. Most of them are stoned, laying around in rags, sitting in embryonic positions, or moving aimlessly back and forth, staring emptily into the distance. Some are urinating publicly. Syringes are everywhere.
There are holes, deep and wide, filled with motionless human bodies.
First you drive around, photographing through the cracked glass, then you roll down the window, and at the end, you get out and begin working, totally exposed. You have no idea what may happen in the next few seconds. Someone begins shouting at you, others are throwing stones, but they are too weak and the stones just hit your shoulder and legs, softly, without causing any harm.
Then a bomb goes off, not far from where you are. There is an explosion in the 6th District, right in front of a police station. You cannot see it, but you can clearly hear the blast. It is a muffled yet powerful bang. You look at your phone.
It is March 1st, 2017, Kabul. Later you learn that several people died just a few hundred meters from where you were working, while several others perished in the 12th District, another few kilometers away.
The smoke begins rising towards the sky. Sirens are howling and several ambulances are rushing towards the site. Then countless military Humvees begin shooting one after another in the same direction, followed by heavier and much clumsier armored vehicles. You are taking all this in, slowly; photographing the scene, and then snapping from some distance a monumental but still semi-destroyed Darul Aman Palace.
And so it goes.
Tall concrete walls are scarring, fragmenting the city. In Kabul, almost anything worth protecting is now fenced. Some partitions and barriers are simply enormous, almost unreal. There are walls sheltering all foreign embassies and government buildings, palaces, military bases, police stations and banks, as well as the United Nations compounds, even most of the private schools and hotels. The Hamid Karzai international airport is encompassed by perimeters that could put to shame most of the Cold War lines: from the parking area one has to walk almost one kilometer to the entrance of the international terminal, with luggage and through the countless security checks.
Of course Western institutions and organizations have the most impressive fences, as well as the Afghan military and military bases and government offices.
Enormous surveillance drone-zeppelins are levitating above the city.
It could all be seen as thoroughly grotesque, even laughable, but no one is amused. It is all very serious, damn serious here.
Afghanistan has been gradually overtaken by something absolutely foreign: by the Western-style security apparatus. Tens of thousands of highly paid North American and European ‘experts’ have been getting extremely busy, fulfilling their secret wet dream: fencing everything in sight, monitoring each and every movement in the capital city, building taller and taller barriers, while installing the latest hi-tech cameras at almost every intersection, and above each gate.
Not far from the Embassy of the United States of America (or more precisely, not far from the Great Chinese Wall-size fence encompassing it), I noticed a familiar complex of buildings, reminding me of those that used to be constructed in all corners of Eastern Europe and Cuba. I asked my friend to drive into one of the compounds.
This is how I entered “Makroyan”. We killed the engine, and everything around us was suddenly quiet, almost dormant. Time stopped here. There was a certain mild decay detectable all around the area, but upon a closer look, those old apartment buildings were still looking decent and strong, with very impressive public spaces in between them. Here I felt that I was allowed a rare glimpse of an old, socialist Afghanistan.
I stopped in between two entrances of Block 21: No.2 and No.3. I looked up to the 4th floor. Who is living there now? Who used to live here before, some 25, even 30 years ago?
A destroyed office chair was standing aimlessly in the middle of a parking lot, and an old, disabled man was crawling desolately on all fours, moving away from the block. There was a Soviet-built school right next to Block 21. It used to be known as Dosti primary school, and I was told that during the war, it was bombed a couple of times and lots of kids died inside it. Now the school is private and it has a new name – it is ‘Alfath’, a high school.
Apart from a few loose, rusty wires and fences, everything looks decent and semi-neat. This is where many members of the diminishing Kabul middle class still prefer to live. Blocks of Makroyan are reassuring; they radiate safety and permanency, while being surrounded by a volatile and frightening universe.
All of a sudden, I imagined a boy and a girl, who perhaps used to live here, so many years ago. As children in all other parts of the world do at that age, they were just slowly beginning to discover life, starting to formulate their dreams and expectations. In those days, the new leafy neighborhood would have been like a promise of a brighter future, of a much better country.
Then suddenly, full stop.
A war. A sudden end to all that the future was promising. Collapse of optimism, or enthusiasm, of confidence. Only death and destruction, and shattered dreams, remained. For those who were at least somehow lucky: a bitterness and then a hasty flight, instead of ultimate misery and death. Full stop. Total reset. Everything collapsed. But life never stops, it goes on, it always does. Things re-composed, somehow, not idyllically, but they did.
For a long time, I kept staring at Block 21. Memories kept coming, as if I used to live there myself, many years ago, when I was a child. I hardly noticed that it was getting very cold. I began to shiver. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to. Fresh pomegranate juice at a local street stall brought me back to reality, it woke me, but it didn’t managed to warm me up.
Great History, changing culture, an on-going occupation and fear
A renowned Afghan intellectual, Dr. Omara Khan Masoudi, who used to be, among many other things, the former head of the National Museum, is now bitter about the changes invading the culture of his country:
“In the past, we had also many ethnic groups living in this country, but they used to coexist in harmony. Then, our culture got influenced by conflicts and violence.”
