Alistair Caldicott

Through Afghanistan

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Chapter 15 - The Other Side to Kabul

I saw more election posters than I had seen anywhere else across Afghanistan. There were hundreds of them on one long white wall in Kabul. Most were now faded and peeling. Not one piece of space had been left unplastered. Appropriately set behind the backdrop of the capital city's congestion, was an election billboard. It showed a crowd of smiling women and children with their inked fingers proudly held in the air, while two Afghan policemen watched benignly on. The birth of a young democracy.

Billboards advertised a mobile phone company with the slogan, 'Connecting Afghanis.' Like nowhere else I had seen on the journey through Afghanistan, Kabul sometimes felt like part of a separate country in places, worlds away from somewhere like Yakawlang.

Around the corner from the Mustafa hotel was Chicken Street, which used to be the old hippie centre for international travellers in the 1960's. When Afghanistan used to do tourism properly and captivate passing travellers, before the country was torn apart. Now it was off the radar. The shops nearly all had heavy shutters and padlocks to prevent thieving.

Import shops looked like their shelves had not been dusted for decades. There was a place called Chelsea supermarket, where the wealthy Arabs, like Bin Laden once did their shopping. Today it was frequented by wealthy Afghans and NGO workers.

Children with amputated arms ran up to me to demand money. Cripples ambushed me.

'Where you from mister? Give me dollar to eat.'

Teams of beggars, with stumps for limbs, took little time to trespass our personal space as they scrabbled aggressively towards us, groping and clawing our bodies for money.

Adept extractors of compassion, they seized on the slightest moment of indecision or hint of weakness, and pursued you doggedly, waiting for your resolve to capitulate.

Sweets were not enough to satisfy - only hardened looks of disappointment on their faces resulted. It might seem cynical, but I had seen it before in places of great poverty across other parts of Asia and Africa. Sometimes these people were deliberately crippled so that they could earn more money for a gang master who watched on from behind a corner or a higher up viewing point.

It was a fact of life, that wherever you have a concentration of western wealth, notably from Kabul's overseas workers buying their souvenirs, you will attract people wanting to make money from them. Hard-hearted as it sounds, I was convinced all was not what it seemed, especially after some of the young, really sick faces, which had confronted me in the villages outside Yakawlang.

Only afterwards, did it occur to me that this city would have an unnaturally high number of orphans, as well as cripples. Everything was part of a depressingly vicious cycle.

I emerged from drinking tea in one of the friendlier shops, a couple of blocks from my hotel, to find darkness had fallen with speed and haste. Kabul by night was a very different, more intimidating place. The streets had suddenly become deserted. The city had a prickly coldness and it felt very edgy. Shady looking individuals and shadowy figures hovered. Dogs howled. My own footsteps could be heard uncomfortably loudly.

A city without light at night time becomes quiet and forbiddingly dark. Carefully I picked my way back along the rubbled and pot-holed streets, every sudden noise or movement out of the darkness made me jump. It was a fragile, uneasy peace.

I wanted to go out and meet some different people, maybe try to see the Kabul that lived and breathed away from the road blocks and barbed wire. For days and days, Santtu, the man who was running low on everything critical to his well being - his own luggage, his health, important visas - had become obsessive about something very trivial. It was a familiar refrain in Kabul, as well as nearly every place we had stopped at en route, to hear his heavily accented Finnish voice uttering,

'Do you know maybe is it possible to find some mantu here?'

Mantu was a traditional Afghan dish of steamed meat filled dumplings, which someone had told Santtu about way back in one of the other countries he wasn't supposed to have wandered into.

An hour's walk across town, we found a fairly basic, but inviting restaurant. It happened to serve the fabled mantu. Some of the amenities of civilisation served up by Kabul were very welcome.

A man beckoned us inside.

'Where are you from?'

'English, Danish and Finnish.' we all said in turn.

'Finnish?' the man asked

'Yes Finnish.' Santtu replied

'Ah Finnish. You are Finnish now before you even start!' he joked.

The food was satisfying and filling.

