Being winched over the river that divides Tajikistan from Afghanistan is an unorthodox way to enter the country, but little about Afghanistan is what outsiders would expect. Fighting and famine have subsided in the last 12 months, but the humanitarian crisis is only slowly easing, and the rebuilding of the devastated nation has just begun.
In a population of 23 million, the United Nations estimates that 1.5 million Afghans died, two million were wounded, and five to six million more were made refugees in the fighting that began with the Soviet invasion in 1979 and ended with the fall of the Taliban in November of last year. In addition, since 1999, drought has devastated what remained of Afghanistan's agriculture, taking with it the herds on which the livelihood of 85 percent of the population depended. Though this year's harvest was 82 percent higher than last year's, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, it still did not reach the level of 1998, the last pre-drought year.
Traveling south with Muslim aid workers from the Tajik border through the highlands of Afghanistan's Badakhshan province, across the plains and then over the Hindu Kush to Kabul, photographer Thorne Anderson and I saw countless villages abandoned and towns in which water and electricity were available only intermittently. Whole sections of Kabul lay buried beneath rubble, some of it fresh, some of it now decades old.
Sixty-one nations have pledged relief and reconstruction aid, so "mending Afghanistan is a task for all of us," says United Nations Development Program (UNDP) administrator Mark Malloch Brown, who heads UN recovery efforts in the country. "It is a historic wrong to be put right, and an opportunity for North-South solidarity." Citing offers of de-mining assistance from Mozambique (GNP per capita: $230) and micro-credit lending skills from Bangladesh (GNP per capita: $350), he points out that aid from developing countries is no less important than that from highly industrialized nations, because Afghanistan's condition is more familiar to the poorer countries. At last count, there were 18 UN agencies, 83 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and 111 Afghan NGOs working in Kabul.
Among the agencies from the Muslim world, one of the most diversified and active is the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), whose engineers winched us into Afghanistan with equipment they were using to build five new bridges. The bridges, a $2-million project, will link the remote northeastern province of Badakhshan with Tajikistan and thus to the rest of Central Asia; the first of the spans opened on November 3.
The bridges "will give people access to much-needed food," says Alejandro Chicheri, spokesman for the UN-sponsored World Food Program (WFP), the leading international food aid organization in the country. Reliably delivering relief supplies to such remote regions is a huge challenge because of poor roads and heavy concentrations of land mines, and the WFP estimates that some 1.3 million Afghans need deliveries of food urgently because winter weather will soon cut them off from further aid.
More than two million refugees returning from neighboring Pakistan and Iran have put Afghanistan's shattered infrastructure under even greater strain. To meet running costs, this summer the transitional government received cash grants of some $10 million each from India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—carried to Kabul in suitcases, because the banking system in Afghanistan has not yet been reestablished.
In the face of obstacles of this kind, NGOs from inside and outside Afghanistan are finding unorthodox ways to rebuild the country. Driving through the highlands of Badakhshan, we passed teams of men wielding picks and shovels, widening mountain tracks into rough roads. Under the AKDN'S self-help "food for work" program, these men receive not money but six kilos (13.2 lbs) of wheat for 10 hours work. The new roads they are building will give previously isolated villages access to the nation's road system, and the non-cash arrangement takes the country's structural realities into account.
Besides road and bridge construction, AKDN projects in Afghanistan range from restoring schools and historical monuments to improving health and agriculture. Over a lamplit dinner in the village of Pol-i-Ziriban, agriculture extension officer Sarwa Khalifa proudly told us that the surrounding district of Shiva had virtually recovered from drought and was now almost self-sufficient in grain, thanks partly to high-yielding seed provided by the AKDN. Under the program, farmers repay the seed in kind—and not to the agency but to the village council, thus creating a "seed bank" that serves as a buffer against future famine.
The next day, in the district of Khosh, we saw the high-yielding wheat growing alongside fields of opium poppies. "I'm convinced we can wean the small farmers off poppy farming and onto growing high-yielding grain," says AKDN agriculture program manager Iqbal Kermali. Although the cash return from poppies is 10 times that of wheat, the poppies require more than 10 times as much labor, he explains, which largely offsets their economic advantage.
Emerging from the Badakhshan highlands near Feyzabad, we drove between rows of red- and white-painted stones marking the way through a minefield. Repeatedly during the next few days, we passed gangs of Afghans probing delicately for mines on the roadsides.
Crossing the northern Afghan plains via Kunduz and Baghlan, we arrived in the once bustling industrial center of Pol-i-Khumri, its cement and textile factories now largely silent because of lack of spare parts and raw materials. That night, at dinner with aid workers, sitting cross-legged on the floor of their compound, talk was mainly of the prospects of permanent peace. "This time there will be peace," said one young Afghan emphatically. "People are tired of the fighting." A middle-aged engineer wasn't so sure. "The [tribal] commanders are still in control," he said. "Every family still has a weapon, and 40 percent of Afghans earn their living from their guns."
