Nelofer Pazira has seen the many faces of Afghanistan. And while there has been progress, she feels that the country has yet to escape its cycle of suffering. Here she charts her experiences and impressions, from living there in the turbulent 1980s to visiting today’s Afghanistan.
On July 2002, I returned to Kabul for the first time after 13 years. I grew up in Kabul during the 1980s war and left as a teenager with my family when the de facto Soviet-backed regime was still in power.
Upon my return, which was just seven months after the fall of the Taliban regime, I could barely recognize the streets of my own hometown. A blanket of gloom, like the heavy dust that swirled around, blindingly, shrouded everything. Ruined buildings and walls, destroyed homes and piles of garbage and debris, armed men on pick up trucks were the new features of my city. Present everywhere was also poverty and destitution – a place where broken spirits and lost souls roamed in search of survival.
One afternoon I was walking along a road when a woman in a tattered blue burka approached me. “I know how to sew,” she said, “I’m a good tailor. If you’re working for an aid agency, please give me a job.” She had lost her husband in the war, and was taking care of a large family, including her seven children and her in-laws. Soon, I was surrounded by women, all with similar stories and requests.
"You jihadies! You took our sons and killed our husbands, and now you want the rest of our families to starve to death too. Get lost …"
A man on a bicycle rode passed us, then turned around and started to yell at me. “What the hell you think you’re doing here, gathering women around you,” he shouted. “We fought a jihad to protect the dignity of our women and now you think with your aid money you can buy our women.” His lean, narrow face, sunken eyes made him look like a picture from a concentration camp.
The women around me shooed him away. “You jihadies! You took our sons and killed our husbands, and now you want the rest of our families to starve to death too. Get lost…” Realising his powerlessness against a wave of blue burkas, he fled the scene, his rusted bicycle chain clink-clunking as he disappeared from sight.
Such was the situation of women at a time when Kabul was called the capital of widows; thousands of women were left at the mercy of anyone who could offer them a chance to live.
Since then, I’ve often been going back to Kabul, travelling all over the country. But again, I don’t recognise my old hometown. Glossy green and blue glass buildings, a grotesque fake Eiffel Tower at one of the city’s squares, shopping malls, restaurants and hotels that cater to the foreigners’ tastes and needs has replaced what used to be the old Kabul.
There are more cars than the poorly constructed streets could fit, so now I sit in long traffic jams. A market economy with its frantic pace and brutal edge has eroded the traditional ways of life, defacing the old city.
But it has brought jobs and opportunities, reducing the level of poverty and deprivation. Most people have better living standards and access to education. It has allowed a certain category of people – those with the right connections and the ability to take advantage of a chaotic situation. To make money - and lots of it.
And along with this has come a new class of people who own convoys of armoured cars and an entourage of private security guards. When they travel between their homes and offices, the rest of us have to wait as the roads are blocked for their motorcades to pass.
At the same time, the women who were looking for work ten years ago or were begging on the streets have also been offered an opportunity to have a different life. Women have emerged as a formidable constituency, socially and politically. They are active, organised and motivated to be part of today’s Afghanistan.
Afghan women have emerged as a formidable constituency, both socially and politically. They are active, organised and motivated to be part of today’s Afghanistan. © Nomad photos
More girls attend schools now than they ever did in the past. Women are joining the work force and politics in larger numbers. The two groups that have been the real beneficiaries of the last ten years of change are women and the younger generation of Afghans. The latter are growing up with access to the internet, mobile phones, and new technology which has enabled them to connect with the world outside Afghanistan. Their hopes and aspirations are similar to those anywhere else in the world: the dream of a good life.
The number and status of Afghan media outlets has improved dramatically over the last ten years. Sometimes their depth and quality of news coverage puts to shame most of the Western media’s portrayal of Afghanistan.
But in Afghanistan, nothing is as simple as it seems.
