A Country Abandoned


An Afgan poet from Herati,
who was turned back from Iran, wrote: “I came on foot; I’ll leave on foot. The
same stranger, who had no piggy bank, will leave. And the child, who had no
dolls, will leave. The spell on my exile will be broken tonight. And the table
that had been empty will be folded. In suffering, I wandered around the
horizons. It is me, who everyone has seen in wandering. What I do not have, I’ll
lay and leave. I came on foot; I’ll leave on foot.”

For much of the
world Afghanistan is a drug producing country with rough, aggressive, and
fundamentalist men who hide their women under veils.

But there is
perhaps another story to be told. I have traveled within Afghanistan and
witnessed the reality of life in that nation. In 13 years I have produced two
feature films on Afghanistan—The Cyclist (1988) and Kandahar
(2001)—for which I have studied numerous books and documents to collect
material. Consequently, the Afghanistan that I know is very different from the
image that much of the rest of the world has. It is an image that needs
attention rather than negligence and suppression.

According to
available figures, Afghanistan had a population of 20 million in 1992. In the
past 20 years, and since the Russian occupation, about 2.5 million Afghans have
died as a direct or indirect result of the war-army assaults, famine or lack of
medical attention. In other words, every year 125,000, or about 340 people a
day, or 14 people every hour, or one about every 5 minutes have either died or
been killed. When the crew of that unfortunate Russian submarine, Kursk, was
facing certain death some months ago, satellite news reported every minute of
the incident. When the Buddha statues of Bamian were being demolished the world
heard about it non-stop. But nobody has had time for the death of Afghans for
the past 20 years. The number of Afghan refugees is even more tragic. According
to the statistics available, Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan total 6.3
million (before the current and continuing exodus). So in the past 20 years, one
person has become a refugee every minute. This number does not include those who
scurry from north to south and vice versa to survive the civil war.

The customs post
at the Dogharoon border between Iran and Afghanistan has a sign that warns
visitors of strange looking items. These are mines. It reads: “Every 24 hours 7
people step on mines in Afghanistan. Be careful not to be one of them today and
tomorrow.” The reason is that every group or sect has strewn mines against the
other without map or plan. The mines are not set in military fashion as in war
and collected in peace. When it rains hard, surface water repositions these
devices, turning once safe remote roads into dangerous paths. Very simply, a
nation has mined itself to the brink of extinction.

Why then should
Afghans not migrate when there is constant fear of hunger and death? A nation
with  30 percent emigration entertains no hope about its future. Those still
alive in Afghanistan are people who were not able to cross the borders or if
they did, were sent back by neighboring countries. When Afghans themselves wish
to flee Afghanistan why will there be any constructive foreign presence in the
country? Businesspeople, barring drug dealers, will not risk investing there,
and political experts prefer to meet in Western countries.

Around the city
of Herat, I witnessed about 20,000 men, women, and children starving to death.
They could not walk and were strewn on the ground awaiting the inevitable. This
was the result of the recent famine. That same day, then United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees, Japan’s Sadako Ogata, also visited these people and
promised them the world’s help. Three months later nothing had changed and Ogata
gave the number of Afghans dying of hunger to be a million nationwide.

In Dushanbe in
Tajikistan I saw 100,000 Afghans going from south to north on foot. It looked
like doomsday. Such scenes are never shown in the media anywhere in the world.
War-stricken and hungry children run for miles and miles, barefoot. This fleeing
crowd was attacked and refused asylum in Tajikistan. They died in the thousands
between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. As a Tajik poet put it: “It is not strange
if someone in the world dies for so much sorrow that Afghanistan has. What is
strange is why nobody dies of this grief.”

Such indifference
is perhaps the fate of a country without images. Afghan women are faceless,
which means 10 million out of the 20 million population do not get a chance to
be seen. A nation, half of which is not allowed to be seen is a nation without
an image. During the last few years there has been no television broadcasting.
There are only a few two-page newspapers with names like Shariat,
and Anise that have only text and no pictures. Painting and
photography have been prohibited in the name of religion. There are no movie
theaters any more. True, Hollywood produced Rambo about the war in Afghanistan,
but it was employed for action sequences and creating excitement. This is
Hollywood’s image of a country where 10 percent of the people have been
decimated and 30 percent have become refugees; where currently one million are
dying of hunger.


