Kabul spring: the poor place their bets

Wendell Steavenson
30 October 2002

Part one: In the Titanic Bazaar
02 October 2002

A group of boys, ­skinny, seven or eight years old, dressed in dirty shalwar kameezes, carrying their profession around their neck – pails of water, a box of shoe-shine brushes and polish, a tray of plastic bags of Vaseline.

One had a tin can incense burner with two or three sandalwood embers inside; it had gone out, and hung from his wrist by a wire. They were bored of looking at me for money, bored of my face bent towards my notebook and watching them through my sunglasses. They talked among themselves. But they watched me back, just in case. They were adult in conversation with each other, a serious sort of territorial discussion – and then one of them smiled suddenly and clapped the shoe-shine boy on the shoulder like an old comrade.

A smaller boy held a palm-full of sunflower seeds and picked them into his mouth singly, deliberately. An even smaller boy, a very small boy, standing on the edge of the group, had nothing in his hands and no pockets to put them in. He reached over to take a few seeds from the other boy, but the palm closed into a fist.

I looked up. Kabul was ringed with sharp-ridged mountains lined with the rotting teeth of ancient fortifications. A city formed of dust and broken mud-brick walls, smashed by rockets, subsiding back into the earth. At dusk, the adobe houses hanging from the steep slopes looked like blind rocks. Children were trudging their way up the stony paths carrying pails of water. Below them were a few trees, a city quadrant of houses with green gardens next to a sector that is dun-coloured ruins.

Beneath my perch on the parapet ran a sick trickle of foetid water, a narrow channel of waste, the dried-up, drought-ridden Kabul river. Upstream, women washed clothes in it. Here, in the centre, traders rinsed bales of spinach. All around me a shanty of market stalls sprung up along its mud-parched banks. Underfoot, everything was stamped into a ground of black filth of vegetative mass. Above it, was bustle and sale: pots of geraniums and bowls of corn, wheat, rice, and lentils. Hanging fox skins next to a butcher’s stall with a basket of mutton fat. Flies on the sacks of sugar, boxes of loose tea and green medicine herbs, and piles of walnuts. A single fat-tailed sheep and a knife-sharpening wheel pulled by hand. All necessaries: piles of second-hand clothes from Pakistan, Iranian batteries, laundry blue, baskets of red hard-boiled eggs, and money bricks of Afghani notes.

Burqas walked among the hawking mob, tripping over their hems, hennaed fingertips adjusting the sky-blue grill over their eyes. This was the Titanic Bazaar on a Wednesday afternoon.

Qais came up, found me, produced a wad of money and waved it happily. ‘I changed it,’ he said. ‘The rate is not good today because the government is paying salaries. Let’s go and drink tea.’

So we went to the restaurant we went to most days, and Jamal, the rotund, jocular waiter, showed us to a table. He took our order – ‘Green, yes?’ – and returned with a small stainless-steel pot of green tea and, later, a plate of kebab.

‘Why is it called the Titanic Bazaar?’ I asked Qais, tearing off a piece of bread. ‘Is it because it is sinking?’

‘I don’t know ­– it’s from the movie, from the Taliban time.’

‘Everything in Kabul is Titanic

‘It was a very popular movie, and movies were forbidden. You could not watch television.’

Qais took one of my cigarettes and resumed. ‘I heard a rumour today. Maybe Kate Winslet is coming to Kabul!’

‘God, can you imagine if she came? The crowds! They would crush her to death.’

‘I don’t think she is really coming,’ said Qais sensibly. ‘I think it is only a rumour.’

Titanic was popular ­– ubiquitous. It was on labels sewn on to the pocket of denim shirts run up by tailors in Pakistan, ready for the resurgent trend of post-Taliban Western dress in Kabul. It was ironed on to the seats of taxis, on stickers pasted on bicycle fenders as decoration, and stencilled across shop windows. It was emblazoned across posters of Leonardo – King of the world and arms outstretched – that were pinned up in camera-photographic shops, or across Kate’s startling décolleté and creamy, fleshy shoulders that were to be found, more modestly, in the female-only beauty parlours.

One of Qais’ friends told me that during the Taliban time they had risked everything to watch Titanic. He had borrowed an illegal video recorder from a friend and carefully cycled home with it stuffed inside his jacket. ‘Everyone had copies of Titanic, everyone wanted to see it.’ He and some neighbours gathered in a friends’ room and blacked out the windows with paint and watched it.

Not much of the outside world penetrated the city during the time of the black-beard Taliban. People left and leaked away, or stayed, and stayed at home selling their furniture, sitting on thin pallet mattresses, drinking tea. How strange that some American mega-movie, full of costume and colour and wealth and shiny smooth production values – and that cost half the current Afghan government budget – should scratch that far foreign nerve of entertainment!

The walls of the restaurant were covered with carpets describing scenes from Mecca; the Kaaba, and lines of submissive Haj prayers, and hung with Christmas tree lights entwined with garlands of stiff nylon pink roses. Around us, the faces of the patrons, a mix of bazaari and policemen, were covered in thick beards of various lengths and turned towards the television showing Indian adventure romances with the volume turned up very loud – men with scimitars gripped in their teeth, knives flashing at their wrists and the glittering eyes of vengeance.

