The Afghanistan Americans Seldom Notice
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
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Want a billion dollars in development aid? If you happen to live in Afghanistan, the two quickest ways to attract attention and so aid from the US authorities are: Taliban attacks or a flourishing opium trade. For those with neither, the future could be bleak.
In November 2008, during the US presidential elections, I traveled around Afghanistan asking people what they wanted from the United States. From Mazar in the north to Bamiyan in central Afghanistan to the capital city of Kabul, I came away with three very different pictures of the country.
Dragon Valley is a hauntingly beautiful place nestled high up in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains. To get there from Kabul involves a bumpy, nine-hour drive on unpaved roads through Taliban country. In the last couple of years, a small community of ethnic Hazara people has resettled in this arid valley, as well as on other sparse adjoining lands, all near the legendary remains of a fire-breathing dragon reputedly slain by Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed.
A few miles away, hewn from the soaring sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan are the still spectacular ruins of what used to be the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world. Two hollow but vast arched, man-made alcoves, which rise higher than most cathedrals, still dominate the view for miles around.
For much of the world, the iconic image of Taliban rule in Afghanistan remains the shaky video footage from March 2001 of the dynamiting of those giant Buddhas that had rested in these alcoves for almost 1,500 years. Months after they were blown up, the Taliban bombed neighboring Hazara towns and villages from the air, burning many to the ground. Tens of thousands of their inhabitants were forced to flee the country, most seeking shelter in Iran.
In the seven years since the Taliban were ousted by the United States, the Hazara villagers of Bamiyan have started to trickle back into places like Dragon Valley in hopes of resuming their former lives. Today, ironically enough, they find themselves in one of the safest, as well as most spectacularly beautiful, regions in the country. Its stark mountains and valleys, turquoise lakes and tranquil vistas might remind Americans of the Grand Canyon region.
Yet the million-dollar views and centuries of history are cold comfort to villagers who have no electricity, running water or public sanitation systems--and little in the way of jobs in this hardscrabble area. While some of them live in simple mud homes in places like Dragon Valley, others have, for lack of other housing, moved into the ancient caves below the ruined Buddhas.
No Help Whatsover
Just outside one of the many single-room mud houses that line the floor of Dragon Valley, I met Abdul Karim, an unskilled laborer who has been looking daily for work in the fields or on construction sites since he returned from Iran a year ago. Most days, he comes home empty-handed. "We have nothing, no work, no electricity, no help from the government or aid organizations. Right now our situation is terrible, so of course I have no hope for the future. I'm not happy with my life here, I'm ready to die because we have nothing."
His only source of income is a modest carpet-weaving business he's set up inside his tiny house at which his two children, a boy aged about 10 and a girl of about 15, work. It generates about a dollar a day.
As I went door to door in the small Hazara settlement, I heard the same story over and over. In the mud house next to Karim's, I met "Najiba" (not her real name), a woman of perhaps 70 years, who said that her family had received virtually nothing in aid. "The government hasn't done anything for us. They just say they will. They just came by once, gave us some water, some clothes, but that's it."
Traveling in Bamiyan province, I repeatedly heard the same story with slight variations. In the wheat fields outside the village of Samarra, I met Shawali, a peasant who told us that he and his son had fled south to Ghazni, a neighboring province, to escape the Taliban. "My son and I labored hard pulling big carts full of timber and heavy loads until we could raise enough money to return to Bamiyan." Here he remains a day laborer, eking out a living, and no better off than when he was in internal exile in Ghazni.
The situation has so disintegrated that many say they wish they could simply return to the refugee camps in Iran. In Dragon Valley, for example, I met "Khadija." As the middle-aged woman fanned a small fire fed by wood gathered from nearby, she said, "We were happy in Iran. It was good. The weather was warm. We had a good life there, but it was still someone else's country. When the [Iranian] government told us we had to go back home, we wanted to return to start a new life. But [the Afghan government] hasn't helped us at all. They told us they were going to give us wood, supplies, and doors but they've given us nothing... no help whatsoever."
A recent report from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) offers some context for the kind of desperate poverty I encountered in Bamiyan. The agency's analysts estimate that about 42 percent of the country's estimated 27 million people now live on less than $1 a day.