'This is food to make your eyes water.' I said to Santtu, who, amazingly, had not had any recent problems with his contact lenses.

'Yes, this mantu is very good. But I do not think it was a reason to travel all this way especially across Afghanistan just to eat.'

We spoke to some other people in the restaurant. They asked where we were from. A common theme from Afghan people I spoke to, was an undercurrent of dislike for the US soldiers.

'They order everyone around. Tell us always to get out of the way. Close down roads. But this is our country. They are being rude. Always telling us what to do. In our own country.' one man explained passionately to us, as he was about to leave.

'Why do they have no good behaviour in someone else's country?' his friend added.

I could see his point. Everyone local was treated like a potential terrorist. There was minimal respect for local traditions and ways of life.

Funnily enough, soldiers from other countries were received more favourably because, as one man on an adjoining table told me,

'They make more effort to understand us. They do not use force all the time to control everyone, like Americans soldiers do.' the first man added.

'My name is Mohammad, by the way. It is pleasure to meet you.'

In a typically Afghan gesture, Mohammad offered all the food on his table to us, as we were waiting for our own food to arrive.

'I think you are maybe the first tourist in Kabul. Don't be scared.' he said.

'Madam, you are related to these men?'

We did the two husbands joke again.

Mohammad mentioned that the man on his right, who had been excitedly chattering away at our presence, was convinced that the UK and the US had a land border, and that there was no water in between them.

'Do you need somewhere to stay? I can recommend a very good hotel. It is one thousand two hundred dollars only, per night. Only George Bush and Bill Clinton stay here.'

'They stay together in the same room?' I said, but he wanted to be serious.

'Four years ago, our country was invaded and every one fighting each other. Now we have parliament and elections.'

He told me he himself had stood for election, unsuccessfully, in Ghazni province. He believed he had lost because he did not have an army of his own.

'Guns still very important in Afghanistan.'

As a tourist in Kabul (why pretend to be anything else?), I was determined to do some sightseeing. Typically, my Finnish friend was his usual phlegmatic self, as we found him hovering in the hotel reception area, optimistically waiting for someone, anyone or anything, that would assist him in his great quest of getting his visas for Pakistan and India. Finding out about visas preoccupied entire days of his life.

'Maybe, today, I should try again, maybe, for visa. Perhaps it will be possible.' he uttered in much the same unwavering tones that we had become used to, like the calmly serene tones of a practising Buddhist.

While his visa game continued, we set off along the main Dar ul-Aman road. The name means city of peace. We arrived at the Kabul museum. The Kabul museum was once described as one of the great museums of the world. It was certainly one of the best in Asia. Many different cultures had been nurtured on Afghan soil. The treasures went back in age to some forty thousand years ago.

Afghanistan was home to ancient civilisations. It had one of the world's richest cultural heritages, which the outside world has probably no more than glimpsed at. It has had many invaders. Trade exchanges took place across its landmass, between empires from east and west, going back almost two millennia.

Inside the Kabul museum, there was plenty to see. Two thousand year old giant stone birds, Roman bronze and Greek marble. Priceless pieces of history just about survived. Under the Taliban, the Ministry for the Promotion of Vice and Prevention of Virtue authorised the smashing of statues with axes and hammers.

The culture minister under the Taliban once personally felt the need to demonstrate his credentials (or maybe his lack of them), by taking an axe to some of the ancient statues. Many of the ones that remained were doing well to still be standing at all. One of the sides of the building had previously been demolished and the roof had fallen through. Anything depicted in human or animal form supposedly encouraged idolatry, and was against Islam, so it had to be destroyed. For the same reasons, they then moved onto blowing up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. It was cultural genocide.

At one point, the lights went out altogether in the Kabul museum. Even when they came back on again, it was a case of having to imagine many of the missing objects. The signs were there, but there was a gap in front or underneath where the items should have been.

The Taliban had left behind many of the broken pieces. In one of the end rooms in the basement, I opened a door. Inside was a team of people working meticulously hard. They were attempting to put all the fragmented pieces of broken exhibits back together again. It looked like one giant sprawling jigsaw, one big operating theatre for millions of pieces of Afghanistan's history. There were hundreds of boxes and labels.