Dost Mohammed, who was the owner of the restaurant, came and sat down. He was a Hazara with a wide, fleshy Genghis Khan face and eyes that were small and tired and a little inscrutable. He had started the business ‘twenty-two years ago,’ he told us, elbows on the table, sighing, calling for Jamal to bring more tea.

There had been a lot of changes, different times, up and down. ‘In the Russian time we had good food because people worked and they had money. Now people are poor we know they cannot afford much,’ he told us, and Qais nodded, remembering. ‘Mostly the Russians liked to eat samosas… In the Mujahideen time there were shortages. For the first sixteen months I kept the restaurant open and business was good. But then the war came here and they looted everything. We used to have a second floor. It was lined in wood and they took all the wood. This place was in between the forces of Massoud and Hekmatyar; there were lots of rockets. I was injured by shrapnel in my lower calf. I am Hazara and they arrested Hazara people. They looted our shops when we went home to the Hazara areas. They stopped our cars. Often they took our cars from us. As customers, the Taliban were all right. They ate cheap food, but then they stopped paying. They didn’t sit on chairs, just on the carpet platforms. There were many Pakistanis and Arabs. But they arrested me twice. They said, “You are Hazara, where is your gun?” and then they beat me…’

‘The stories are complicated.’ I said to Qais when Dost Mohammed had returned to his till. Qais shrugged: he knew already that life was contingent. He had worked in a restaurant in Pakistan and on a building site in Iran. His own story was complicated too; the same motley Afghan story as millions of other stories that had been repeated over twenty-five years of war, dislocation, exile, and to and fro. From the time of Babrak Karmal, to the time of the Russians, until they left and it was Najibullah’s time, until he was overthrown by the time of Mujahideen (also known as the time of Rabbani), who were defeated by the Taliban. Jagged, zigzagging, difficult stories – his was a generation grown up in trouble.

Qais was twenty-two, a Tajik, dark, wiry, built small and close to the ground. He possessed a very fast intuitive intelligence, a cleverness of nous and streetwise. Although he once asked me where Belgium was and he read only haltingly, he had picked up English in about six months, and was the best analyst an Afghan novice could hope for. He understood innately the complexities of the Afghan melee: the politics of integrated betrayals and alliances and blood feuds.

When the Americans began their campaign in October, Quais offered his services to foreign correspondents. He charged them a hundred dollars a day or more, bought a fleet of cars with the proceeds, rented them out to more foreigners, made a killing on the currency markets when the Afghani doubled in value overnight when the Taliban left Kabul, paid for his brother to be smuggled to Italy, and refurbished his family’s apartment.

Now he sat in the restaurant opposite me, smiled and sighed. ‘I don’t know if I want to stay here,’ he said, wondering about everything, the next thing, the rest of the world out there. ‘Afghanistan is my country. But the people, I don’t know, they are idiots!’ he took a mouthful of brackish tea and paused. ‘What do you want to know about this country?’ he asked me.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, trying to think about it, ‘I don’t know anything. I don’t know what the story is when there’s such a lot of mess, crowds and poverty; every story is a piece of it. There isn’t any thesis, or if there is, it’s too complicated for any foreigner to understand – you Afghans understand it.’

Qais smiled at this. ‘But we are lost and confused here.’

‘So what should I be doing? Making predictions? Should I be interviewing Karzai and writing down his banalities? Or should I just resign myself to the downtrodden woman angle?’

‘There are many articles about women. I think it is boring. Always burqas.’

‘I know, exactly.’

We fell into a mutual, thinking silence.

‘I know many people,’ said Qais. ‘I think you should talk to them.’

So we spent our days roaming around Kabul, ducking into shops, wandering about its ruins, scattering beggar children, waving pieces of paper at checkpoints, and stopping in the afternoon for pistachio ice-cream at Dost Mohammed’s restaurant.

Part Two: Precarious Freedom
9 October 2002

Kabul’s first spring of freedom (interim and precarious) was for young men, quick, smart and on the make. The Taliban were gone, and everybody was happy for that, and open for business, which poured in from Pakistan in a flow of multicoloured plastic and electronics. For young men, everything was in the future. But for older people, there was more past than present; they knew that life is very wearying when you have had to rebuild it several times.

For women, everything was in the future that the young men decided for them.

Mohammed Suleiman was one of the excited, enthusiastic young men who thought that everything would get better. He worked in his cousins’ computer shop: Kabul Software Computer Services. Business had taken off. Non–governmental organisations (NGOs), International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), United Nations (UN) offices, embassies, journalists – all the foreigners needed computer equipment (but only 20 per cent of his customers were Afghans). Mohammed wore jeans and talked fast, perfect English with great energy.

‘People are changing their minds from darkness to lightness,’ he said. ‘They want to exchange ideas. Teenagers want to learn the computer. My cousin is very modern and he wants to start computer–training centres and to teach girls. Because of the dark period of Taliban history, boys grew up in the fighting years. But now they can be helped out of their poorness. Do you know that in Kabul there are people who have only bread to eat? Lots of people are coming back from Iran and Pakistan, and as soon as the Internet comes people will buy computers because it is a way we can get to the world of knowledge and business.’