The History Of
An Imageless Country

Afghanistan used to be an
Iranian possession some 250 years ago, a part of Greater Khorasan province, in
the era of Nadir Shah. Returning from India, one midnight, Nadir Shah was
murdered in Ghoochan. Ahmad Abdali, an Afghan commander in Nadir Shah’s army,
fled with a regiment of 4,000 soldiers and declared independence from Iran.
Since Ahmad Abdali belonged to the Pashtoon tribe, other tribes, such as the
Tajik, Hazareh, and Uzbek did not recognize his absolute authority. It was
agreed, therefore, that each tribe would be governed by its own leaders. The
rulers collectively formed a tribal federalism known as the Loya Jirga. From
then to the present, a more just and appropriate form of governance has not
emerged in Afghanistan.

Equally, from
then till now Afghanistan has not evolved economically from an agricultural
existence, nor has it moved beyond tribal rule to achieve a sense of
nationalism. In Afghanistan each Afghan is either a Pashtoon, Hazareh, Uzbek, or
Tajik. Tribalism is the first aspect of one’s identity. From the time of Ahmad
Abdali until today, when the Taliban rule over 95 percent of the country, the
main leaders have always been from the Pashtoon tribe. (Except for the Bacheh
Sagha or the nine-month rule of Habiballah Galehkani and the two years under the
Tajik, Burhannuddin Rabbani.) Even the mujahedin of Afghanistan, when they
fought the Russians, did not represent a unified struggle against a foreign
enemy. Rather, each tribe warred with the enemy in its own region.

In the Niatak
refugee camp (on the Iran-Afghanistan border) that accommodates 5,000 residents,
it is not easy for Pashtoon and Hazareh children to play with each other and
sometimes there is mutual aggression. Tajiks and Hazarehs find Pashtoons their
greatest enemy and vice versa. They are not even willing to attend each other’s
mosques for prayers. We had difficulty seating their children next to each other
to watch a movie.

The reason for
Afghanistan’s perpetual tribalism rests with its agrarian economics. Each Afghan
tribe is trapped in a valley with geographical walls and is a natural prisoner
of a culture stemming from a mountainous environment and farming economy. Belief
in tribalism is as deep as these valleys. Farming is the foundation of this
tribalism, which in turn is the basis for deep internal conflicts that prevents
this would-be nation from achieving a national identity.

Pashtoons, with a
population of about six million, make up Afghanistan’s largest tribe. Next are
the Tajiks with about four million people, followed by Hazarehs and Uzbeks with
populations of about four million and one to two million respectively. The rest
are small tribes such as the Jmagh, Fars, Balouch, Turkman, and Qezelbash. The
Pashtoons are mostly concentrated in the south, the Tajiks in the north, and the
Hazarehs in the central regions. This geographical concentration in different
regions will mean either complete and final disintegration or continued tribal
federalism through the Loya Jirga system. The only alternative to these two
scenarios necessitates changes in the economic infrastructure and the
replacement of a tribal identity with a national one. Only such a change can
break traditional culture and create a more modern one. But Afghanistan has
nothing but drugs to exchange in the world market.

U.S. $80 billion
in the global drug turnover depends on Afghanistan remaining as it is, without
change, because, if change prevails, then $80 billion is the first thing to be
threatened. Hence, Afghanistan is not supposed to realize a considerable profit
even from this contraband trade since that itself may yield change for
Afghanistan. If we add the U.S. $500 million income from the sale of opium to
the U.S. $300 million from the sale of northern Afghanistan’s gas, and divide
the total by the 20 million population, the result is U.S. $40 per capita annual
income. If we further divide that figure by 365 days, each Afghan would earn
about 10 cents a day.


