Kabul, Afghanistan—The mood has been eerily light and pleasant at Nasaji Bagrami camp on the outskirts of Kabul city in the weeks since the United States and the Taliban signed a peace agreement.
Nasaji is one of over 50 (and growing) non-state-sanctioned encampments inside Kabul province. Within the parameters of the camp for internally displaced peoples, an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 residents this winter have been braving the cold of the mountainside, living in makeshift mud dwellings, tents, and other structures. Bedsheets attached to poles provide a bit of privacy.
Children have been getting sick from exposure to trash, including plastics, that is being burned to keep residents warm, and sorely needed aid money from the government dried up long ago. However, even within these devastating conditions, camp residents are feeling rebelliously optimistic about their future.
Fifty-two-year-old wedding singer Akhtar Zarin has been playing music all week at Nasaji in celebration of the US-Taliban peace agreement. “We don’t get a lot of reasons to celebrate around here, but this is a big one!” he says.
Zarin, like millions of other Afghans, has been in a state of perpetual displacement for decades, and he used the recent week-long “Reduction in Violence”—technically, an ongoing cease-fire between the United States and the Taliban, though it’s not being called that—to return to his village and assess the situation in hopes of picking up the pieces.
“It has been about 25 years since we left our ancestral home for good. My family and I lived through the communists, the Russians, and even the fighting between the Mujahideen,” said Zarin, “but were forced to leave my village when the Taliban came.”
After the Taliban took control of his village and the vast majority of Afghanistan in 1996, Zarin and his family fled Shiga village in the Khewa district of eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province for the refugee camps across the mountains of the Torkham border, or Khyber Pass, into Peshawar, Pakistan.
“Our plan was to go back to our village but it wasn’t safe until this past week,” he said. “I was initially nervous, but people were happy and were cooking big meals to share. It was finally peaceful and everyone was giving each other hugs and congratulations. I’ve never thought I’d experience this.”
In the years following the 2001 US and NATO invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, millions of Afghans who fled the brutal repression of the communist regime, then the decade-long Soviet occupation, which was followed by years of mujahideen infighting and the subsequent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1996, rushed back into the country from surrounding Iran and Pakistan after the Karzai government promised peace and stability, and support by way of plots of land and massive humanitarian aid projects.
“We used to receive 4,000 to 8,000 Afghanis [about $60–$120 a year]. Sometimes supplies and firewood,” says 55-year-old camp “Malik,” or leader, Inzar Gul. “Now they don’t even do that! We have confronted Karzai and now Ghani and both lied to us and left us here to fend for ourselves.”
Gul and other camp residents now see a glimmer of hope in their otherwise worsening situation.
“My heart nearly jumped out of my chest when we heard the announcement of a peace deal on the radio. The camp elders all gathered to celebrate the news. Everyone’s eager to go home. The population of the camp has been extremely hopeful of the news, but I’m afraid of any more heartbreak and betrayal,” says Gul.
“We fled because of the Taliban, but we can’t return home because of the Afghan forces and US military,” says Gul. “With the US now leaving, we have the government splitting into two and causing chaos and division in a time we should be calling for peace.”
Another resident of Nasaji camp, Shah Nawaz, a 34-year-old from Kapisa province, neighboring Kabul, lives in a one-room mud dwelling. He and the eight others living there—six children, his wife, and his sister-in-law—have no doors or windows and have been struggling all winter.
Shah Nawaz tried visiting his village just once since returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan but has regretted his decision ever since.
“I took my two eldest children to our village for Eid, it’s just about an hour away. We were all dressed up and enjoying ourselves when a rocket exploded. My arm was nearly torn off by a drone. My son is okay, but my daughter took shrapnel to her stomach. She nearly died and had medical problems for years. She’s been doing better recently.” Nawaz says.
“Since the Taliban and US have stopped fighting, I want to go home and try to start over. Life is cheaper and there’s enough to eat in the village,” Nawaz says.
In addition to internally displaced peoples, rural women have largely been left out of the current debates taking place within Afghan society around the potential for peace with the Taliban. Although Afghanistan’s rural areas have been the front lines of the ongoing war—much of the territory is contested between the Taliban and Afghan government—Kabul’s elites have dominated the conversation.
Bibi Sadat, 55, spent much of her youth in rural Nangarhar province and was forced to flee to Pakistan during the 1980s Afghan-Soviet War. She and her family have been living between Peshawar and Kabul city for the past six years. Sadat’s husband died late last year; she’s processing the news of a potential peace without him.
“No side is listening to us. There are no interviews on the news with women making bread with their hands who have no running water or electricity in all the villages. There are just rich people claiming to speak for us,” Sadat said.
“Since I can remember, Afghanistan has been just stories of war and misery. I still cannot believe it’s ending,” she says. “I pray the Taliban comes in good faith and joins the government. I’m cautious but they were less corrupt than the current government and we need them inside the system or they will fight if left out.”
Back on the muddy grounds of Nasaji camp, Akhtar Zarin laughs as he shrugs off his emotions and wipes tears from his face, attempting to compose himself before sharing his upcoming plans.
“I’m going to move back to my village and sing love songs about our beautiful Afghanistan, even if it gets me killed—without a care. You can’t give people a taste of freedom or peace and then take it away.” Zarin, now smiling with an ear-to-ear grin continues, “We’re Afghans, we’ll take it by force.”