Mohammed was brimful of plans, hopes and ambitions. ‘I want to go to university,’ he told me. ‘I have passed the engineering entrance exam. I want to be a reconstruction engineer; I want to be an architect. Ever since I was a kid it has been my dream to help my people.’ And his eyes shone.

Qais couldn’t come to the At–Fatta school because I was going to see girls practising basketball in the gym. So he dropped me off. Inside, were forty girls, between ten and twenty, most barefoot or in stocking feet. A few wore tennis shoes, tracksuit bottoms and T–shirts that read ‘Dream Boy’ over the portrait of an Indian film hero. They were running about, throwing balls to each other to catch.

In the time of Najib (the end of the Soviet time when the progressive section of Kabul was still liberated by socialism) Neema Soratgar had been a member of the national basketball team. Now she was teaching basketball to a new generation. There were all the usual problems. ‘We haven’t any boots, any sport materials,’ Neema told me. ‘Some of the girls say they are staying later at school and do not tell their parents they are playing basketball. There can be difficulties with their fathers or their brothers….’

I watched the girls skipping, gambolling, playing, shouting at each other, echoing yelps up into the vault of the gymnasium. I noticed there was a boy among them. At least, I thought she was a boy. She had a boy’s short hair and ran about, twelve years old, unselfconsciously.

‘Is that your son?’ I asked Neema, who laughed. ‘No, she is a girl.’ A tomboy with two names: Muslima when she is a girl at home, Tamin when she is a boy on the streets. All through the time of the Taliban she rode her bicycle wherever she wanted. ‘And now she can walk the streets,’ Neema explained. ‘No one pays her any attention. She looks like any ordinary boy.’

At the end of the practice session, the girls collected their burqas from a big blue pile, arranged themselves, pulled the grille over their faces. Muslima slipped into Tamin, got on her bicycle and rode off quite carefree.

Karima, the proprietor of the Beauty Parlour on Flower Street, big–boned and lacquered in purple make–up and frosted nail polish, works from six in the morning on Fridays, because Friday is wedding day. By mid–morning the small room was filled with brides, women–to–be–affianced, daughters and mothers. Their hair was curled around wooden rollers, flattened, twisted, pulled, sprayed with glitter, tugged up to the top of the head and fixed with pins and clips, sprayed until stiff, teased into quiffs and gelled into tendrils. They took their turn in front of one long mildewed mirror.

Latifa was going to be a guest at an engagement party that day. She was studying medicine, recently returned from Peshawar. She had silver toenail polish and a silver ankle chain and silver trousers, diamanté earrings and silver sparkle cream spread over her bosom.

The forearms of the older, married, ladies were covered in machine–etched eighteen–carat gold bangles, bought by weight and worn like bank accounts. Lema was getting engaged that day, and Karima defoliated her forehead with a stretch of twanging taut string. Lema wore an enormous apricot rayon ball–dress and a breastplate of a gold necklace. She had never met her fiancé and would not see him, even that day, because he lived abroad. She told me, though, she had seen a photograph and that he was not old and that he had (because I asked her specifically) ‘two legs’.

Narghez was going to be married to Mirwais. Mirwais was outside the beauty parlour getting the car decorated with cloth flowers, ribbon and sprays of tinsel. Mirwais was good–looking and clean–shaven. He was the only clean–shaven man I had seen in Kabul.

‘I am living in Plumstead,’ Mirwais explained, a bit sheepish in front of his bearded cousins. He was very excited about the wedding. He had been engaged to Narghez, his cousin, for four years. But he had not seen very much of her since he got out of a Taliban jail and went to London to sell suitcases on a market stall. He was worried about Narghez’s visa difficulties. It would cost him $15,000, he thought, to get her a ‘passport’ to Britain.

Inside, having her eyebrows plucked into a single sinuous line, Narghez was nervous too. She said, ‘I am happy, but I like my country.’ She didn’t know English, but she had two uncles in London, and she thought their families would help her. She had studied at school to the eighth class and had stayed at home for six years of the Taliban. She said she would like to continue school: ‘But married women do not study when there are house duties they should take care of.’

Ghulam Sediq was Deputy Intelligence Officer of District 10, a policeman. He had not been paid in a long time. He lived in a large bungalow with an extended family: his father, his wife and daughters and various female cousins. All the women were engaged in carpet making.

I talked to two sisters, Shafira, 16, and Mino, 17, who were working in front of a loom in a small lean–to room attached to the main house. Curly yarn hung from the rafters, bunches of natural–dyed browns made from almond root and walnut root. They knelt at the face of the loom, knotting by hand with a quick regular thunking noise, working for twelve hours a day from 5 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. On Thursday evenings they are permitted go out for a walk and maybe buy an ice cream.

The work is repetitive and aching and hard on the lungs because the air is clogged with dust and fluff. It takes between two and three months for the pair of them to weave a medium–sized carpet. The carpets they make are sold to the Omeid Carpet Weaving Company Ltd, the company that provides them with their loom and wool, for around $120. This means each girl earns $30 a month.