Of Geography

Afghanistan has an area of
700,000 square kilometers. People live in cavernous valleys surrounded by
towering mountains. To the same degree that these mountains obstruct foreign
intrusion, they block the influence of other cultures and commercial activities.
A country that is 75 percent mountainous has problems creating consumer markets
in its potential industrial areas and in exporting agriculture products to the
cities. Despite the use of modern weapons, wars take longer to wage and seem
never to end. If Afghanistan was not so rugged it would have had a different
economic, military, political, and cultural fate.

In its present
state the economy of Afghanistan can keep its people half fed without any
economic development. The average life expectancy of an Afghan has been
calculated at 41.5 years and the mortality rate for children under 2 years of
age was between 182 to 200 deaths per 1,000. The average longevity was 34 years
in 1960 and in 2000 was pegged at 41. The reality, however, is that in recent
years it has gone down to even lower than what it was in 1960.

The basic
question that comes to mind then is how are the Afghan people supported? It is
either through construction work in Iran, participation in political wars,
smuggling or becoming theology students in the Taliban madrasas. On the Iranian
border the United Nations pays $20 to any Afghan volunteering to return to
Afghanistan. They are taken by bus to the nearest cities inside Afghanistan or
dropped along the frontiers. Interestingly, due to lack of jobs in Afghanistan,
Afghans quickly come back and, if they are not recognized, get back in line to
get another $20. The jobless Afghans turn every opportunity into an occupation.

But there is a
grim harvest to be reaped. I’ll never forget those nights of filming Kandahar.
While our team searched the deserts with flashlights, we would see dying
refugees like herds of sheep left in the sands. When we took those who we
thought were dying of cholera to hospitals in Zabol, we realized that they were
dying of hunger. The camp at Zabol looked more like a prison. The Afghans who
had fled because of famine or Taliban assaults were refused asylum and were
waiting to be returned to Afghanistan. The camp could not afford to feed so many
people and they had not eaten for a week. They had only water to drink. We
offered to provide meals. We brought food for 400 Afghans, ranging from
one-month-old babies to 80-year-old men. Most of them were little kids who had
fainted from hunger in their mothers’ arms. For an hour, we were crying and
distributing bread and fruit. The authorities expressed grief and regret and
said that it took a long time for budget approvals.

For many,
theology is the obvious alternative to starvation. There are over 2,500 Taliban
schools with a capacity between 300 to 1,000 students, which attract hungry
orphans. In these schools anybody can have a piece of bread and a bowl of soup,
read the Quran, memorize prayers, and later join the Taliban forces. For some,
drug production and narcotic smuggling are the remaining, none-too-lucrative,
options. Thus, heroin enters Tajikistan at one price and exits at twice that
much. The same goes for Uzbekistan.

Ironically, the
Afghan drug producer is not himself a consumer. Drug use is prohibited but its
production is legitimate. Its religious justification is sending deadly poisons
to the enemies of Islam in Europe and America.

Drugs are an
interesting business for many. Just a few months ago when I was in Afghanistan,
it was said that every day an airplane full of drugs flew directly from
Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf states. In 1986, when I was doing research for
the making of The Cyclist, I journeyed from Mirjaveh in Pakistan to
Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. It took me a few days. When I entered Miijaveh,
I boarded a colorful bus filled with all kinds of strange people.

At first, I was
unaware that the bus roof was filled with drugs. We drove across dirt expanses
without roads. Everywhere was filled with dust and the wheels would sink into
the soft soil. We arrived at a surreal gate like the ones in Dali’s paintings.
It was a gate that neither separated nor connected anything from or to anything.
It was just a superfluous gate in the middle of the desert. The bus stopped at
the gate. There appeared a group of bikers who asked our driver to step down.
They talked a little and then brought out a sack of money and counted it with
the driver. Two of the bikers came and took over our bus. Our driver and his
assistant took the money and left on the bikes. The new driver announced that he
was now the owner of the bus and everything in it. This transaction was repeated
every few hours and we were sold several times along the way. We found out that
a particular party of smugglers controlled each leg of the route and every time
the bus was sold, the price increased. There were also caravans that carried
Dushka heavy machine guns on camelback. Bullets were sold in bags as if they
were beans. Kilos of bullets were weighed on scales and exchanged.