Only around one third of the entire collection had been left. The rest had found its way out to the art collectors with connections, and auction houses of Europe and America via Pakistan. Some of these brave people, who I watched meticulously putting back together this huge jigsaw, had even managed to hide some of the many items in the basement. They probably risked their lives in doing so. Now the challenge was of an altogether different, perhaps more mundane, nature.

Amongst all the news focusing on terrorism and opium production, it has been easy to forget that Afghanistan is also losing its history literally. Ancient treasures have been looted and exported in their tons to Europe, America and the Middle East. Most were shipped through Pakistan. When the people of Afghanistan were liberated, the antique smuggling market was liberated too. To many Afghans, digging up historical artefacts was little different to digging up crops, which could then be harvested and sold on. There was very little to stop them. The government obviously has other priorities.

Across the road from the restored Kabul museum was Dar-ul Aman, Amanullah's palace. In the early 90's, after the Russians had left, this palace was the epicentre of the factional warfare between the Mujahedeen groups wrestling for power. Most of it was completely destroyed and shredded to the point of terminal collapse.

All that remained now was a fragile, scorched skeleton of what was there before. I did wonder how this place was still standing. It teetered like a brittle house of cards. Nearly all the weapons that did so much damage, not just at Amanullah's palace, but across the country, came from America, Britain and the Saudis, as well as the Russians.

I took photos where a bullet ridden sign warned not to. No one was around to keep a look out, because there wasn't much left to keep a look out over. As we walked around them, the ruins somehow clung together, in spite of the large cracks and hauntingly bare wires. Jumbles of bricks were the facades. The walls had more holes than bricks in. Shattered glass still remained on the floor. These were amputated buildings in an amputated country.

In truth though, there were two types of devastation. Devastation to buildings and devastation to people's lives. In the early 1990's, just before the Taliban took control, around 50,000 people lost their lives in this city. That was over twenty times greater than the number killed in New York on 9/11.

Away from the world of embassies, guards and Land Cruisers there was another side to Kabul, which I was pleased to have made the effort of exploring. It proved to be nowhere near as dangerous as everyone had seemed to warn. In a funny kind of way, tourism is a way of bringing back some welcome sense of normality. But it felt like we were doing something that so many of the other foreigners who come to Kabul just did not bother to do.

Although not everything worked properly and fully, there was more to Kabul than rubbish and ruins. Kathrine and I ended up getting lost, but as so often happens in so many places, you see so much more when you go through places you never intended to go through. There was a thrill of strangeness to having a wander.

The old city was one big swirling collision of smells, sounds, colours and bodies. From the outside it appeared quite intimidating. But from the inside, it revealed many hidden delights. The buying and selling of all sorts of goods was ferociously active and energetic.

Heaps of old clothes and shoes were piled in very jumbled fashion all long the wide main street, as far as my eye could see. Shoes were sold, sometimes not in pairs, but in singles, presumably for those who had been crippled. Store holders perched over their wares.

It felt a little like going back in time. In fact, the timeless air and chaotic bustle reminded me of Kathmandu and, even somewhere like the Djema el Fna in Marrakech. The looks on people's faces, those that noticed us anyway, were generally of astonished shock. It quickly melted into largely welcoming friendliness.

Once again, a man came up to me to deliver a heartfelt, sincere 'Thank you.' I still could not work out exactly what this was for. Surely he wasn't giving me credit for overthrowing the Taliban. Occasionally, in a quiet shady corner I would catch sight of a man with a stump, sat down next to his crutches.

Fames fanned out from roasting stalls of kebabs sitting on crudely formed iron skewers. There was even an extremely basic and greasy looking burger and chips stall, which almost whetted my appetite. Boys were kneading and shaping dough for bread. Then they thwacked the long oblongs of dough onto a wall, and scooped them off with a long wooden paddle to make bread, piles of flat bread. The hot fresh smell was uplifting. The thick, smoky air charged across the street.