‘It is boring, it is difficult,’ they told me, wary of their father standing next to me, weary of the labour. ‘But we have to work.’ Before the Taliban they had gone to school, but now they had to work. ‘If I go to school,’ explained Mino, ‘it takes me twice as long to make a carpet and it is not enough money for my family.’ There are eleven people in the family and there was bitterness in her voice. ‘All of it is difficult, and the wool is full of dust. We have lung problems. We cough.’

Their grandfather came in to say hello. He was spry, in his late fifties. He used to work in the Interior Ministry, he explained, but lost his job during the Taliban. ‘And now they say I am too old.’ The economics were harsh, he lamented, smiling at his toiling granddaughters, and looking back at me. ‘The money is not enough for the energy to make the carpets,’ he said. ‘We cannot even feed them very well. Breakfast is just bread and tea. Lunch is mostly potatoes because it is cheap. Dinner is rice, but not good quality. We have meat only when we have a guest every month or two. We don’t even know what fruit is.’

Alberto Cairo was a humanitarian, a funny, good, kind man, an Italian. He had been in Afghanistan for 13 years, working for the Red Cross, making plastic prosthetic legs and fitting them to amputees. He had fitted 40,000 new legs and handed out 80,000 pair of crutches. Some people said there were 100,000 amputees in Afghanistan. But Alberto thought that figure was exaggerated, and that there were half that number ‘Maybe 45,000. But it’s enough already,’ he smiled.

When they give a man a new leg, his motivation to learn to walk, to overcome the horrible debilitating pathology of self–pity, is huge. ‘They know they have to walk or nothing,’ said Alberto. Perhaps, he pondered, a certain Islamic fatalism helped. None of them ever wail, ‘shouting at the four a.m. moon, it is unfair!’ They simply accept their lot. ‘They can learn to walk on a flexible plastic leg in ten days,’ said Alberto. ‘It’s more difficult if you are fat. But not very many people are fat in Afghanistan.’

Almost all the people who worked at the prosthetic centre were amputees. A one–legged ex–Mujahideen opened the gate. There were doctors with mangled hands and missing fingers. ‘They have an empathy with the patients,’ explained Alberto, ‘because they have already gone through this process themselves.’

(After I talked to Alberto Cairo, I forgot something and went back into his office to retrieve it. I found him standing behind his desk, absently reading a document, humming to himself and wearing a red clown nose. He looked up at me, shy, embarrassed to be caught. ‘Oh this,’ he smiled, pointing to the red nose that I was staring at. ‘You know I wear it sometimes. It reminds me to have humour. Patch Adams was here once and he gave it to me….’)

A new leg is a new beginning: repair and reconstruction, even development, if you take into account the Red Cross micro–credit scheme to encourage amputees to set up small businesses.

The rose garden was full of sunny dappled shade and men hopping about between new unsure legs and old reliable crutches. Here were more stories, addled and damaged by years of war: that of Mohammed Sherif, a Tajik from Parwan Province, for example. Mohammed was in the third year of school when the Russians invaded; his village was controlled by the Mujahideen.

‘I left to go places,’ Mohammed recounted. ‘I was 12. They attacked almost every day. I helped the Mujahideen. I brought them food and weapons.’ When the Taliban came, his village was on the front line with the Northern Alliance. The Taliban cleared his village as they did many others, razed it with explosives and bulldozers, sowed minefields.

‘I escaped during this time. I went north to Kapisa where I had a shop and sold petrol for cars. It was good.’ When the Taliban fled, he went back to his village and stepped on a mine and blew his left leg off below the knee. ‘I got my new leg on Tuesday. I have been training every day. It cannot be my own leg,’ he smiled, ‘but it’s the next best thing.’ Moulded plastic and padding. ‘Simple enough, basic legs,’ said Alberto. Nothing fancy, but adequate. Men could walk upright again.

‘How should I feel?’ answered Mohammed when I asked him the most hackneyed question of all. ‘I am happy enough. I have to be happy.’

Part Three: Snap shots
16 October 2002

‘How are the stories?’ Qais asked me. We were walking along the street looking for a photographic shop so I could get my picture taken. ‘I think the man with a new leg who is getting married next week is a good one.’

feast for Al-Adha day
A feast for Al-Adha day

‘Yes – hope and future. But I liked better the five-year-old with polio who was running about on his callipers. His father watched him so tenderly. “He can walk now!” he kept saying proudly and the little boy didn’t care about any of that. He was just trying to get where he wanted to go as fast as he could – I don’t know, Qais. There are so many stories, too many of them.’

There were dozens of photographic shops, suddenly sprung up, amid men on the sidewalk with wooden box cameras that took manual pictures just like a hundred years ago. The Taliban tried to destroy photographs – people had to hide them when the Taliban came to their homes to destroy the television. But they themselves like having their pictures taken, dressed like matinee idols. Qais and I laughed about these crazy Taliban pictures, serious bearded men, flowing princely robes, eyes outlined in kohl, holding a rose entwining each other’s hands.