The caravans are
believed to be made up of groups of 5 to 100 people between 12 to 30 years of
age. Each carries a sack of drugs on his back and some carry hand-held rocket
launchers and Kalashnikovs to protect the caravan.



Because of widespread need
to migrate, human smuggling has become a new occupation for Iranian smugglers.
Afghan families that reach the borders have to go a long way to arrive in Tehran
and since their arrest is likely in Zabol, Zahedan, Kerman, or any other city en
route, they leave their fate in the hands of pickup-driving smugglers. The
smugglers demand one million rials for every refugee hauled to Tehran.

Since, in 99
percent of the cases, the Afghan family lacks this kind of money, a couple of
13-14 year old girls are taken hostage and the rest of the family is secreted
into Tehran through back roads. The girls are kept until their family finds jobs
and pays the debt. In most cases the money is never provided. A 10-member family
with a 10 million rial debt has to pay the interest as well after three months.
Consequently, a great many Afghan girls are either kept as hostages around the
borders or become the personal belongings of the smugglers. An official in the
region related that the number of girl hostages in just one of those cities is
in the region of 24,000.

Those who
emigrate to Iran are Hazarehs, who are Farsi speaking Shiites. Language and
religion incline them towards Iran. Their misfortune is their distinctive
appearance: their Mongoloid features distinguish them from Iranians. The
Pashtoon who goes to Pakistan, however, blends in with Pakistanis because of
common language, religion, and ethnicity. Although the Shiite Hazarehs find
Pakistan more liberal than Iran, job opportunities in Iran are more appealing to
them than the freedom in Pakistan. Bread clearly has priority over freedom.

For the Sunni
Pashtoon it is a different trek that ends in the trap of another nation’s
politics. As a result of not finding a suitable occupation, a hungry Pashtoon is
attracted to the theological schools ready to offer food and shelter. Pakistan
has promoted, organized, and put into action the Taliban government for a
variety of reasons. The first is the Durand line. Before Pakistani independence,
Afghanistan shared borders with undivided India and serious disputes ensued over
the Pashtoonestan region. The British drew the Durand line and divided the
region between the two countries, on the condition that after 100 years,
Afghanistan would regain control over the Indian part of Pashtoonestan. When
Pakistan declared independence, British-held Pashtoonestan became part of
Pakistan. Some six years ago, Pakistan, according to international law, was
supposed to cede Pashtoonestan back to Afghanistan. But how will Pakistan that
still has claims over Kashmir agree to return this land?

The obvious
solution was to raise hungry Afghan mujaheds to control Afghanistan. The
Pakistan-trained Taliban would naturally no longer harbor ambitions of
recovering Pashtoonestan from their patron. No wonder the Taliban appeared just
as the 100-year deadline drew to a close. From a distance, the Taliban appear to
be irrational and dangerous fundamentalists. When you look at them closely, you
see hungry Pashtoon orphans who are theology students by vocation, whose impetus
for attending school is hunger. When you review the rise of the Taliban you see
the political interests of Pakistan. If fundamentalism was the reason for
Pakistan’s independence from India, the same applies for Pakistan’s survival and
expansion at the expense of Afghanistan.

The Taliban have
always been criticized for their fundamentalism but little has been said about
the reasons for their arrival on the scene. The Herati poet who had come to Iran
on foot returned to Afghanistan on foot, but the orphan who had walked to
Peshawar in Pakistan returned to conquer Afghanistan driving Toyotas offered by
Arab countries. How could Pakistan afford to feed, train, and equip the Taliban?
With the help of Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab


Who Are the

After the Soviet retreat,
the outbreak of civil war created nationwide insecurity and the country was in
perilous straits. Each group sought to provide its own security through
continuous fighting. None, however, was able to provide safety for the nation.
The mocking irony of this period was that everyone tried to ensure security by
making the country unsafe.

