11th August 2005

Islamabad Airport is crowded and hot and it seems an interminable wait to get onto the UN charter flight to Kabul. An infinitely patient party of grinning Japanese men, carrying implausible amounts of luggage, check onto our flight. They look so relaxed I almost expect to see some golf clubs being loaded onto the plane. Contemplating your fellow passengers, you try to figure out just why they are heading to Kabul. Then you think of yourself, and ask the same question. 'Let me through, I'm a Scottish novelist' won't really inspire the Afghan population to stand back and swoon: 'Allah be praised, real aid at last!' The short flight takes us into Kabul’s shabby, minimalist airport where we meet Eddie, our UNICEF guide. My first impressions of Kabul City defy expectations. For sure, rusting tanks and cars, many dating back to the Soviet-Mujaheddin conflict, litter the potholed road into town. Yet as the city limits approach, instead of the bombed-out, crumbling settlements I had anticipated from the television pictures, I see a large housing scheme of sprawling five-story flats. It’s down-at-heel and poorly maintained, but similar to one in which I grew up in Scotland. I learn that this area, hugely incongruous with the rest of the city, was built by the Soviets back in the seventies. We’re billeted in the UNICEF guest-houses in the old diplomatic quarter of Kabul. This district also challenges my pre-perceptions; it’s grindingly poor by western standards but no worse than places I've visited in parts of, say, Northern India. Equally confounding, there are few signs of bomb damage. The UN curfew is at 9.00 p.m., an hour before the city’s official one, when the streets of Kabul are taken over by armed gangs of bandits and antagonistic factions. This is the 'peace' the citizens enjoy since the fall of the Taliban. Nonetheless, it seems a massive improvement on what went on before, even if the surface of the security problem has barely been scratched. It quickly emerges from conversations with aid workers that the strategy for recovery is built squarely around education. This is seen as the key to necessary longer-term attitude changes, required so that Afghanistan can move away from a warlike, aggressive culture where women and girls are highly marginalised. UNICEF and other agencies are walking something of a tightrope; they have to help facilitate this change but without disrespecting the country’s customs and religion. We learn the importance of this sensitivity when we meet Terry Davis, UNICEF’s Canadian Security Officer. Recently two female aid workers, out for a run in the park, were attacked and stoned by a group of young boys. Fourteen-year old boys here, accustomed to images of the female form, might wolf-whistle at the most. In Afghanistan, the culture of keeping women undercover warps male sexuality and paradoxically feeds the violence the burkha is supposed to protect women from. During the Taliban era, females could not go out onto the street unless accompanied by a male family member. In practice, this is still often the case. There is a big Klashnikov culture in Afghanistan: everyone has a gun or can get one. Right now, consolidation is the name of the game, and an acknowledgement exists that this problem cannot be addressed until there is a strong central power. In the long-run, it’s accepted that young men need jobs to encourage social responsibility. Labour intensive schemes are envisaged; the rebuilding of the nations’ roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. But at the moment everyone is poor, and there are few opportunities to earn money. People start by selling cattle, land, possessions, often ending with their daughters. The next day I get woken up at 4.45 a.m. by what sounds like football chanting. In fact someone in the houses behind us is praying, using a sound system to amplify their recitations. We head for a school in the Shomali Plain, an area that has hosted so many of Afghanistan’s major battles. Our guide is Sonya, a repatriated young Afghanistan woman. I get my initial first-hand account of what life was like under Taliban. Movingly, Sonya tells me that she cried when she saw some railings in the park being painted, so surprised was she to see somebody involved in the20repair rather than the destruction of her city. Driving out, we encounter the gruesome sight of a dead figure propped up on a building. It is an Al’Qaida Arab who was killed and exhibited in this manner some six months ago. The area around him is so heavily mined that they can’t get close enough to cut him down. The authorities budgeted for 1.2 million children returning to school; instead they got over three million. This represents major grounds for optimism - and a massive challenge. As one education officer explained to me, 'It's easy to get a kid to come to school on the first day, but harder