Change of Hat




F

inally
the plane touched the ground and along with many other passengers
I saw the sunshine of my birth country after more than 20 years
of leaving Kabul. I came back to work with a humanitarian organization
contributing to the reconstruction efforts. I never had the chance
to go back earlier, first because of the Russians, then Mujahideens,
and recently the Taliban. But this time it was different; at least
that is what I was told. I wanted to see my country governed by
the people who really wanted to serve. I wanted to see a great change
from what was during the Soviet Union-supported government, the
Mujahiddeen, and the Taliban. I went there to help develop my country
with others who share the same goal.


Just
days after arrival I decided to explore Kabul—the city that
Babar, the Mughol emperor, had been so in love with, poets wrote
about, and travelers admired. The last time I’d been there,
Kabul’s museums had been packed with evidence of a glorious
era, its libraries full of books, its archives alive, and its university
of high repute. Alas, I saw nothing resembling my memories. Kabul
in complete ruin, this is what I went back to.


Every
square mile of Afghanistan was painful. The Afghan rulers are still
fundamentalists preaching through the voices of Mullahs who wake
up early in the morning shouting at the people, using their noisy
loudspeakers to criticize Afghan men for allowing their daughters
to go to schools and their families to watch TV. (Ironically, Afghan
TV does not offer anything special. There is nothing entertaining
or educational, but censored Indian films and speeches by strict
politicians.)


Outside,
the streets are full of children of both sexes begging along with
the disabled old men and women. Yet ministers are zooming with big
cars from here to there. The warlord system is evident in all aspects
of life. Mullahs with long beards demand to have bigger organizations
and outfits supported by international and UN funding.


Horrifying
stories come alive and touch you, torture you, and traumatize you.
The story of Zardad, who had a man-eating dog who was indeed a man.
The story of Hezbe Wahdat’s eye gouging and cutting women’s
breast. The stories of raping women and keeping them naked in cellars.
The story of Sayaf’s party hammering nails on the scalps of
innocent civilians. The stories of destruction and madness and,
of course, the story of sadness because the same mad people are
in power again.


Some
of the stories could appear in novels and the people would think
they were fiction. But they are the true stories of Afghanistan.


There
are some signs of optimism, such as seeing girls and boys going
back to school. I traveled to Bamyan and was astonished to see my
people still living in dark caves. I was even more surprised to
see the same people sending their children to schools. They know
that most of the atrocities that happened in the country were related
to lack of knowledge and education. UNICEF had predicted that only
1.5 million children would get back to school, but the reality was
much more optimistic with an estimated figure of some 4.5 million
children attending schools by the summer of 2002. However, the enthusiasm
of the people is not matched by the government’s support. UNICEF
and the government of Afghanistan have provided no more than the
basic facilities for perhaps 50 percent of the 1.5 million targeted
school children. Some remote areas such as Bamyan do not get any
support. The schools that have been damaged are not repaired. UNICEF
massages its figures by claiming that the organization has rehabilitated
1,000 schools.


The
reality is that much of UNICEF’s engagement is cosmetic and
for the sake of statistics, such as counting the replacement of
a single door or minor repair or, in the more successful projects,
the building of 5 classrooms for an area that requires at least
32. By manipulating the reality such organizations show in the release
of their public information that they have single-handedly managed
to meet most of the educational demands in Afghanistan, but the
truth is different. Moreover, the warlords of the country do not
allow the teachers to get their salaries. Teachers’ salaries
paid by the UN do not reach them. The warlords control provinces
and fraudulently retain the salaries. Teachers are powerless and
have not received their salary for a long time in a system with
no accountability.


There
are a large number of children on the streets. Child labor is also
very common. Child abuse cannot be ignored when there is extreme
poverty. I have seen girls and boys begging on the street. I have
seen children collecting food from garbage. I have seen children
being chased by the new regime police and beaten up.


Afghanistan
has a few newly rich people. There are streets in Wazir Akbar Khan
that now belong to Northern Alliance ministers. Fahim, the defense
minister, has bought the whole street and blocked it for his own
safety. His soldiers don’t allow anybody, including pedestrians,
to go on that street. Each of the houses has a value of at least
$400,000. The lions of Panjsheer know very well how to get rich
from wars. Destroy half the country, then confiscate some houses
from the owners in those places that are not destroyed.


Muslim
extremists do not recognize the rights of women. Women come to my
office with fear. People like Gulbudin Hekmatyar are there to throw
acid on the faces of those women who appear on the street wearing
a modest chador, but not a burqa (veil). One of my female colleagues
wanted to go to another country for the training provided by the
UN. The day she went to the passport office of a fundamentalist
mullah (in charge of the passport processing), he told her that
she was a prostitute to be working in an office. However, being
a prostitute and begging on the streets is not a problem.


The
extremists love to see poverty. They were the same people who sold
the Afghan women to Arab fundamentalists. People still talk about
the shameful act of Taliban when they went and destroyed all Shomali,
killed men and took all the women, put them in buses and sent them
to Pakistan where the Arabs on the other side received them. Where
was the Afghan nang (honor)? Where was their Islam spirit at that
time?


Life
is very cheap in my country. Frustrated Americans who have failed
to find Osama or the real al-Qaeda, bomb wedding parties. I read
reports on the Internet, but no action is taken visibly or otherwise
by anybody to stop these crimes. I hear that it was the Northern
Alliance guiding the Americans to bomb the Pushtoon villages.


The
Americans are not in Afghanistan because they love the Afghans.
They are there for their own interest and they use the Northern
Alliance who has a very poor human rights record. The American humanitarian
support to Afghans is the bombing of poor villages. Their record
shows heavy spending in Afghanistan, but not for the construction
of schools and hospitals. Reagan is back again in Afghanistan in
the disguise of Bush. His cowboys this time do not fight the Russians
but the al-Qaeda. The poor Afghan masses are paying for it. I know
that Osama is going to emerge again in a different form and name,
discretely supported by the U.S. I know that, don’t we all?


The
turbans have changed to pakols, but the heads are covered with the
same mentality. The headgear is not there to allow the old fundamentalism
to evaporate. My country’s fall has not slowed or changed,
but only its appearance.









Besharat
is a poet and writer from Afghanistan. He left 23 years ago when Russians
invaded Afghanistan. He has worked in support of humanitarian projects
in Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Yugoslavia,
Lesotho, UK, and Afghanistan.