The people were
exhausted by civil war. When Pakistan dispatched the Taliban army holding white
flags with the motto of public disarmament and peace, they were welcomed. In a
short time, the Taliban had control over most of Afghanistan. It was then that
the Taliban’s Pakistani roots became evident.

The strategy of
disarmament and dispatch of the religious Taliban claiming to be harbingers of
peace quickly succeeded in winning popular consent. Security was established for
two reasons. One was the disarmament of the public and the other the severe
punitive measures, such as cutting the hands of thieves. These punishments are
so harsh, intolerable, and quick that if 20,000 hungry Afghans saw a piece of
bread before them, nobody would dare take it. Today, when you enter Afghanistan,
you see people lying around on street corners. Nobody has the energy to move and
no weapons to fight with. Fear of punishment stops them from committing crimes.
The only remedy is to stay and die in the face of humanity’s indifference.

 The Taliban have
brought an apparent security to Afghanistan. On Shariat Radio (the voice of
Taliban), which only has a two-hour program daily, even if there is fighting
somewhere they do not announce it, just to maintain a sense of national
security. When they say, for example, that the people of Takhar welcomed the
Taliban, it means that the Taliban attacked and conquered Takhar. The rest is
news about Friday prayer or the amputation of the hand of some bandit in Bamian,
the stoning to death of a young adulterer in Kandahar, or the punishment of some
barbers who have cut a few teenagers’ hair in the style of the Western infidels.
Whatever it is, with all the punishments and propaganda, a sense of national
security suffuses Afghanistan. But this has also created for the world an
enduring image of Afghan aggression and barbarism. The death of one million
Afghans as a result of the world’s injustice is not regarded as aggression. The
death of 10 percent of the Afghan population by civil war and war with Russia is
not perceived as aggression. But decapitation by the sword will for long remain
the headline of satellite television news.


Who Is Mullah

In my seemingly endless
trip to Kandahar, everywhere there is talk of Mullah Omar. His title is
Amir-al­M’omenin (Commander of the Faithful). Nobody really knows much about his
background. Some say he is 40 years old and blind in one eye but there is no
photograph of him to prove or disprove this. How does a nation choose a
half-blind man overnight to lead them, when not even a picture has been seen of
him? Everyone I ask about Mullah Omar says he is a representative of God on
earth who introduced the Qur’an as the country’s constitution. He is extremely
devout, as are his followers. His wages are as paltry as the Herat’s
governor’s—U.S. $15 a month—and he lives like the poor people who are dying in
the streets. As a starving Afghan put it, though he was starving he was happy
that Mullah Omar too was always fasting. They were like each other. He thanked
God for such a leader.

Among the Pashtoo
refugees, I ran across someone who had not seen Mullah Omar but knew of people
who had. I even met Iranian politicians who believe Mullah Omar really exists
and that he is handsome. Mullah Omar fascinates a few Afghans who sleep in Iran
at night and cross the border by day to sell dates in Afghanistan. They tell me
that he is an ordinary monk who dreamed of Prophet Mohammad one night and was
commissioned to save Afghanistan. Since God was with him, he was able to conquer
Afghanistan in one month.


Failed Modernity

Between 1919-1928
Amanullah Khan ruled Afghanistan. He was inclined towards modernism, traveled to
Europe, returned with a Rolls Royce and made known his reform program. This
included a change in attire. He told his wife to unveil herself and asked men to
forego their Afghan costumes for Western suits. He also prohibited polygamy.
Traditionalists immediately begin opposing Amanullah’s modernizing.

None of the
agrarian tribes submitted to these changes. The superficial, formalistic
modernism served only as an antibody to stimulate traditional Afghan culture,
making Afghanistan so immune to it that even in the following decades, modernism
could not penetrate the culture in a more rational form. The most advanced
people in Afghanistan do not believe that Afghan society is ready yet for female
suffrage. It is obvious then that the most conservative will prohibit schooling
and social activities. It follows that 10 million women will be held captive
under their burqas.