Some men perched merrily behind wooden carts loaded with pistachios or dusty apples and oranges. Other men, also with big beards, but friendly eyes, sat contentedly in the middle of stacks of colourful spices, watching the world of Old Kabul go by. There were also lemons, onions and potatoes, spread extensively on the edge of the streets. One cart was memorably loaded high with mountains of pink toilet paper. A special belated delivery perhaps for our Finnish friend and his stomach problems, I joked with Kathrine.

Kathrine got excited by all the clothes shops. Outside one stall, while she was sizing something up, the man asked me which of the dresses I would like to try on. I kindly declined his overtures. A burka would have been a holiday souvenir with a difference, although probably not something you'd wrap up for your wife or mother-in-law as an Christmas present with a difference.

The noise of bicycle bells sometimes ambushed us. And there was the sight of them waving all over the road, as men struggled to properly steer them, with excessive loads on. There weren't quite so many election posters plastered on the walls and doors in this part of town.

It was also here in Kabul's old city that the British achieved some sort of revenge for their defeat in 1842, by burning down the old seventeenth century bazaar. The British had to leave Afghanistan much as they had found it. And the same might ultimately be remarked about their prolonged twenty-first century intervention, unless they can defy historical precedent.

Mostly warm stares of curiosity and cheerfulness pursued us everywhere in Kabul's old city. We came across a splendidly hidden entrance, which had some stairs leading up to a balcony. A great place to eat and take tea, while surveying the vibrant life of the old city below.

Jaws dropped as we walked in and, as was sometimes the custom for westerners or females, we were carefully escorted to a private room, separate from the main communal seating area. However, this gloomy, dirty room was little more than a prison cell. So we insisted on eating outside on the wooden balcony, to savour an unlikely, but very absorbing and splendid view of the old city.

A rather gruesome looking, naked chunk of raw meat was unhooked next to my seat. How would I like it done? Cooked, preferably. And with bread and tea, of course, but there was no need to ask.

Donkeys plodded by. Wooden carts were being wheeled one behind the other down the dusty and bumpy alleys. Boys balanced trays or large boxes above their heads with great concentration and determination en route to their destinations. There were men with ridiculously bright orange henna beards. Old looking men staggered down the street with impossible loads.

Underneath was a music stall, suffocating under the weight of thousands of tape cassettes of all sorts of music. How life must have changed in the last couple of years, I reflected as I supped my tea. But then I realised that, for many, life had probably just reverted back to how it was before the Taliban, more or less.

People with limbs missing hobbled along. Others, who could not manage to walk, just sat and begged. But it was not easy for them to grab peoples attention, such was the general noisy clamour and bustle. I also watched a blind man make his way down the street by placing his hand on the shoulder of a boy in front of him.

Every nook and cranny had been crammed with trading energy or industry of some sort. Men were hammering away, stirring, lifting, lugging, dragging and so on. Amongst the rubble, this part of the city seemed, if nothing else, to have a purposeful energy. Everything might have been a struggle, but it seemed a cheerful struggle.

Plenty of the old city rubs along the banks of the dried up river, which was now choked by waste and plastic bags. It was certainly somewhere to put your hand over your nose and mouth. Many things had been dumped in this dried up riverbed, but I didn't want to get too close to look, or smell. In places, it terrified the nostrils.

It was difficult, almost impossible to believe that many centuries ago, the emperor Babur would have sat here on the edge of the bank drinking wine and taking in the vista beyond. Kabul was once a cultured and economically active city when he resided here at the start of the sixteenth century.

One of the most extraordinary sights I saw in Kabul, indeed anywhere, was people sitting around on plastic chairs, in the middle of this curving river bed, making phone calls. Meanwhile, just a few yards away in the background, and in the open air, men were squatting over to answer a different type of call, the call of nature. Still, we had seen a city very much open for business. And it was business, which seemed to have a smile on its face. In some way, Kabul had become an urban corpse, but the heart of this corpse continued to beat with defiance in the old city. The momentum of life was defiant. Maybe the country was healing, rather than decaying, the thought arrived as I contemplated leaving Kabul.

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