Afghanistan – as only love could hurt (2/2)
- 14 Mar 2017
Notes From A Broken Land
Second part of Andre Vltchek’s essay. For the first part click here.
Nothing social left, nothing socialist wanted
I stopped several people who were just walking down the street, in various parts of Kabul. I wanted to understand some basics: was there anything social left in Afghanistan? Did Western ‘liberation’ bring at least some progress, social development and improved standards of living?
Most answers were thoroughly gloomy. Only those people who were working or moonlighting for the Western military, for the embassies, the NGOs or other ‘international contractors’, were to some extent optimistic.
I was explained that almost everyone in the countryside and provincial cities were out off work. Unemployment among university graduates stood at over 80%.
In Herat, a city of almost half a million inhabitants, a long and depressing line was winding in front of the Iranian embassy. I was told that tens of thousands have already migrated to the other side of the border. Now Afghans who were attempting to visit their relatives living in Iran were told to leave a 300-euro deposit, in case they decide not to return.
I asked what Herat is producing, and was told, without any irony: “mainly just some washing powder and biscuits”. Tourism from Iran stood at only about 150 people a year! The area between the city and the border has been dangerous, and there are frequent kidnappings.
In most provincial cities, a regular family has to get by on 2.300 – 2.500 Afghanis per month, which is not much more than US$30.
Government supplies run water mainly to the government housing projects. People living elsewhere have to dig their own wells.
Electricity is expensive, and an average family in Kabul is now expected to pay around US$35 per month. Even in the capital, many people have to get by without electricity. Indian ‘investors’ are in partnership with the government. Electricity supplies, and even water, are perceived as ‘business ventures’, not as basic social services.
Counting on a decent public transportation in the past, Kabul is now forced to rely on private vehicles, and on those few ‘city buses’ that are ‘pro-profit’ and mainly privately owned and operated.
There are government schools in Afghanistan, and in theory they are free, but books, pencils, uniforms and other basics are not.
In fact, perhaps the most impressive modern structure in Kabul, is actually the 10-story building to Jamhuriat Hospital, a gift from the People’s Republic of China, not from the West.
One wonders where is that fabled great ‘assistance’ from the United States and Europe really going? Perhaps to the millions of tons of concrete, used for construction of the massive fences? Perhaps money sponsors’ purchases of high-tech cameras and surveillance systems, as well as the high-life of thousands of Western ‘contractors’ and ‘security experts’?
I spoke to more than hundreds of Afghan people. Almost no one was ready to mention socialism. As if this wonderful word disappeared, was erased from the local lexicon.
“They actually remember socialism very fondly”, my Japanese acquaintance based in Kabul once told me. “However, talking about it is not encouraged. It may cause all sorts of problems.”
Western (temporary) victory
While in Kabul, I was told by one of the local experts working for an international organization:
“The National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) for Afghanistan was just drafted… The funding came from the West. Many meetings were held directly at the US embassy and at the offices of the World Bank. The Afghan Ministry of Education had very little say about the curriculum, which was basically dictated by the Western countries…”
I cannot quote the source of this information, as she would most probably lose her position for expressing such views.
She later clarified further:
“The policy decisions on education are proposed by donor parties, which are mostly Western countries. The Ministry of Education, with limited capacity, has a lesser role in drafting the NESP III policy. Instead of building the capacity of the government, donor countries are taking the leading role in changing the education system and this does not ensure a sustainable education for Afghanistan whatsoever.”
As in all client states of the West, education in Afghanistan is manipulated and geared to serve the interests of the West. It is expected to produce obedient and unquestioning masses. Instead of determined and productive patriots, it is regurgitating butlers of the regime, which is in turn serving predominately foreign interests.
Almost all information flows through the channels that are at least to some extent influenced from abroad: social media, television networks as well as the printed media.
The fabled Afghan spirit of resistance and courage has been (hopefully only temporarily) brutally broken, under the supervision of highly professional foreign indoctrinators and propagandists.
Those who are willing to collaborate with the occupation forces are suddenly not even hiding it, carrying their condition proudly as if a coat of arms, not as a shame. Many are now delighted to be associated with the West and its institutions.
In fact, the occupation is not even called occupation, anymore, at least not by the elites who are well rewarded by the system for their linguistic and intellectual somersaults and pirouettes.
And Afghan people keep leaving.
Afghanistan is shedding its most talented sons and daughters, every day, every month, irreversibly.