With the coming
of the Taliban, girls’ schools were closed and for a long time, women were not
allowed on the streets. Even before the Taliban, only 1 out of every 20 women
was able to read and write. For all practical purposes, Afghan culture had
denied education to 95 percent of its women. The Taliban denied it to the
remaining 5 percent. The realistic question to ask then is whether the Taliban
affects the culture of Afghanistan or was it the cause for the Taliban’s

An Afghan woman
has to maintain herself so that she will not be overlooked in the competition
with her rivals. Polygamy is quite common even among the younger generation, and
many Afghan homes have been turned into harems. Getting married means buying a
woman. I have seen old men giving away l0-year-old girls and, with the bride
price that they receive, marrying other l0-year-old girls. Scarce capital is
circulated in a closed society by transferring young girls from one house to the
other. Time and again I asked myself, did the Taliban bring the burqas or did
the burqas bring the Taliban?

Opposition to
modernism is not necessarily expressed by traditional organizations. Sometimes
it is   reaction by the poor against the rich, a war between poverty and wealth.
Today, in Afghanistan the only modern objects are weapons. The ubiquitous civil
war that has created jobs, in addition to being a political-military action, has
also become a market for modern weapons. Even though it lags behind the
contemporary age, Afghanistan can no longer fight with knives and daggers. The
consumption of weapons is a serious matter. Stinger missiles next to long beards
and burqas are still symbols of a profound modernism that are proportionate to
consumption and modern culture.

For the Afghan
mujahed, weapons have an economic basis. If all weapons are removed from
Afghanistan, the war ends and then, given the sub-zero economic conditions, all
of today’s mujahedin will join the refugees in other countries. The issue of
tradition and modernism, war and peace, tribalism and nationalism in Afghanistan
must be analyzed with an eye to the economic situation and employment crisis.


Some 180 international
organizations are said to be active in Afghanistan. I soon learned that they
have taken on colossal tasks. One is to distribute bread among the starving. A
second is to negotiate the exchange of north-south prisoners. A third is to make
artificial limbs for land mine victims.

The young people
who have come here through the Red Cross fascinate me. I met a 19-year-old
British woman who says the reason she has come “is to be useful.” It is only
here in Afghanistan that she can make so many artificial hands and legs for
people each day. In England, which offers so much satisfaction, she cannot find
a job. Since she came, a few hundred people have been able to walk with the
artificial limbs she has made. But can all this do anything more than remedy the
deep and extensive wounds of this nation in some very limited way?

When I was
crossing the border, I saw Iranian artillery pointing towards Afghanistan. When
I entered Afghanistan, I saw artillery pointing to Iran. On the Afghan side of
the border I heard that the region’s military commander had called the Iranian
consul and told him that their homes were made of clay so what did the Iranian
guns aim to target? He had said, “The worst that you can do is bombard our
houses and when it rains we will take the wet mud and build our homes anew.
Don’t you find it a pity if our guns destroy your beautiful homes? You can’t
make glass and iron and ceramics with rain. Why don’t you come and build the
road to Herat for us?”

The road from
Dogharoon to Herat is worse than the winding roads of Iran. On the undulating
terrain ahead, shovel-wielding men and boys stand for eternity. As far as the
eye can see, there are shovel-wielding men. As soon as our car gets close to
them, they start filling up the ditches with dirt and, we see them in the dust.
It is a scene of shovel-wielding men who disappear in the dust and have created
an occupation for themselves out of nothing. This is the most surreal scene that
I see in Afghanistan.

In my opinion,
the only solution for Afghanistan is a rigorous scientific identification of its
problems and the projection of the real image of a nation that has remained
obscure and imageless both to itself and to others.

Since the day I
saw a little Afghan girl 12 years of age—the same age as my own daughter Hanna—
fluttering in my arms in hunger, I have tried to bring forth the tragedy of this
hunger, but I always end up giving statistics. I have become powerless, like
Afghanistan. I feel like going to that same poem, to that same vagrancy and,
like that Herati poet, get lost somewhere or collapse out of shame like the
Buddha of Bamian. “I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.”

Makhmalbaf is an Iranian filmmaker who traveled extensively in Afghanistan
between 1988 and 2001.