The following series of posts are from Mike Petterson, who is collaborating with Beyond Distance on the Giraffe project, and has recently been visiting Kabul. We are delighted to have Mike as our first guest blogger. He starts with a retrospective look at Kabul, taken out of his diary in May, 2004.
When you write about somewhere like Kabul, which is as different from Oakham as the moon is from Mars its hard to know where to start. There are so many negative images about Afghanistan in Britain: crazy Islamic terrorists; Osama Bin Laden; women with no freedom; poverty; war. Of course many of these images have a basis in truth: but there is another side. Afghanistan has been to hell but is desperate to get a taste of heaven. It is a land which has been at war for so long it has forgotten what peace means. Foreigners and Afghans alike have been fighting since 1979. First the Soviets, then the Warlords (Mujahideen) followed by the infamous Taliban and now the Americans.
The statistics make you weep: 1.5 million dead; many millions injured perhaps without limbs; 5 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran alone; trauma resulting from war, atrocities, abuse; at least 60% of the population earn less than 65p a day and go hungry most of the time. Quality shelter is at a premium.
So it may be a surprise to hear that (so far) every time I visit this place I leave uplifted. How is this possible? It’s the people, their energy and optimism. People are so welcoming. They love foreigners who come in peace, especially those who come to help. People have time for you. There are so many faces-I have never been to a place with so much facial character. Pashtoons, the great warriors, the ones who beat the British, with Indian-Pakistani features, wearing pyjama-like shalwar kamiz outfits, some bearing tunics and impressive beards, kalashnikovs, gunbelts and expressions you could never copy. Tajiks are the next most numerous group grading in appearance between Pashtoons and Central Asians. These are Dari speaking people (a Persian language which is the main Afghan language). The Uzbeks, Turkmenis and Khirgistanis are real Central Asian peoples: narrow eyes and paler skins resembling part Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese. Deeply weathered faces and beaming smiles, especially when they are looking for business! Finally the European types – white skins and piercing blue and green eyes- people who would not be amiss in Oakham. So many faces from so many places with expressions which burn into your mind. Afghanistan has been a meeting of east and west and middle for thousands of years.
Like spring coming after a long frozen winter there are signs of hope, of optimism, of a better world. War weary people desperately hoping for peace to last long enough to make a difference. Kabul is busy rebuilding its war-torn shell. Creating new amidst the desolate war damaged buildings, like shoots after a forest fire. A new land arising. Entrepreneurial business people and traders swarm like intent bees making money in bazaars and markets swollen with the fruits of the Orient: gemstones; lapis lazuli; jewellery; handicrafts; clothes; hardware; computers; mouth watering fruits; dead animals strung up on bazaar beams; books; DVD’s…most of everything…if you have the cash. Kabul was a trading city when Rutlanders hunted animals dressed in deerskins. New banks have appeared – the first for 30 years. Everything is bought and sold in cash. The affluent buy their big houses with wheelbarrows of cash – millions of Afghani notes or thousands of dollars sometimes in wheelbarrows.
Women still wear blue burqas. Traditional Afghan culture encourages girls over the age of 13 to reveal only their hands and feet in public. Only their families can see their faces. The Taliban enforced this role strictly but burqas have been part of Afghani life for a long time. You sometimes see polished fingernails, smart and glittering high heeled shoes: glimpses of wealth and individuality beneath the all-covering shroud. Educated and richer Afghani, mainly Kabuli ladies do not wear burqa and work in open society. They are dressed in sometimes expensive trousers and tops, adorned with jewellery and make up, heads covered by fashionable scarves. Western minds look on uncomprehendingly at burqa-clad women: but who are we to judge?
Children are everywhere. Most families have 4-10 children. Some men have up to 4 wives. Many children die young, usually of hunger or dirty water. The day I landed my friend who met me at the airport lost a daughter aged 7 of a ‘bad stomach’ probably caused by unhygienic water. Medical facilities are poor. Most families have lost children here through war or poverty or both. And yet they smile and get on with life – what else can they do? They are just grateful that another day has come. Many children have to work – not for pocket money but to help out their money-starved parents. They sell books, magazines, drinks, chewing gum, or just beg. They do this after their 3 hours of school a day. There are no playstations or TV or even electricity for most. They are thankful to read and write. Kids play on busy streets – cricket with a makeshift bat made of discarded wood and a ragged old ball. There are smiles, there is camaraderie, there is friendship and welcome in their faces: they do their best to love life in spite of their poverty. One kid showed me a glow in dark pen he was so proud of – he lit up a dark area and laughed. A gem to treasure and show off to friends.
So Afghanistan is full of hope. Afghani people are hard working, resourceful and intelligent. There’s an energy and a determination to make life better for all. Let’s hope time is kind for once.
18 May 2010