the-south-asian.com NOVEMBER 2002
NOVEMBER 2002 Contents
- a review
Page 1 of 6
AFGHANISTAN: AN EMPIRE OF BLOOD AND ASH
- arrival in Kabul
About the author: Akhil Bakshi, a travel writer, visited Afghanistan in September 2002. Following are excerpts from an article in his forthcoming book "Aimless Wanderings'. Akhil Bakshi has authored 'Silk Road on Wheels', 'Road to Freedom', and 'Between Heaven and Hell' -an about to be published book of travels in South Asia.
"Nobody won. Only Kabul lost"
Taking off from Delhi, we flew over the fields of Punjab, with vast stretches unsown due to the delayed monsoons. The broad River Jhelum, the Salt Ranges with their folded hills, and the lakes around Islamabad came into view. The plane seemed to be following the course of the Grand Trunk Road. We flew over the frontier town of Peshawar and across a range of featureless mountains into Afghanistan. Ninety-five minutes after taking-off from New Delhi, the rickety Boeing 727 of Ariana Airlines touched down shakily on the Kabul runway and immediately bounced back up thirty or forty feet before crashing once again on firm ground and going bumpty-bump towards the terminal building.
Both sides of the runway were a continuous graveyard of commercial and military airplanes and helicopters, bombed and blasted during the last quarter century of uninterrupted fighting. A transport aircraft and four small jets of the United Nations idled on the tarmac.
Inside the unpretentious terminal were sketched posters educating passengers on articles that could not be carried on planes: landmines, rocket launchers, assault rifles, hand grenades, poisonous gas etc. The practice of not allowing such items on board seems to be new to the country. Collecting our baggage from the broken conveyor belt, we proceeded towards the rough-looking soldiers, in camouflage uniforms, doubling up as customs officers.
"Indian?" asked a bearded soldier.
"That’s right," said I, unsure whether to smile or not.
"Please go. No checking for you. India - dost, friend. If Pakistan, then…." He slit his throat with his hand. Then he showered on Pakistan some coarse and abusive language with the fluency and articulation that only policemen are capable of.
As we waited for our car to arrive, I studied other posters that ornamented the shabby walls. They gave precious advice on precautions to take if you came across a landmine. Pictures of the slain Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Masood hung everywhere. US soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) came sight-seeing in armored carriers, took pictures of the airport building, and went away without stopping. The derelict buildings outside the airport were pockmarked with bullets and their compounds overflowed with heaps of shelled airplanes. We drove on the Great Masood Road devouring street scenes of a ruined fairytale city once fabled for its magnificence and splendor.
From the airily located balcony of my room in Hotel Continental, high up on a hill in the outskirts of Kabul, I could see the entire sprawl of the city lying inside a bowl of brown mountains. At 5800 feet, Kabul is one of the highest capitals in the world. Its one million people live in the flat valley, while the poor have located their tumbledown mud hovels on the hillsides. After a hearty meal of kebabs, naans and salad, we stocked up on groceries, making sure that none of the cold drinks, juices and cheese were past their expiry. We had been cautioned that container-loads of expired stuff had been coming in from Dubai. On the streets, seeing us carry packets of tinned sardines and sausages, bottled olives, pickled cucumber and loaves of fresh bread, we were swarmed by little children and burqa-clad women sticking their hands out of their veils, begging for baksheesh. A dollar fetched us 45,000 Afghanis and, at first, we were liberal in distributing 10,000 Afghani notes to the alms-seekers. But this only attracted their nieces and nephews and sisters and cousins and their whole family and tribe who mobbed us, breaking our hearts with their pathetic pleas. At the rate we were disbursing currency, we would have joined the packs of alms-seekers by the next sunrise had we not slowed down on our good intentions.
We called on the Asha Devi Mata Temple, dedicated to the goddess Durga, located inside a building that also contained a collection of other Hindu temples. The young priest informed us that the flame placed inside the sanctum sanctorum had been burning since eternity. It was originally located a bit higher up the mountain where nobody answered the call of the goddess. Driven away by the filth and the stench, the flame had sought a fresh haven in its present precinct. Outside the temple room, a tree trunk emerged out of the cemented floor and went straight through the ceiling.
"Was the temple functioning during the Taliban days?" I inquired from the priest.
"They would come and bang at the locked gates and use threatening language. But none dared to come inside. Such is the power of the goddess."
"Were you not scared?"
"I wasn’t around. Ran away to Peshawar in Pakistan. But my father stayed behind to tend the flame."
Outside the temple, a little apple-cheeked boy, ten years old, sat on top of a handcart, lining it with dry leaves on which he would place his grapes for sale. He spoke fluent Urdu and I could converse with him freely. He was born in a refugee camp in Peshawar where his family – and six million other Afghans - had sought sanctuary from the destructive infighting between the Afghan warlords. Later, they moved to Karachi, selling fruits. With a semblance of stability returning to Afghanistan, they had come back to Kabul three months ago. "I like it here," he said. "Karachi was too hot. Moreover, this is my watan, my native soil."
Passing the Id Gah Mosque and the stadium where the Taliban pursued their favorite sport of killing liberated women, we played our "Indian" card to get through a police barrier and drove to the hilltop of Tepe Maranjan that held up the torn and shattered tomb of King Nadir Shah. Some American soldiers armed to the teeth and picnicking in the warm sunshine, were disturbed by our presence. Not wanting a bad press, they beat a hasty retreat.
A polite and respectable old man in a white gown, attending a little girl, met us inside the tomb and invited us down to the crypt where the true grave lay. Opening the lock on a newly built door, we stepped into an indoor burial ground. There were graves all around. The keeper of the graves introduced us to each one of them and there were too many mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, children and grandchildren to recall. In a freshly dug grave rested King Zahir Shah’s wife, airlifted two months ago from Rome where she had passed away. The sagacious king, stripped of his powers in 1973 by his cousin Daud Khan, had sought asylum in Italy and was recently brought back to his country (though not to his throne) after 29 years to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan.
The shelled and bullet-ridden tomb offered a commanding view of Kabul. Between 1992-96 when the warlords fought bitterly for the capital, the Uzbek Dostum, had occupied the tomb, taking position against the other two opposing groups of Ahmed Shah Masood and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He had dug up all the graves, expecting to find hidden treasures.
"Who won the war?" I asked the grave-keeper.
"Nobody won. Only Kabul lost," said he with a deep sigh.
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