Ms. Yukiko Matsuyoshi, a former Japanese diplomat, presently a UN education expert, is worried about the current trends in Afghanistan, a country where she spent several years:
“Now the social classes have been re-created after the fall of Taliban, but the country seems to have no ideology. People just follow trends that are thrown their way. There is corruption, there is that huge poppy business, and there are palaces. And there is misery in the countryside, hardly any access to information. Afghans are leaving their country. Whoever can, goes: good people, government people…it seems like everyone tries to escape.”
All of a sudden, the West is perceived like some Promised Land. Those who make it there are bragging about their new ‘home’, sending colorful images through social media: Disneyland, Hollywood, German castles…
I have seen the other side of the coin, in terrible refugee camps in Greece, in the French Calais camps; people drowning while attempting to cross the sea from Turkey to the European Union.
There is no discussion whether Afghanistan should be capitalist or socialist, anymore. Debate has stopped. The decision has been made, somewhere else, obviously.
The faces of Northern Alliance leaders are ‘decorating’ (or some would say, ‘scarring’) all major roads on which I drove. Ahmad Shah Massoud became a national hero, during the Karzai regime.
I travelled more than 100 kilometers north, to see Massoud’s grave, or a thumb, or whatever that monstrosity they erected above the splendid Panjshir Valley really is. Hordes of people drive there on weekends, some all the way from Kabul, and there are even those who pray to the ‘leader’.
The former “anti-Soviet” and anti-Communist fighter, he is certainly a perfect ‘hero’, whose memory is groomed by the pro-Western regime.
Driving through the Panjshir Valley, I saw several Soviet tanks and armored vehicles, rotting by the side of the road. I also saw a destroyed village, an eerie reminder of the war. It is called Dashtak. Clay houses look like a cemetery, like a horrid monument.
I took photos and sent them to Kabul, to my friends, for identification. I want to know, I felt that I had to know, who razed this town by the river, surrounded by such stunning mountains.
The answer came in a just few minutes: “I think it was in 1984, by the Soviet Union”. What followed was a link leading to a book published in the West, quoting some former Ukrainian, Soviet adviser to an Afghan battalion commander. The name of the book was “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”.
The quote did not sound too convincing. “Let’s go back”, I asked my driver and translator. “Let’s talk to people on the other side of the river’.
We found three inhabitants, in three different parts of the village; three people old enough to remember what took place here, some 30 years ago. All three testimonies coincided: Massoud’s forces brought refugees from several other parts of the valley. Before the battle began, all of them left. During the combat, clay houses were destroyed, but no civilians died inside.
There are always many different interpretations of the historic events. However, the analyses of modern Afghan history disseminated by the West and the Afghan regime among the Afghan people, are suspiciously unanimous and frighteningly one-sided. I am definitely planning to revisit this point during my next trip to the country. I see it as essential. The future of Afghanistan certainly depends on understanding the past.
There are huge zeppelin-drones, vile-looking airborne surveillance stuff, hovering over the US air force base near Bagram. The same drones could be seen levitating over Kabul, but in the Bagram area, with the dramatic backdrop of the mountains, they look particularly dreadful.
The air force base is huge. It appears even bigger than Incerlik near Adana in Turkey. It is an absolute masterpiece of military vulgarity, with watch towers everywhere, with barbed wire, several layers of concrete walls, surveillance cameras and powerful lights. If this is not an occupation, then what really is?
Again, my driver is totally cool. I want to photograph this monstrosity, and he drives me around, so we can identify a truly good spot. I’m ‘calculating light’, looking for the correct angle, so during the sunset, those who would be observing us from inside the ‘castle’, would be blinded, and we could get at least a few decent images.
I’m aware of the fact that in Afghanistan, the Empire often kills anything that moves, at the slightest suspicion or without any suspicion at all, as for them human lives of the local people count for almost nothing.
Once the sun goes down, I begin working fast.
Somehow I feel that my visit to Afghanistan would be incomplete, without getting at least some images of the base – one of the most expressive symbols of the occupation.
So this is what Afghanistan became under the Western ‘liberating’ boots! Barbed wires, foreign jet fighters, concrete walls everywhere, battles with the religious fundamentalist elements (invented and manufactured by the West), grotesque savage capitalism, ignorant or shameless collaboration, and guns, guns and guns, as well as misery in almost every corner, and one of the lowest life expectancies and standards of living on Earth! And of course, people escaping, leaving this beautiful country behind – a country, which is suddenly unloved, humiliated, abandoned by so many!
