the-south-asian.com NOVEMBER 2002
NOVEMBER 2002 Contents
- a review
Page 6 of 6
AFGHANISTAN: AN EMPIRE OF BLOOD AND ASH
- Panjsher Valley
Continuing on the road, we descended to the river that passed unhurriedly through Bazarack, Masood’s home village. Here, the river became wider, calmer and quieter. Elegant black swans glided on its waters. On the opposite side was a huge sandbank and a grove of trees where the cows were munching away at the carpet of grass. A barrier had been placed on the road leading to Masood’s house and the two armed guards manning the gate informed us that entry was prohibited. However, they pointed out the house that, like the rest of the village structures, was built of mud. A car, wrapped in a dust-cover, stood parked under a tree. Had we gone ahead on the road, we would have ended up at Parvan, at the edge of the glaciated and impregnable land in the snowy Pamirs where Afghanistan shares a 50-mile border with Xinjiang, China. Bazarchak was the last point I touched and prepared for our journey back to Kabul.
The road continued its descent till at one point it came level with the road. The secluded valley had widened and the nomads had congregated on the sandy banks of the river, pitching their picturesque camps. The fat-tailed sheep, the black goats and the camels, their necks festooned with bells and red ribbons, rested under whatever little shade they could find. Black goatskin tents with wooden frames provided shelter to the nomads. Cakes of dried camel dung lighted the smoky fires on which were placed sooty kettles boiling water for tea. Women dressed flashily in brightly colored skirts and blouses and a head cover, their ears and necks ornamented with heavy silver jewelry.
Abandoning our cars, Speed and I hurried towards the camps armed with our cameras. Leaping across a narrow stream, we reached the sandbank, and sought permission of the herders to photograph the women. It was promptly denied. On my persistent pleading, Speed explained to them that I was a travel writer from India collecting material for a book on Afghanistan. A kindly disposed herder agreed to let me photograph the little children. A smiling girl, with face and hair probably unwashed since birth, emerged out of the tent holding an infant boy on the side of her waist. Faced with the camera, the boy broke into a terrible wail, crying and screaming and disturbing sleep of the entire livestock. No amount of coochy-cooing could suppress his howls. I photographed him. But I was not satisfied. I wanted to capture the women in their mirror-work, embroidered outfits and the flashing silver ornaments. All the ladies within the sight of my lens retreated into their tents. I approached a herder and implored him to let me take one, single, solitary picture of the women lounging in the tent. After much persuasion, he agreed, flinging some words at the women. As I raised the camera to my eye, they all hid their faces with the head cover. I have titled the picture: ‘An excess of feminine reserve’. The tents were shared by everyone equally – men, women, children, dogs, goats, sheep and donkeys – all resting reposefully and no one complaining as they are fond of herding together. The camels would have joined them too, if space allowed. Outside one tent, Speed discovered three mean-looking fowls. "Jungi," he said, holding two by their necks and knocking their faces together. Still choozas, or immature, these fowls were genetically programmed to fight. Speed bought three of them for $6, putting them in the hatch of our station wagon for the journey to Kabul.
The nomads are quiet, peaceful, free from vices and are not inconvenienced by frequent changes in their country’s rulers. It is all the same to them if Afghanistan is run by Greeks, Persians, Central Asians, Chinese or Martians; by fundamentalists, theocrats or liberals - as long as they all eat meat. He is indifferent whether the system of governance is democratic, dictatorial, communist or monarchial. Current affairs, terrorism, Bush, bin Laden and Saddam Hussain do not bother him. He is not troubled by this time and age where the righteous are defeated and the ungodly triumphant. His only concern is the elemental forces. True children of nature, unattached to any soil, the hardy nomads live footloose and fancy-free under the stars and the open skies, wandering forth in their set directions with every wind, drinking water from the springs and eating off the land. Only nature – drought and flood, heat and cold, and other blessings and curses of the Heavens - affects him and makes him anxious. From the impressive length and style of the twirling moustaches of the males; the brown, rustic color of their skin; the erectness of their posture; the ornaments adorning their faces and bodies; the fashion of their turbans and clothes; and the manner in which they called the animals - these nomads resembled the ones in the Rajasthan Desert of India. I have a natural fondness for their way of living and wanted to claim kinship with them.
At that moment I caught sight of a monstrous tank parked on the slope of a distant hill, its canon pointing at us, intending to do battle. It was a Russian tank.
"Masood Army," said Speed. The Russians, his former enemies who had become his allies during the Taliban regime, had given many of these tanks to Ahmed Shah Masood. After the fall of the Taliban and installation of the Tajik-dominated government, most of the weaponry had been removed from Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan and transferred to the Panjsher region by the Tajik Defense Minister. If the unstable country faces another civil war, the Tajiks would have the monopoly over the armaments.
However, right now the most pressing problems of the Afghans are to prevent mass starvation by managing the continuing five-year famine that has forced people in remote mountain settlements to eat grass; to replenishing livestock herds that have been decimated by the drought; to tackle widespread rural indebtedness that is forcing families to sell off their daughters in marriage; to provide urgent medical assistance to the thousands of innocent people caught in crossfire between power-hungry warlords, between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and between Al-Qaeda and the US; to rush assistance to the refugee camps where hundreds s of children die every day due to exposure and starvation; and to raise schools from the rubble. It would have been a nice gesture on the part of the international "leaders", who hurried to the US on 9/11, to also have visited Afghanistan to see the horrors caused by bad foreign policy. The dreadfulness of destruction may have made the presidents and prime ministers of western nations sit up and take on the heavy challenge of reconstructing Afghanistan. To squeeze the breath out of terrorism you must also crush poverty. Too bad I could not find bin Laden. Otherwise, I would have given every cent of my $15 million reward for constructing schools and providing medical aid to the suffering Afghans.
"There are billions and trillions of barrels of oil in Tajikistan. Afghanistan has substantial reserves of gas. In the 1960s, the Soviets built a gas pipeline and took 2.5 billion cubic meters of Afghan gas annually. We also have large deposits of rubies, beryllium, emeralds and kunzites and hiddenites that cannot be found anywhere else - the deposits of these precious stones stretch for hundreds of kilometers. Also, the rocks contain the rare metals beryllium, thorium, lithium and tantalum – all are of strategic importance as they are used in air and spacecraft construction," said the flight attendant, on my return flight to Delhi, slapping his thigh and raising himself to answer the call from the cockpit.
I looked out of my window to see a furious, agitated, stormy
sky in a grand state of excitement. Continuous bolts of lightning thundered
and crackled, lighting up the black night, trying to reveal the murkiness of
the people below on the round earth.
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