Corruption has become an endemic problem, perpetuated by those who are supposed to be the very agents of change in the country
Some women who’ve entered politics have become pawns for powerful men, warlords and wealthy businessmen. These men have realised that using women as a cover provides them with a new sphere of influence, extending their control of wealth and resources. Warlords and wealthy politicians own a number of television and radio stations. This means that they can use the new medium to continue their warfare in yet another domain. Every occasion for progress and change becomes an opportunity for the same men to add to their wealth and power.
So corruption has become an endemic problem, perpetuated by those who are supposed to be the very agents of change in the country. And there are also those who struggle to maintain their independence and continue to fight against all the odds.
The past ten years has enabled most Afghans who fled the country under difficult and at times dangerous circumstances to return to their homes. Some have returned to take their land and homes from whomever is now claiming to own them. They often sell or rent the property for higher prices, mostly to foreigners who are the only ones who can afford it.
More than 50 per cent of the Afghan population is under the age of 30. If they are offered a gun or a camera, I like to believe they will chose the latter
A mountain top littered with communication towers and equipment. Younger generations of Afghans are growing up with access to the internet, mobile phones, and new technology which has enabled them to connect with the rest of the world. © Nasim Fekrat
Others have set up businesses, from shops and restaurants to hotel and construction companies. Some Afghans have also returned with NATO’s military as translators, intelligence officers and advisors. They are also the new ruling class, including ministers in the current cabinet. There is an unspoken resentment towards those who’ve returned with lucrative jobs or titles and who are earning more than the locals who stayed in the country during the years of war. This has created yet another crack in a society that’s already too fragile to be equal and democratic.
Insecurity has had a terrible impact all over the country. A number of businessmen have been randomly kidnapped for ransom by gangs. In the absence of any efficient policing, drug trafficking along with the local mafia operate freely.
They are seen as a larger threat to the safety and well-being of people than the Taliban.
In this stifling situation, what then of the 2014 deadline of the US and NATO military drawdown? The majority of Afghans suspect that the American military will never leave. A loya jirga (large assembly) is planned for November in Kabul, to ask this very question: will the US have permanent bases in Afghanistan? It is argued that the Americans want permanent bases as a strategic outpost near Russia, China, and Iran. This leaves Afghans asking: Is Afghanistan’s real value to the outside world just as a strategic location?
Afghanistan’s latest division is within the government over President Karzai’s project of “reconciliation with the Taliban”. The move has left a trail of explosions and murders. It was opposed from the outset by women's organizations and members of Karzai’s own cabinet. Most recently, the divisions led to the death of the former President, Burhanudin Rabani.
Even with the presence of the international military and agencies, the Afghan government and police are not able to maintain law and order,. How do you think they’d manage without them?
So with a delegitimised government, corruption that runs deep within all institutions --including the army and police force -- and frustrations over lack of security, most Afghans to expect little. “Even with the presence of the international military and agencies, the Afghan government and police are not able to maintain law and order,. How do you think they’d manage without them?” said a young man working as a producer for the Noreen Television Network.
The professional class is already seeking to flee. The number of Afghans trying to find homes abroad has grown over the past two years.
This past week I had an e-mail from a bright, educated high-tech engineer who returned ten years ago from Iran with the hope of living a “normal life”. His equally intelligent wife was working with one of the Afghan media networks. “We’ve managed to leave the country, but our children are still in Kabul,” he wrote. “We’ve decided there is no way we can live in Afghanistan and now we are hoping to find some work outside to help bring our kids out. Is there anyone you know who can help us get a job in Greece while we wait to make our way to another country?”
In the world of television drama and movies, this could make it into a Monty Python sketch. An Afghan in search of finding job in Greece! But in the real world this is just another Afghan story.
A lot has changed in the past ten years, but there are times when one wonders if anything has really changed at all. In my view, the failures of the last ten years overshadow all the progress.
More than 50 per cent of the Afghan population is under the age of 30. If they are offered a gun or a camera, I like to believe they will chose the latter. But then I suffer from eternal optimism.