People often showed us their photographs, a mixture of mujahideen snaps taken in the mountains, group portraits, six or eight men posing as guerillas, big guns clasped to their chests, grenade launchers propped against their legs and old family shots from the 1970s when girls wore bell bottoms and the men had wonderful floppy moustaches. I remember one man who showed me his photographs from the 1980s when he had been an officer in the Afghan army. He himself was in khaki and gold braid outside the VI Lenin Military Political Academy for Advanced Courses for Political Staff in Moscow, lined up beside a statue of Gagarin, in mufti outside the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Folorance was a neighbour of Qais. During the time of the Taliban, she and her sisters had organised an illegal school in their apartment. They taught a hundred children from seven to seventeen at different times all through the day. She told me she came from a modern family, but still she couldn’t talk to me at home because her brother would be angry. He had been angry before about her talking to foreigners. Qais arranged to pick her up from the Education Ministry where she worked. When she arrived at our house she took off her burka, threw it down on the sofa and looked at it for a fraction of a second as if it were a loathsome, lamentable object.

‘It is difficult to walk without a burka in the street,’ she said, fed up. ‘When I don’t wear my burka it feels as though everyone is looking at me, it is uncomfortable and the burka is like protection. And there are problems sometimes with police. In front of the Education Ministry the taxi driver told me off once for not wearing it. In the neighbourhood though, near home, I can just wear a scarf. Actually women need the support of other women to take it off, and now they are unsure. It is like they are waiting for an anti-burka decree!’

She leaned forward, explaining something larger, ‘Most people aspire to be modern, to learn something. We are a modern family because my mother is a teacher. Modern is not a question of money, it is about education. If someone is educated you can speak to him and he will think about what you say. In Kabul only half the people are educated.’

Afterwards Qais drove her home. She sat in the back of his car covered in her burka. They were stopped by intelligence police at a checkpoint, Panjshiri mujahideen.

‘Who is she?’ they wanted to know. There was a problem. Qais said that she worked as a translator for foreigners and that he was taking her home.

‘She should not work with foreigners,’ they replied. They did not talk to Folorance at all. They did not even ask her name, but put her in a separate car and drove her home. Qais meanwhile was taken to the intelligence headquarters and harassed for an hour until he found a relative to vouch for him.

Qais laughed about being arrested. He laughed but he was annoyed. There were too many things like that, which shouldn’t be like that. ‘They are stupid mujahideen, that’s all.’

‘It’s education, isn’t it, that divides everything, rich and poor, present and future,’ I pondered.

‘I can take you to a university Professor if you like.’

Professor Mohammed Kazem Ahung had an intelligent, secular smile. His eyes were kind and tired, and at first I thought they were like those of many of his educated, defeated, generation; he had remained in Kabul throughout. But now everything was changing again and his tired eyes sparkled. He was involved in the Committee organising the Loya Jirga. He had been invited to a conference in Geneva entitled, War and Accountability.

little girls dressed up

‘I have too many things to say! I can tell my heart to the people of the world! In two days I will tell them so much until they are full!’ He had been appointed Dean of the Faculty of Journalism at the university. ‘UNESCO has built my faculty and brought chairs and tables from Denmark! They will give me 15 computers! They will give me 10,000 books! I tell you, this is really good to me! I am a man of this period,’ he explained more seriously. ‘My country has been ruined and I don’t have any money to live like a Western family. I don’t have the things I have seen in the US. I have cushions, no furniture. But I feel free, happy now that I am living somewhat humanly, and I feel that I may get those things and that if I do not then my son may get them.’

Professor Ahung smiled with hope, and then I asked him about the precarious interim, about the power structures, about the commanders that still controlled thousands of soldiers, about peace, government and accountability.

The Professor wiped his hands across his face, and explained the reality. ‘The commanders are mostly working for the benefit of their leaders, for Hekmatyar, Sayyaf or whoever – they want a leader of the country for their own benefit. Mostly they want the interim government and the status quo. They have their guns, their salaries and a power within the people – they enforce a kind of feudalism. Sometimes I ask the commanders, “Why are you stuck with this gun and fighting?” They say, “Excuse me, but I have been brought up to eat from the mouth of a gun. I cannot change it. I cannot go home to my land and walk barefoot with a spade. I cannot tolerate it.”’

Everywhere there were burnt out rusted things pockmarked with bullet holes and rubble and the sharp ragged masonry detritus of war. The wrecked shell of the Kings Palace, a European style building built in 1912 for diplomatic receptions. In the Russian time it was their Defence Ministry; in the mujahideen time it was gutted in the faction fighting, changed hands, changed guard.

Inside, the walls are covered with graffiti from the Taliban garrison last stationed there, scrawled in charcoal in the Arabic alphabet, in several languages, Urdu, Pashto, Arabic… even in English. Death to the Kaffirs! Death to the Hazaras! Islam will defeat all the other religions of the world! Kari Adal Rachman from Bahglan Province who graduated from the Peshawar Medrassah was here! Greetings to the best Mujahid – Mullah Omar! Islam has no mistakes; only people have mistakes!