Undeniably, though, some things have changed rapidly and dramatically. When I saw the Islam Qala school at Pol-i-Khumri on a previous visit early in the summer, hundreds of boys and girls were squatting in the playground waiting for their classrooms to be renovated. On this trip, just two months later, the new school buildings were bursting with children who were obviously eager to learn, and staffed by a handful of teachers no less determined to teach.
"The thirst for education and knowledge in post-Taliban Afghanistan is enormous," says Ed Burke, UNESCO's education consultant in Kabul. Nationwide university entrance examinations in 2002 attracted 20,000 candidates, of whom 16,400—many of them women—were admitted. Now the country must answer the question, admitted to what? Afghanistan lost an estimated 200,000 teachers and academics during the last quarter-century, and its 17 universities and educational institutes function in often improvised fashion amid the devastation of the wars. The immediate priorities, says educator Lutfulla Safi, include training new teachers, building new schools, and replacing outdated curricula and textbooks. Major questions to be addressed in the long term include coeducation and the place of religion in education.
Leaving the northern plains, we climbed gradually alongside the Khinjan River through mulberry groves, then traversed steep and rugged slopes sprinkled with Asian conifers up into the mountains of the Hindu Kush. At an altitude of 3350 meters (11,000'), we passed through the 2700-meter (1.7-mi) Salang Tunnel, built between 1958 and 1964 by the Soviet agency Technoexport and the Afghan Ministry of Public Works to link the northern plains with the valleys of Koh Daman and Kabul. The tunnel is now in dangerous disrepair, with water cascading down its walls and lumps of concrete hanging ominously from its ceiling, but the UN's International Security Assistance Force is committed to keeping it open.
Passing everywhere the debris of war, it was difficult to imagine this land as it had been: A center of empires, a birthplace of art styles, a crossroads of culture and commerce.
In northern Afghanistan, a Bronze Age civilization developed the first trade links between the Indus Valley to the south and Mesopotamia to the west. It was from Badakhshan 5000 years ago that the finest lapis lazuli in the world first came to Sumer and to Egypt. Later, India's Maurya Dynasty built a 4200-kilometer (2600-mi) road to Afghanistan, and the imperial highways of the Persians joined it to become central arteries of the Silk Roads.
All across Afghanistan are the ruins of the ancient cities where east, west, north and south all joined: Kapisa, in the heart of Afghanistan, yielded to archeologists a trove of Indian ivories, Chinese lacquer work and Roman art. Ai Khanoum, on the northern plains, holds the remains of an orientalized Greek city. Tillia Tepe, in the same region, displays artistic motifs that reflect and blend the disparate styles of India, Greece, Iran, China and nomadic Central Asia.
After Alexander the Great invaded the region in the fourth century BC, marking the eastward extent of his empire, his successors' kingdoms patronized the rise of what became Gandharan art. In the 15th century, Herat, in northwestern Afghanistan, was the capital of the Timurid Empire, one of Asia's most flourishing centers of Muslim art and learning.
The Valley of Bamiyan, where the monumental Buddha statues fell to Taliban artillery, lies in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains, about 240 kilometers (150 mi) northwest of Kabul. From there, we drove up the steep-sided Shibar valley, passing en route a group of US soldiers who told us that they were trying to arrange alternative winter accommodation for refugees in Bamiyan who had taken shelter in cave dwellings originally built by Buddhist monks. In that exchange, the aid coordinators whom we were traveling with promised to bring stoves to the Americans for delivery to the refugees.
At Eljanak village, we found 60-year-old Hussain Ali rebuilding his house with the help of his neighbors. The wooden beams supporting the house had been stolen after Ali and his family fled, causing the roof to collapse and most of the mud walls to cave in. A neighboring house, though blackened by fire, was largely intact. In fact, although most damage we saw in urban areas was caused by fighting, most of the damage in rural areas seemed to result from the theft of wooden beams, the only things of value left in houses after their owners fled.
On the opposite side of the valley was Amanqoll, a village dominated by an 800-year-old mud-brick fort last used during the Soviet invasion. Here, under another AKDN self-help program, villagers were working without pay under engineer Tahir Qany, using materials and equipment provided by the agency to build a water depot that will provide the village with up to 2800 liters (720 gal) of spring water a day.
Crossing the Shibar Pass, we descended to the Ghorband Valley, site of heavy fighting in 2001. Amid the burnt-out armored cars, the broken bridges and the abandoned homes, there were signs that life was returning: Children were hurrying to school, among them groups of laughing girls.
