Kabul Diary by Mike Petterson
19 May 2010
It has been a fascinating experience returning to Afghanistan after a gap of 3 years. Between 2003 and 2007 I visited Afghanistan some 8 or 9 times as Director of a major institutional strengthening programme for the Ministry of Mines and Industry. I now return to begin a new modest project working with the Geoscience Faculty of the University of Kabul, which will ‘twin’ the University of Leicester with its Kabul sister for some 3 years.
Afghanistan is a place where superlatives and ‘extreme adjectives’ abound. It is a land of great suffering with continuous warfare being experienced in some form since 1979. It is a country of clear skies, high mountains, deserts and lush fertile valleys. Afghanistan defines ‘contrast’ better than any dictionary. On the one hand the people are warriors who have defeated the world’s greatest empires’, on the other hand the same people display a level of genuine hospitality difficult to find in an ever more corporatized-globe. They are the 4th poorest country in the world but they will share what they have without a blink of the eye. Tribal affinity and family ties are some of the strongest that exist and yet there is still time to help the stranger and be generous with time. I’d like to spend a few moments dwelling on one of these ‘contrasts’ that makes Afghanistan a difficult country for Westerners to understand: ‘good news’ stories from a place that only seems to produce bad news-stories in Western media outlets.
We often associate Afghanistan with body bags, lost limbs, brave young soldiers, intolerant religious/political philosophies, and lack of opportunities for women. Each of these ‘associations’ is founded in some ‘truth’ but then ‘truth’ can depend on cultural erspectives that can give widely divergent judgements…
The biggest good-news story is the survival of the people through decades of adversity – their sheer determination to make it through the day. This is visible on a series of levels. Kabul in 2003 resembled Berlin in 1945 – a war-devastated city of ruins. Today the city reverberates to the sound of construction with plush 5 star hotels, refurbished Ministry buildings, supermarkets, business centres, telecommunication towers etc all springing up like new growth in a fire-scorched forest.
The quiet streets of 2003 are replaced by traffic jams, cars of all shapes and sizes and even traffic lights (when the power is on). There is cuisine of every kind – Kabul Kebabs, to Herati and Iranian lamb skewers, bistros, coffee bars and pizza joints. Whole streets sell wedding gowns, flowers for weddings and funerals, and Afghan handicrafts (carpets, lapis lazuli jewellery, shisha pipes, Lee Enfield rifles and Turkmeni scimitar swords). Women work in Ministries, airlines, universities and colleges, laboratories, hospitals and schools. Only last night at 10pm we saw a group of women winding their way home after a night out – something unimaginable a few years ago. And, as someone forcefully said to me, saying he didn’t understand why the West were obsessed with President Karzai’s ‘corruption issue’, perhaps the greatest success has been the Afghan government getting 34 individual provincial rulers, many mutual hated enemies, around one seat of government.
Yes, undoubtedly there is corruption, but considering the fragility and immaturity of systems of governance it is amazing that this one still stands, albeit with the help of the International community.
Heroism and bravery exist on so many levels within so many people. One person I am working with who showed me his ‘Taliban picture’ (all men had to wear turbans and grow a beard at least as long as their fist in Taliban times) told me about how they have existed within the university throughout Soviet, Mujahideen and Taliban days. In Russian days academics were pressurised to ‘preach the faith of Marxist materialism or become an enemy of the people’. In Mujahideen times the intrafactional warfare was vicious in Kabul, leading to law and order breakdown and anarchy (hence the initial welcome of Taliban). During the Taliban period there was no respect for books, or learning, or science or education, except the strict and prescriptive religious teachings of the day. Now, my friend says, there is optimism. Students are returning, female student numbers are rapidly growing, a new generation of academics have arrived desperately needing training, access to international knowledge, and equipment (in some places there is one desktop computer to 11 members of staff).
Challenges are at every corner but hope is present where none existed before. Of course the future remains uncertain. Kabul streets still ring to the sound of ISAF armoured vehicles with antennae that block out all mobile communications for 1km radius around them.
Checkpoints, road blocks, embassies surrounded by bomb-proof cement prisms and sand bags, and the ever-present threat of a suicide bomb are brutal reminders of the darker realities. And yet…if the international community can stay around long enough to provide security and help Afghans rebuild their systems and institutions, helping them to help themselves there just might, might be a chance. As one old Afghan friend said to me: ‘Remember we are not starting from ground zero but ground zero and below. Ground zero is where you build a house on a field that had nothing in it; in Afghanistan you have to fill the bomb craters, remove all the land mines, decontaminate the site, redevelop building skills and then you just might be able to build your house’. A sobering metaphor, I thought.