This is all happening only roughly four decades after the heroic attempts to build some great social housing projects, after the implementation of a well-functioning public transportation network, public education and medical care, as well as an attempt to introduce secularism, while building a decent, egalitarian society.
The glorious victory of Western imperialism over one of the oldest and greatest cultures seems to be complete. The Brits tried, on several occasions; they murdered and tortured, but were defeated. They never forgave. They waited for decades, and then returned with their muscular and aggressive offspring. And here they are, all of them, now!
Afghanistan appears to be exhausted and defeated. It is badly injured, and it has been dragged through unimaginable dirt.
But I don’t think it is crushed, by the West or by the religious fundamentalists, or by these two historical allies.
Deep inside, Afghanistan knows better. It already experienced many years of hope; it knows the taste of it. During long centuries and millennia of its existence, it survived several dreadful moments, but it always stood up again, undefeated and proud. I’m certain that it will rise again.
Flying, driving or walking through its magnificent mountains, I often felt that Afghanistan is like a living organism, it was winking at me, letting me know that it is alive, that it sees everything that goes on, that it is not futile at all to struggle for its future.
I watched the stubs of the electric contacts that used to hold, some decades ago, those long wires used by the legendary Kabul trolley bus network.
“Those beautiful vehicles came from former Czechoslovakia”, a man, an office worker, whom I stopped in the center of the city, told me. “They were beautiful, and do you know who used to drive them? Some young girls; optimistic women who were for some reason always in a good mood.”
Apparently Kabul had three trolleybus lines, one of them originating (or ending) at the ‘Cinema Pamir’. What color were Kabul trolleybuses? I saw some photos, but those I could find were black and white. When I was a child, growing up in Czechoslovakia, ours were red. The ones in Leningrad, the city where I was born, were blue and green, some red as well. When they were accelerating, it was as if they’d be singing a simple song, or whining, complaining mockingly about their hard life.
I imagined a strong-minded, professional woman, boarding these trolleybuses. Perhaps eager to catch one of those old great Soviet movies at the Cinema Pamir, perhaps “the Dawns are Quiet Here”, or going to work or to visit different parts of the city. She would snuggle into a comfortable seat in the electric vehicle. It was getting dark, but the city was safe. A woman behind the wheel was really smiling. There were flags flying all around the city. There was hope. There was a future. There was a country to build and to love.
I had suspected that the Kabul trolleybuses were actually light blue. I have no idea why. It was just my intuition.
Suddenly I heard a loud bang, and then the squeaking of brakes.
“Roll up the window!” my driver was shouting. We were getting into a slum inhabited by IDPs [internally displaced people]. We left the road. Dust everywhere, absolute misery. Bagrani town, now Bagrani slums, just a few kilometers east from Kabul, on the Jalalabad Highway.
I grasped the heavy metal body of my professional Nikon.
My dream about Afghanistan of the 70’s, a gentle and enthusiastic country, abruptly ended. Now all around me were children suffering from malnutrition. I heard excited, accusatory voices of men and women who were forced to come from all corners of Afghanistan. We drove on a bumpy road, towards numerous half-collapsed clay structures and dirty tents.
“We escaped fighting in Shinwar, Helmand Province, from around Jalalabad and Kandahar”, several internally displaced persons living in Bagrani were shouting at me:
“We have 1.000 families from Helmand and more than 1.000 families from Kandahar, living here. We lost our houses back in our villages and towns… People around Jalalabad lost their homes, too. Daesh (ISIS) is operating in several parts of the country… Taliban fighters are frequently changing sides, joining Daesh. There is fighting going on everywhere: Daesh, Taliban and the government forces confronting each other.”
How involved is NATO in general and the US in particular, I ask, through my interpreter.
“Americans are there, of course. Mostly they are fighting from the air, but sometimes they are on the ground, too.”
“Do they kill civilians?”
“Yes, they do… Our sons, our husbands are regularly murdered by them”, shouts a woman clothed in a blue burqa, holding a small child in her arms.
Misery is everywhere, destroying the country, I’m told. And there is almost no help coming from the corrupt and the near bankrupt state.
Ms. Sidiqah, an elderly lady, is shouting in desperation and anger: “We have nothing left, but no one helps us! We don’t know what to do.”
As I photograph, a small cluster of people begin to rock the car. Things are getting tense, but I don’t feel that we are facing any immediate danger. I continue working. This is all becoming very personal. I don’t understand why, but it is…
Then, silently, a small group of people approaches us. Among them are a man with a very long beard, and a girl, with a beautiful and tragic face. She is wearing a t-shirt depicting several cute white mice, but the right sleeve is empty. She is missing her entire arm.
