Winter has arrived in Afghanistan's central highlands. The snow caps the peaks of the majestic Hindu Kush mountain-range. A white blanket covers the passes over 3,000 metres. In the valleys of Bamiyan province the shortening days are still mild, though the nights are getting colder. The schools are closing, as the Hazara who form the bulk of the population here - people of ethnic Mongolian origin who adhere to the Shi'a stream of Islam - prepare for a four-month hibernation until the melting snow next spring opens a new cycle of life.
This is the poorest province of the poorest country of the northern hemisphere of the planet. Yet life is improving in Bamiyan, the result of tangible changes. Amid a larger Afghan picture that is often presented as unremittingly bleak, there are even signs of growing hope.
The town of Bamiyan is a charming place of 50,000 inhabitants, many of whom live in mud huts arond the foot of the mountain where two huge Buddhas were sculpted into the rock and looked down on the settlement for more than 1,500 years until the Taliban destroyed them in 2001. Bamiyan has undergone huge changes since I visited for the first time in 1975, and then more regularly with almost yearly trips from 2004.
The first bank arrived in Bamiyan in 2007. There are now four, all branches of Afghan banks: the Kabul, Azizi, Da Afghan and Micro Finance. There was then only one hotel, the Bamiyan, featuring Yurt bungalows that dated from the late 1960s and delighted the few hippies and daring tourists who ventured here. There are now three, with two more under construction (one of them on a clifftop at the eastern end of the town; it looks like a huge fortress).
The Silk Road opened in 2007 and the Noorband Qala in March 2011. The latter’s prices range from $80-$130 per room, making clear that an affluent clientele is being targeted. The Noorband Qala’s manager told me that over its first eight months the hotel’s twenty rooms had been filled to over 80% of capacity, with foreigners representing almost a quarter of this figure.
Four pensions for Afghan customers have also opened in the bazaar, which has been rebuilt in the southern part of the town with shops aligned along an unpaved road (and grown in length from a couple of hundred meters in 2004 to a kilometre today). A brave Italian alpine guide, Nando Rollando, is setting up a ski- and climbing-school to train Afghans for mountain tourism. He claims that the experiment is successful. Bamiyan may not yet be the next Davos but it has started flexing its muscles.
There was a sort of university in the old times in Bamiyan, created in the early 1990s. The Taliban destroyed it. A brand new replacement, the result of American aid, was inaugurated in 2004 (by coincidence I was there that day). It started with two faculties, agriculture and social science, and has just added education and (reflecting local excitement over a gigantic iron-ore deposit near the Hajigak pass) geology. There are now over 2,000 students.
The main road in central Bamiyan is now paved with tarmac, as is 80% of the almost 100-kilometre road to Yakawlang, the province's next largest urban centre. The Koreans responsible did a great job: at the end of October I travelled to Yakawlang and to the splendid lakes of Band-e-Amir, trips that took less than half of the previous journey time. This silk road (as it felt) is part of an ambitious project linking Bamiyan and the central highlands with Herat, western Afghanistan’s major town.
The dream could be realised in a couple of years. The paving of the road to Kabul via the Shibar pass (3,000m) was started in 2009 and is almost completed with American help, although the tarmac has still to be layed. Another road, financed and supervised by the Italians, is under construction; this will link Bamiyan to Maidanshar-Kabul via the Hajigak pass, one of the highest of the region (3,600m). The first tranche, from Unai pass (3,000m) to Maidanshar was built by the Chinese and inaugurated in October 2011; the second, from Bamiyan to Unai pass via the Hajigak pass, is being made by Iranians and Afghans.
The effect of better transport is better access to markets for agricultural products such as Bamiyan's potatoes, regarded as the best in Afghanistan. The agricultural conditions have much improved and there is real progress in irrigation, counterbalanced to a degree by the effects of a drought which has hit the poorest corners of the province.
In the valleys surrounding Yakawlang, where the land is more fertile, it is possible to see an unprecedented sight for this region: mechanical tractors taking over from wooden ploughs pulled by oxen. There are huge increases in the numbers of goats, sheep and cows. Horses, which disappeared when the Taliban massacred the Hazara and looted the province, are returning, although in smaller numbers; they are giving way to motorbikes (costing as little as $500-$600) made in Iran or China. Even in the poorest areas I visited, children no longer go barefoot and adults wear quality shoes fit for mountain paths and a cold climate. In the major urban centres, turbans are ever rarer.
A project to create a new runway for Bamiyan airport is underway: the present one, short and unpaved, can host only small fan-propelled civil transport planes and helicopters. A feasibility study is being made for an airport in Shahidan, twenty-five kilometres east of Bamiyan, where a huge high plateau is ideal for big planes.
In the south of the province a new town is taking shape, made with bricks and more elegant stones. It lies close to the airport and the barracks of the New Zealand "provincial reconstruction team" (PRT) contingent that has moved from a frontline to a training capacity for Afghan police forces. After the completion of local-government buildings, a residential area is being built; the design respects a master-plan adopted in 2010, whereby no building can exceed two floors. It is a small corner of paradise on earth, well monitored by Unicef.
What is happening in Bamiyan proves that Afghanistan can be a success story, not least as this a remote province with almost 500,000 inhabitants receives from the central government only $50 million of transfers per year (Loghar province, with 20% fewer people, gets ten times more).
True, Bamiyan has benefited from the road projects that came with additional foreign financing. But for the rest, the poor Hazara minority persecuted under the Taliban has been left pretty much to its own meagre resources. In a background context of of stability and security, the secret of progress has been twofold: a myriad of small and medium projects well executed and financed by small NGOs and private donors, and a firm political will.
Bamiyan has been blessed with the presence of a woman governor, the only such in Afghanistan: Mrs Habiba Sorabi. Her honesty, competence and wise management has enabled miracles. She enjoys a high rate of approval and respect, in a country where normally women are locked at home or work in the fields.
Under Habiba Sorabi and with the help of Shuhada, an NGO chaired by Sima Samar - another highly respected Hazara woman, former vice-president of the first Hamid Karzai government, and now chair of the National Commission of Human Rights - women's literacy has shot up in a decade from just above zero to almost 40%. It is the highest provincial rate in the country, exceeded only by cities such as Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Education, in particular of women, is the formula that has vindicated the Hazara of the central highlands. It has proved the best solution for a country where too much foreign money has been squandered in waste and corruption for lack of absorption capacity - to the benefit of government officials, drug dealers who have built big villas in the heart of the capital (and siphoned money into Dubai banks), or foreigners (such as private-security companies) now thriving on the international community's growing fears. Bamiyan shows that a better way is possible.
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