And more thoughtful epigraphs: when you have power don’t forget God! The good man is the one that takes less than another man! Together with obscene drawings of women (they had never seen) with melon breasts, were pictures of flowers and caricatures of Benazir Bhutto and Mullah Borjon, a powerful Talib who was killed on the way to Kabul, mixed in with peaceful houses and fenced gardens and smoke curling from the chimney and diving jets shooting missiles and crude outlines of tanks. ‘I will die for my country and not let London people in!’

Part four: Soldiers and the Taliban
23 October 2002

‘There’s no pattern,’ I told Qais when I got back into the car. ‘There’s too much fighting and no reason. Why do they fight? For money, for their local commander, for ideology, for Jihad?’

scene from the film <i>Jung</i>
A scene from the film Jung

‘You want to ask them,’ Qais replied. ‘There is a commander I know. We can go and talk to him if you don’t use his name.’

The Commander was living in an abandoned Al-Qaida house in Kabul. He was surrounded by his retinue; they all wore the uniform of the Panjshiri Mujahideen, pakkul, shalwar kameez, waistcoat, strong Afghan nose and beard. The commander was 35, but with the usual Afghan fighter’s furrowed brow, he looked ten years older.

‘I was born in Jabul Sarach.’

He began at the beginning, as I had asked him to.

‘I graduated from High School. I was 16 when I first started to fight the Jihad and then two years later the Russians came. I was a fighter in my village. Near Jabul Sarach there was a Russian base we called the “Red House” and we often attacked them there, with different weapons, with dashaka, machine guns and so forth. During the Jihad everyone hoped for the future and for peace. We had a good feeling that we would beat the Russians. We have an idea from Islam, to kill the kaffir. The Russians did not come to make peace. They attacked our country. They brought food and bullets.’

group of Mujaheddin
A group of Mujaheddin

‘During the Mujahideen I was in my village commanding about 400 men. Sometimes we were on the front line between Hekmatyar and the government. I do not think it was good, this war in Kabul. At the time we understood that it was not good, but other people were fighting, and other countries were involved. Yes, it’s true it was between Afghans, but others – especially the Pakistanis – worked for war also.’

‘All the problems you can see now, all of them come from Pakistan involvement in Afghanistan. It was the same situation with the Taliban. They did the things that Pakistan wanted. First they tried through Hekmatyar and then through the Taliban. We did not stop the fighting after the Jihad was won. I had my gun still and we thought that Najib was a Russian puppet. We wanted an Islamic government and he was just a Russian stooge. Even now all we want is a peaceful Islamic government. Karzai? He’s OK if he can deliver what people want. We will follow the government, we have good relations with it.’

‘I am commander of a small base with 1300 soldiers. We call it Jabul Sarach Base. Recruits are trained in the barracks by Jihad and Najib officers. We want to be part of a national army. We want to be trained in the modern way. If I am part of an army I will go where I am sent. I like the idea of this. I want peace and to be in the service of my people. It has been my hope for a long time. The important thing is people, because if the people are not with you, who will be your soldiers, who will feed you? Will the Northern Alliance fight again? I don’t think so. We are tired of it.’

‘We often saw ISAF patrols. They drove around Kabul in big APCs, which looked like mechanical dragons filled with soldiers that were foreign and square-jawed. They were covered in equipment, sunglasses, helmets, microphones attached to the helmets that curved in front of their mouths, radios on their hips, enormous M16s across their shoulders, black polished boots on their feet. They looked like they had come to invade Mars. They looked like Hollywood soldiers who had found themselves suddenly on the Planet of the Afghans. Children in rags – hungry children – laughed shyly, pointed, and gathered round them, kicking up dust, trying to sell them packets of paper handkerchiefs or, if they were brave, to beg some cash. The soldiers had mirrors instead of eyes and seldom descended from their vehicles.’

Qais had a cousin that he also especially wanted me to meet.

‘He was with the Taliban,’ said Qais. ‘Now he wears a pakkul on his head like Massoud. He will tell you everything,’ and he rolled his eyes for emphasis. ‘You wouldn’t believe it.’

Fada Mohammed from Charikar in Parwan Province had indeed had a chequered career. He was excitable and furtive; he came from a rich family – his father owned a vegetable shop in the market – and because of this he also had the air of a spoilt child who could do what he wanted.

‘When the Mujahideen came to Kabul I was made the driver and bodyguard of the Commander Agha Shirin Attar because I was a rich boy. This was a good job.’ Fada recounted his life happily. ‘I got married when I was 17 (she is not educated and she always wore good burqa hijab; she always wears socks, for example). We did not have any salaries, but we robbed and looted and took things from the bombed houses and factories. We looked for everything – carpets, cash, even lamps.’ And with the money they had, they gambled on kamsoi (a dice game).

‘It was a dangerous time,’ said Fada remembering his good old days. But then Agha Shirin and Massoud fell out. Agha Shirin signed an agreement with Hekmatyar so that he would get a post in his ‘new government’ and Massoud put him in jail as a traitor, ‘so then I was jobless.’ Fada shrugged and looked around him.

Taliban fighters

‘And the Taliban?’ I prompted.

‘When the Taliban came I was happy, because we thought that after all these robbers, they would be good people.’

Fada seemed unconcerned that he had been one of the robbers. Fada, I thought, was rather simple, but simple like a fox; canny and unconcerned.