“Before the war, it was the culture that used to represent us in the world. However, during and after the war, our cultures were used to justify the conflict.”
Dr. Masoudi told me that he thinks it is wrong when culture falls into the hands of divisive politicians. “If culture is politicized, it loses its essence”, he declared.
I asked him whether he thinks it also applies to Latin America, to the former Soviet Union and China, where (at least to a great extent) ‘politicized culture’ has been playing an extremely important role, determining the course of development. He smiled, replying:
“To be precise, politicizing cultures is not always such a bad thing… When it’s done, for instance, in order to achieve social progress or equality, I have nothing against it. But I am outraged when people like some religious leaders; Shia, Sunni or even some extremists, do it… Culture is very broad, and religions are only a part of it. But in Afghanistan, religious leaders have been using the culture for their narrow-minded interests.”
In a coffee shop, which is lost somewhere inside the wilderness of an international and United Nations compound called ‘The Green Village’, my Japanese friend and Head of the Culture Unit of UNESCO, Mr. Masanori Nagaoka, explained:
“Afghanistan or Ancient Ariana, as many ancient Greek and Roman authors referred to the region in antiquity, can be acknowledged as the multi-cultural cradle of Central Asia, linking East and West via historically significant trade conduits that also conveyed ideas, concepts and languages as a cultural by-product of fledgling international commerce. As a result, contemporary Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society with a complex history stretching back many millennia. The numerous civilizations are attested to in the archaeological record, both indigenous and foreign….”
However, he is well aware of the complexities faced by the country and the culture torn apart by lethal conflicts of the last decades and centuries.
“Afghanistan is unfortunately also a nation fragmented by a history of protracted conflict, exacerbated by geographic isolation for many communities and limited or unequal access to infrastructure and resources, both regionally and demographically. As a nominal starting point, the ongoing rehabilitation process in Afghanistan needs to address these issues if the nation is to unify under a common objective, fostering a veracious society free from conflict and where ethnic diversity is recognized for its social, cultural and economic benefits rather than, as is often the case, seen as a hindrance to particular developmental objectives. Part of the solution to this problem lies in the campaign of a positive public discussion to promote inter-cultural understanding and to raise awareness of the potential that such discourse has to contribute to the broader goals of rapprochement, peace-building and economic development in Afghanistan.”
I flew to the city of Herat, where I witnessed tremendous masterpieces of architecture, from the marvelous and recently restored Citadel (as valuable as the citadels of Aleppo and Erbil), to the Friday Mosque and amazing, unique minarets rising proudly towards the sky.
How familiar all those architectural treasures appeared! On several occasions I approached Nasir, my local friend who was always eager to share the impressive history of his region: “Look, this could be in Delhi… and this in Samarkand!”
Sure enough, the most visited world heritage site in India, Qutub Minar, situated right outside New Delhi, is perhaps the greatest symbol of the Indo-Islamic Afghan architecture, while both Herat and Samarkand were connected by the Silk Road and historically kept influencing each other.
In Afghanistan, the history, the occupation and the on-going conflict: everything seems to be thoroughly intertwined.
During my work there, the Citadel of Herat was literally taken over by Italian troops. I was told that some high-ranking NATO officer was visiting the site, and with no shame, a fully armed Italian commando was roaming around, “securing” every corner of the vast courtyard. As if Afghans had lost control of their own country!
On closer examination, the madrassa of Hussein Baiqara is, in reality, still a minefield. In between four stunning minarets, a de-mining team from local “Halo Trust” was manually searching for unexploded ordinances. I was allowed to enter, but only as a war correspondent and at my own risk, definitely not as a ‘tourist’.
“On this site, we already found two mines and 10 unexploded ordinances”, I was told by one of the Halo Trust experts. “Now this entire area is off-limits to the public. Not long ago, one child was badly injured here; he lost his leg.”
Nothing is peaceful in Afghanistan, not even ancient historic sites.
Not much is questioned here.
Positive talk about the ancient history and culture is generally encouraged, but to discuss dramatic changes in modern Afghan culture, those that occurred as a result of the US/UK invasion and the present on-going NATO occupation of the country, is almost entirely off-limits. In fact, even the word itself – ‘occupation’ – could hardly be heard. Instead, such jargons as ‘protection’, ‘defense’ and ‘international help’ have been implanted deeply and systematically into the psyche of most Afghan people.
The culture that was known for long centuries for its passion for freedom and independence seems broken. While Afghans resisted heroically against all past British invasions, while some of them fought the Soviet incursion, there is presently no organized and united (national, not religious) opposition against the Western occupation of the country.
I met academic Jawid Amin, from the Academy of Social Sciences of Afghanistan, in a small guardroom in front of the Museum of Modern Arts in Kabul.