A bit farther on, emerging from the Hindu Kush mountains, we crossed the Begram Plain, whose strategic location at the southern base of the Hindu Kush had made it a war zone for a generation. In ancient times the passes it led to were the gateways to India, China and Central Asia. Alexander the Great built a city here; the Kushans later made it the capital of their vast empire and named it Kapisa.
The Begram Plain is desolate today, but in 1939 French archeologists excavating Kapisa discovered artifacts that testified to a refined and cultured citizenry. Hidden in a chamber of the royal city were painted glassware from Alexandria in Egypt and Chinese lacquered furniture encrusted with Indian ivory, some of which can be seen at the Musée Guimet in Paris.
Approaching Kabul, we passed dozens of abandoned villages, the grim remnants of thousands of homes, the withered remains of millions of vines and the stumpy expanses of former orchards of almond, pear, apricot, fig and cherry trees, now stripped, mainly for firewood. Crippled tanks, burned trucks and twisted artillery littered the roadside, which was lined with the now-familiar signs warning of landmines.
In the city, we passed the ruins of Bagh-i-Babur, the first Mughal "paradise garden" and the predecessor of other famous imperial gardens in the South Asian subcontinent. Once covered by magnificent stands of plane trees, wild rose and jasmine, it had been built by Babur, who claimed direct descent from both Genghis Khan and Timur, or Tamerlane. Babur seized Kabul and carved out a kingdom in Afghanistan, from where, in 1525, he launched the invasion of India that made him the first of the Mughal emperors.
Babur never forgot Kabul and, when he died in 1539, he was buried there, according to his wishes, in Bagh-i-Babur. A century later, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, constructed a small marble mosque in the garden, and in the late 19th century, Amir Abdur Rahman built an elegant pillared pavilion there whose veranda looks out on the city from the hillside in which the garden is set.
These and several other architectural gems of Kabul are now being restored by Development Humanitarian Services of Afghanistan (DHSA), the Society for the Protection of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH), the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and other organizations, including UNESCO. The gardens will be replanted with trees, flowers and other ornamentation appropriate to Mughal tradition, and walkways and benches will be constructed so that residents of Kabul may enjoy the gardens again.
As if in answer to anyone who might question whether historic sites should be rebuilt when so much of modern Afghanistan is still in ruins, a banner hung over the entrance of the Kabul Museum proclaimed: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive." The museum was repeatedly hit by rockets during the 1991-1996 civil war, and two-thirds of its unique collection, spanning a period of 6000 years, was looted. Today, the fragments of smashed statues wait in crates, in the hope that experts, using digital technology and virtual-assembly techniques, will be able to reconstitute them. Museum staff also hope that, as soon as the museum is physically secure, it can begin to take steps to recover some of the artifacts illegally taken abroad.
At the very heart of Kabul stands a monument to Timur Shah, a member of the Durrani Dynasty that ruled Afghanistan from its beginning as a separate state in 1747 until 1818. Dominating the commercial district, its octagonal exterior is ornamented with deeply recessed, arched niches and with small towers on each of the eight corners. The thick brick walls form a square interior pierced by vaulted galleries. These give access to the upper level, composed of a drum decorated with shallow niches, and a second drum topped by a huge dome, ribbed inside and almost hemispherical from the outside.
Once surrounded by the calm of a park, the monument is now beset by the bustle of bazaars and partly hemmed in by some 360 steel shipping containers, inside which tradesmen who lost their jobs during the Taliban regime have set up improvised shops. Kabul Municipality has agreed to gradually relocate the shops and restore the site.
Among the more pleasant noises of reconstruction in Kabul is live music, now especially savored. So before leaving the city, I bought tickets to an evening of traditional music. It was organized by the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (CHA), an Afghan NGO that, after three years in exile in Pakistan, recently opened the Gallery of Fine Arts and Traditional Afghan Crafts in Kabul.
Besides paintings and calligraphy, the gallery also displays examples of handicrafts—somak wall hangings, kochi dresses, Herati glassware and silver jewelry set with semiprecious stones. In an effort to revive Afghanistan's carpet-weaving industry, the CHA provides wool and natural dyes free of charge to more than 160 weavers, mostly women working in their homes. CHA then buys back the finished carpets at $35 a square meter ($3.25/sq ft) and sells them in the gallery shop.
Though they are small compared to the national scope of the multi-billion-dollar recovery effort that Afghanistan requires, it is these relatively simple projects in the cities and self-help schemes in the countryside, run by AKDN and other international and Afghan NCOS, that are keeping the hopes of Afghans alive.
John Lawton is a free-lance writer who lives in western Turkey. Among the scores of articles he has authored for Aramco World since the 1960's are special issues on the Silk Roads and Islam in China and the former Soviet Union.
Thorne Anderson ([email protected]) is a free-lance photographer based in Belgrade.