‘The people with the Northern Alliance left, and people in Kabul were happy – people said that Najib was a communist anyway, they said that Arab and Pakistani people had strung his body up. The body had black spots on it,’ added Fada for description, ‘and you could see that he had been tortured.’

Fada became a driver and paymaster for the Taliban along Salang front line. He liked this job because it made him rich. He kept a portion of each soldier’s pay for himself, and with a portion of this he paid off his commander. The rest of it – the Taliban puritanism – had this been difficult?

young fighter

‘Oh it was a big problem – because we had banned cassettes at every checkpoint and post and we had to remove them whenever a commander came. Also our beards grew very long and this was a pain. You could not cut it or they would put you in prison. But really with the Taliban it was very easy for us to pray, it was normal. I changed my hat to a turban and I was a Talib!’

When I asked him about the Taliban reaction to the American bombing, he answered simply. ‘They were worried. The first time I saw B52s dropping bombs so exactly, I knew the Taliban were finished. For three days the Taliban tried to use anti-aircraft guns but then Mullah Omar said it was useless, and they could only wait for God to kill the B52s in the sky.’

Fada was cynical, garrulous, unscrupulous – full of fate and charm. He had watched everything that happened as if it had been a big show, a big tragic-comic spectacular. He told me laughing, tales of Pakistani martyrs who told him, ‘We came here to die,’ and stood on the front line, to die in the thickest violence.

‘And what will you do now, Fada?’ I asked him. ‘Will you work with your father and vegetables?’ Fada snorted, shrugged, as he had been shrugging decisions and affiliations and responsibility all afternoon.

‘I will probably go back to Agha Shirin if he needs me. Because I prefer fighting to selling tomatoes.’

Part Five: gambling and governance
30 October 2002

In the afternoons, Qais and I often ate in Dost Mohammed’s restaurant, picking up policemen, traffic policemen, new model army officers, and salesmen that came up from the Punjab to have a look around. They were all hopeful for the future; they were all unsure what would happen now.

When you looked outside past the filth in the gutter, past the nauseating twelve-year-old boy whose face looked like he had been run over by a tractor who begged with the stump on one arm, past the ragged burka squatting in front of a bare bowl, to the men pushing handcarts piled with onions, all the bazaari touting, selling, the children running squawking, hawking, fucky-boys with kohl smeared around their eyes, men with money in the pockets of their suit jackets, gold watches on their wrists, you could see that there was desperate pulsating life and commerce. But there wasn’t any governance.

The policemen were all demobbed Northern Alliance soldiers, untrained and unpaid. (One called Noor I remember: typical, disillusioned, he couldn’t go back to his village because of a bloodfeud. He asked me if I could get him some alcohol. ‘Johnny Walker is my favourite,’ he told me, ‘but security is always a problem, trying to buy it.’) The national army officers suffered imaginary pay cuts (from imaginary wages) and leaked away back to their old commanders once their training had been completed. The bazaari paid no taxes and did not put their money in bank accounts because there wasn’t a bank.

On the matter of governance Qais and I went to see the Security Commander for Kabul, named Basir Salangi after the Salang pass, which he had commanded during the Taliban time. In his outer office, a parade of supplicants waited, guarded by a soldier with a face tattooed blue by an exploding mine.

We were shown into an inner, second, room and presently Salangi came in and shook our hands and sat down. He had forsaken his usual fancy generalissimo uniform with gold braid epaulettes for a dark grey Western suit and a large gold tiepin with a gold chain.

I asked Salangi a series of dull journalistic questions about facts. ‘We have thirteen districts of police in Kabul and fifteen suburb districts in Kabul Province. ISAF is not under our control but we have a very close working relationship in some cases. The airport is now under direct control of the Interior Ministry. We have discussed salaries; during the time of Rabbani they were $2 a month and now they should be $10. After a few days the money will be released and we will pay this. Generally we do not have security problems in Kabul, just a few robberies and some thieves.’

Salangi was very bored of talking to me. His deputy sat beside him. I asked him who would be the best leader for Afghanistan? Salangi began to answer but the deputy whispered under his breath, prompting, ‘The people make the government,’ and Salangi stopped himself and repeated, ‘No, the people make the government: their choice is my choice.’

Then there was a telephone call. Salangi seemed to be talking to an aide of Qanooni’s (Qanooni was then Interior Minister). Salangi explained, ‘The owner of a house came to me complaining that a commander was occupying his house, a general working in intelligence. He won’t leave, and what should this man do? I sent some of my people to ask this general to leave and he said, “No, I won’t leave.” Now, tell Qanooni if he agrees I will send my people to take the general’s possessions and put him in the street and force him to leave!’

I understood then how it was. ‘There isn’t any government, is there?’ I spoke to Qais as we walked through the ruins below the old Bala Hissar Fortress that afternoon.

‘This is where Hekmatyar and Massoud faced each other,’ Qais explained of the bombed out houses, the walls around us. The sun was blinding, the earth cracked.

‘And the best you can hope for is that there isn’t any war either.’

‘Probably,’ said Qais.