I asked him, whether there is any art, or any group of intellectuals openly critical of the United States, and of the occupation. He replied, sincerely:
“We don’t have anyone openly critical of the US or the West here, because it is simply not allowed by the government. I personally don’t like the Americans, but I can’t say more… Even I work for the government. My brother and sister are living in the United States. And about critical arts: nothing could be exhibited here without permission from the government and since Karzai, the government is controlled by the West…”
A prominent Afghan intellectual, Omaid Sharifi, explained over the phone: “In the provinces, you can still see paintings depicting killing of civilians by the US drones… but not in Kabul.”
I’m trying to work as fast as possible, meeting people who are helping to shed light on the situation. Eventually, a dire picture begins to form.
I met a Japanese reporter who has been living in Afghanistan for almost a quarter of a century. Her assessment of the situation was to a large extent pessimistic:
“Afghans had very little choice… It is 100% true that behind Karzai’s government was the US… Afghans didn’t want to accept foreign intervention, but soon they learned how money plays an important role. The entire Afghan culture is now changing, even some essential elements of it like hospitality: people don’t want to spend money on it, or they don’t have any that they can spare…”
I asked Dr. Masoudi why Afghan culture did not accept Soviets and their egalitarian, socially oriented ideals, while it seems to be tolerating the Western invasion, which is spreading inequality, desperation and subservience. He replied, passionately:
“The biggest mistake the Soviet Union made here was to attack religion out rightly. If they’d first stick to equal rights, and slowly work it up towards the contradictions of religion, it could perhaps work… But they began blaming religion for our backwardness, in fact for everything. Or at least this is how it was interpreted by the coalition of their enemies, and of course by the West.”
“Now, why is the Western invasion ‘successful’? Look at the Karzai regime… During his rule, the US convinced people that Western intervention was ‘positive’, ‘respectful of their religion and cultures’. They kept repeating ‘under this and that UN convention’, and again ‘as decided by the UN’… They used NATO, a huge group of countries, as an umbrella. There was a ‘brilliantly effective’ protocol that they developed… According to them, they never did anything unilaterally, always by ‘international consensus’ and in order to ‘help Afghan people’. On the other hand, the Soviet Union had never slightest chance to explain itself. It was attacked immediately, and on all fronts.”
“Opposition to Western occupation? Anti-Western art?” A Russian cultural expert in Kabul was clearly surprised by my question.
“First of all, the Taliban destroyed most artistic traditions of this country. But also, the economic and social situation in this country is so desperate, that hardly anyone has time to think about some larger picture. More than 60% of Afghans are jobless. One thing you also should remember: Afghan people are very proud and very freedom loving, as the history illustrated, but they are also extremely patient. Go and see The British Cemetery. It was built in 1879 to hold the dead of the second Anglo-Afghan War, but despite all that the UK did to this country, and despite all recent wars and conflicts, it was never attacked, never damaged.”
It is true. I never heard anyone discussing this topic. All horrid British crimes committed on the territory of Afghanistan seem to be forgotten, at least for now.
But that’s not all: nobody here seems to have any appetite for recalling those horrors of the last decades, triggered by Western imperialism. Not once I observed any discussion addressing the main topic of modern Afghan history: how the West managed to trick the Soviets into invading Afghanistan in 1979, and how it created and then armed the vilest bunch of religious fanatics – the Mujahedeen. And how, subsequently, both countries – Afghanistan and the Soviet Union – were thoroughly destroyed in the process.
All was done, of course, with “great respect” for the Afghan nation, for its culture and traditions, as well as (how else) religion.
I’d love to be an invisible witness in a modern history class at the American University of Afghanistan, a ‘famed’ institution that is literally regurgitating thousands of collaborators, manufacturing a new breed of obedient pro-Western ‘elites’.
As we drive past Jamhuriat Hospital (Republic Hospital), which had a new 10- story building, with capacity for 350 patients, constructed by China in 2004, my driver, Mr. Tahir, sighs: “This was really a great gift from China to us… the Chinese really work hard, don’t they?”
“They have plenty of zeal and enthusiasm”, I uttered carefully. “Socialist fervor, you know. They sincerely believe in building, improving their country and the world. It is quite contrary to Western nihilism and extreme individualism…”
“They must love their country…”
“Afghanistan is poor”, Mr. Tahir’s face became suddenly sad. “Our people don’t love their country, anymore. They don’t work to improve it. They only work for themselves now, for their families…”
“Was it different before? You know…” I made an abstract gesture with my hand. “Before all this…”
“Of course it used to be very different”, he replied, grinning again.
Andre Vltchek is a philosopher, novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. Three of his latest books are revolutionary novel “Aurora” and two bestselling works of political non-fiction: “Exposing Lies Of The Empire” and “Fighting Against Western Imperialism”. View his other books here. Andre is making films for teleSUR and Al-Mayadeen. Watch Rwanda Gambit, his groundbreaking documentary about Rwanda and DRCongo. After having lived in Latin America, Africa and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides in East Asia and the Middle East, and continues to work around the world. He can be reached through his website and his Twitter.
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