Her face is striking. She stares directly into my camera, and when I lower the lens, I feel her eyes begin to pierce mine. Without one single word uttered, I sense clearly what she is trying to convey:
“What have you done to me?”
I try to hold her glance for at least a few seconds, but then I lower my eyes. Now I‘m in panic. I want to embrace her, hold her, take her away from here, somewhere, somehow; to adopt her, airlift her from here, give her a home, but I know that there is no way I would be allowed to do it. My glasses get very foggy. I mumble something incoherent. I am tough, I witnessed dozens of wars, I faced death on various occasions. I try to keep calm whenever I’m in places like this; whenever working. What is happening to me here and now happens very rarely, but it does happen.
It is March 4th 2017, Afghanistan. My flight is schedule to depart the next day, late in the afternoon. I know that I will take it. But I also realize, and I silently make my pledge to this tiny girl with the cute mice and an empty sleeve, that I will never fully leave her country.
What will happen later is predicable: yet another sleepless night. Everything will be back, play itself like a film inside my brain. Bagrani provisional camp, another camp that is housing evacuees from Kunduz, some active mine fields in the middle of Herat, those hundreds of living corpses vegetating in the middle of District 6 in Kabul, then several explosions, innumerable rotting carcasses of Soviet tanks, the eerie and enormous US air force base near Bagram, Massoud’s bizarre grave, white zeppelin-drones, concrete walls, watch towers, security checks, and hollow muzzles of various types of guns pointing in all directions.
I’ll be tired, exhausted, but I’ll be well aware that I have no right to rest, not now, not anytime soon.
I’ll keep thinking about Cinema Pamir, about Kabul trolleybuses, and Block 21 in the socialist-style neighborhood of Makroyan … 4th floor, entrance 2 or perhaps 3… I’ll keep imagining what could have taken place there, if life had not been so abruptly and so brutally interrupted.
Afghanistan, a stunning but terribly scarred and injured land has been suffering from a concussion. It has been dizzy and disoriented. It can hardly walk. Still it being Afghanistan, it has been walking anyway, against all odds!
Later that night, I’ll recall what one great Cuban poet and singer Silvio Rodriquez once wrote about Nicaragua. And at one point, only a few moments before the dawn would begin returning bright colors to the world, I’ll replace Nicaragua with Afghanistan, and suddenly realize that it is exactly what I feel towards this beautiful and shattered nation: “Afghanistan hurts, as only love does.”
It hurts like love…
It hurts… terribly. Therefor, it is love.
All that would happen later, hours later. At the end I’ll stop fighting it, and simply accept.
But now, the old Toyota climbs back on the paved road. I can hardly keep my eyes open. The last several days I slept very little.
Mr. Tahir, my driver and now my comrade, looks surprisingly composed and unworried. After all this time working with me, he is clearly ready for any adventure, or any nightmare.
He hands me a bunch of tissues. My left wrist is bleeding, although not too badly. Most likely I hit or scratched something in the slums, without realizing it. My cameras feel increasingly heavy and my notebook looks filthy; I keep dropping it on the floor. My clothes look dirty, too. But we are going, we are moving forward, and that is good!
“It is all fucked up, Mr. Tahir”, I inform him, politely.
“Yes, Sir”, he replies, with an equal doze of respect. We are a good team.
“But we are going”, I remind him and myself.
“We are going, sir.”
Again my head drops on my chest. I open my eyes just a few minutes later. It is already very dark. Kabul all around me; Afghanistan. It feels good to be here. I’m glad I came.
“Where to now, sir?”
“Jalalabad, Mr. Tahir.”
“Sir? Jalalabad is behind… And at this hour…”
He is not saying no. He never says ‘no’ to any of my requests, during all those days. He is just informing me. If I was really crazy enough and insisted, he’d just take me. He knows we’d get fucked, perhaps even killed, but he would not refuse. He’s my comrade and I feel safe with him.
“Sorry, I fell asleep… What I mean: we’ll go to Jalalabad soon, when I return to Afghanistan.”
I am thinking for a few seconds. This drive, just being here, all of it feels right, exactly as it is supposed to be. I’m not certain where exactly I want to go right now, but one thing I know for sure: I have to keep going.
“Please, just drive, Mr. Tahir.”
“Forward?” He asks, intuitively. I know that he knows. We both know, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
“Yes, please. Drive forward. Always forward!”
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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