We collected a crowd of children who were living in houses and rooms among the rubble, rebuilt. They were shy and boldly curious; they had scabs of impetigo on their cheeks and dark brown unfathomable suffering eyes. They were thin and small, and when you asked them how old they were the small ones, who looked about five, said they were nine even though their faces looked older, looked like an old twenty, with the scorings of worry lines etched across their little foreheads.

One girl was carrying water in two cooking-oil cans with homemade wire handles that cut into her bare hands. The water was clear, sharp, clean, reflected metal against the inside of the tin. I asked her where she fetched the water from. She explained that it came from the nearest well but that was salty and they could not drink it. Drinking water had to be collected from another well, much further away around the other side of the mountain. ‘And how many buckets a day do you need?’ I asked.

‘Eight, but more if it is washing day,’ she said.

Afghanistan does not have railways, private international phone lines, an Internet server, working factories, bank accounts, taxes or traffic lights. Most of Kabul also does not have electricity, running water, medicine or food.

We stepped over streams of oily waste and walked past the toilet chutes running down the side of buildings. A woman carrying a bale of laundry came up to us. Her husband made a living selling balloons, but there wasn’t much money in it. ‘We have meat once every two months,’ she told me.

I asked her if people helped each other, ‘Everyone is very poor here, no one can help anyone,’ she said.

No matter – in Afghanistan it was the year 1381. Minister of Defence, Marshal Fahim (newly made, self-promoted from mere general), decided to organise a buzkashi match between his own Panjshir team and a team from Parwan Province. Fahim was a great devotee of buzkashi and a generous patron. He sat on a dais behind a table in a row of Northern Alliance victors. He wore a civilian suit and bulged out of it: toad face, stumpy neck and a fat smile.

Fahim’s Panjshiri team were lavishly outfitted. They wore maroon velvet tunics with the name of the team embroidered on the back and their padded brim hats made from tiger skin, leopard, wolf and mink. They had thick leather boots that came protectively over their knees. Their horses were expensive (as much as $600, said Qais); trained for years, compact, fast, nimble, and fed with eggs and milk for strength. The team from Parwan was a more motley group, dressed in assorted navy blue. One man had a tank helmet on his head.

The aim of buzkashi is to grab the headless carcass of a goat from your opponent and return it, through a throng of forty or fifty other horses, at a gallop, to a small circle of white lime. We sat on concrete steps around a level field. Bloody hell, it was exciting. Hooves, flying horses, wide-eyed, foaming mouths, bit and jerk, scattering, fleeing, pursued, saddles cushioned with carpets, metal stirrups clanging, clashing impact, short whips flailed, whacked on the arse of the enemy horse to startle it, against your own to make it run faster. When they wheeled around the field the riders leaned like motorcyclists around tight bends.

The audience held its breath, exhaled, clapped. As required, Fahim’s Panjshiri team were winning. Fahim looked pleased. Boys with pails of water and tin cups came among the crowd selling water.

The crowd panorama – Afghan faces from every edge of empire, history, conquered and dispossessed: Semitic and Mongol, Aryan, Turkic, Chinese, and Persian, horsemen and nomads, raiders, frontier dwellers of the high margins mixed with the settled pasturalists who built intricate irrigation systems and walled cities. They wore myriad camouflage, black combat boots, plastic sandals, bare feet, turbans, white prayer caps and kepis, pattus thrown over shoulders. Heads bent together, hands gesticulating; there was a fair amount of betting on the action.

Grooms ran out on to the field with bottles of water or arms outstretched to catch the bridle of a horse when its rider fell. The prize for victorious individuals increased. ‘Two million Afghanis for the next successful run!’ Wads of Afghanis, bricks of money, handed to the winning man. The game become closer, a great wheeling clot of horses concentrated, pushing, side-stepping, forcing the man who held the goat away from the white circle. The reward amounts went up, a jeep drove on to the field to deliver more money to Fahim to give away at his largesse. Bales of cash were thrown up to Fahim’s table. Those who wanted to impress Fahim offered their own substantial rewards, currying favour. Fahim grinned broadly; it was an excellent afternoon.

Qais spent much of his time watching Bollywood movies and I would laugh because they were always the same, and they seemed silly to me, melodramatic, love, death, betrayal and a quantity of shimmy-shimmy dancing.

Once I discovered him at five in the morning, crept out of bed before the rest of us were up, watching one. The lovers were parting. Lips quivered and tears hung on spikes of mascara. Qais’ face was entirely serious. He was concentrating, stroking his young beard. ‘Aha!’ I said, ‘I have caught you!’

‘It’s not funny,’ he said, frowning at me.

‘Oh I know,’ I told him. ‘It’s a very serious matter, that this beautiful young girl has run away from her family who want to marry her to a rich ogre from the civil service! Oh look, here comes her avenging brother and his gang with bicycle chains.’

‘I just like watching them. It’s funny for you I know, but for us these stories are exactly our stories.’

And I realised this was true; that every girl sent away from her lover by her father, every savagely proud brother, every dashing young man from a poor family trying to make his way, every middle-aged uncle waiting avariciously in the matrimonial wings, was a small Afghan family tragedy and tradition. Some were drowned. Some, amid the wreckage, were saved.

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