on the second,' especially when conditions are so cramped and poor. At Khwaja Bai school we meet three girls, Natasha, 16, Sadia 15 and Hamas 13. Before they went to the home-based ‘secret schools’, but on a few occasions were discovered and beaten with belts and sticks by the dreaded Vices and Virtues police of the Taliban. They had tried to hide schoolbooks in shopping bags, but girls outside were always vulnerable to being apprehended in this manner. Natasha was old enough to have studied to 3rd grade before the Taliban seized power. Like so many youngsters I met, she wants to be a doctor. She is keen to attend extra classes but her family fear for her safety out of school hours. Hamas is not so lucky. Like many children, the confinement of being literally under house arrest for six years has effected her adversely. She’s on medication following a mental breakdown and in contrast to her animated, loquacious friends, she cuts a haunted, furtive figure. A lot of girls I spoke to complained that the burkha’s gave them headaches, but they felt unsafe outside without them. It’s an impractical, uncomfortable garment, dangerous to city women as, looking through its narrow grill, they have no peripheral vision to help deal with Kabul’s growing traffic. This compulsion for feminine invisibility, which predates the Taliban, reaches levels that, through western eyes, appear utterly ludicrous. During the March 23rd celebrations for the ‘back to school’ day many districts were so opposed to letting girls be seen to be at school, they built lofty walls around the buildings, despite there being more pressing reconstruction needs in Afghanistan. Even stranger was the practice of one southern province on this festival. So opposed were they to the idea of female children walking into a school, only boys were allowed to participate in the parade, half of them symbolically dressed up as girls. In some parts of southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban originated, girls have never gone to school. This was a peasant societal practice and had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, in who’s name the Taliban attempted to enforce it all over the country. I wanted to check out the housing scheme, and was delighted to find that Sonya lived there. Macroryan was inhabited by Government officials in Soviet era, and is now home to an emerging Kabul middle-class, many of who are returnees. Sonya regards it as ‘a friendly, safe place to live.’ The flats are in disrepair however. The plumbing is not working and people are required to take water from civic pumps and carry it up the stairs. The Abdul Oasim Ferdousi High School stands imposingly in the middle of Macroryan, breaking up the uniformity of the area. It's badly neglected but undamaged by the conflict. It has two three-story buildings, housing boys and girls schools. Following the schooling restrictions of the Taliban period, one part was used for military training, the other for religious instruction. This had little appeal for most boys, less than 20% attending. Now, following the back-to-school rush, there are 191 classes. 9,200 pupils, split over three shifts, cram into the two buildings and some additional UNICEF tents, at two groups to a classroom with the corridors also often utilised. 253 dedicated teachers try to cope with these numbers. The shift system means that the children only get three hours schooling, so for much of the day the girls help at home while the boys often roam the streets. So the irony is that ‘back to school’ has fed an embryonic street gang culture. The Principal tells me that many kids have psychological problems. Boys are often depressed, confused as how to behave, with only shooting and fighting previously valued. Later, the resourceful Terry Davis takes us on a city tour where we see that Kabul is, in spite of everything, a place of great charm. While the river from which the city takes its name is almost dried out, pine and Jasmine trees still line every street. We head into Kabul Stadium where an Olympic symbol wishfully adorns the pink Grandstand, which is complete with executive boxes. During the Taliban era people were publicly executed here, often hung from the goalposts. The eeriness is accentuated by the lovely setting the stadium lies in, a great vantage point for the open fields and snow-capped mountain peaks that surround the city. The stadium guard is chatty and excitable as he recounts the Taliban atrocities. I'm hoping that the AK 47 assault-rifle he waves around has a safety catch on it. Later we head to a wrecked quarter of Kabul where much of the fighting took place. It is rubble-strewn ruin, but even here a pristine new apartment building stands out like a sore thumb with hopeful 'For Rent' signs in English. You can still see the remnants of the electric tram system, which stopped in the eighties. Now it’s as if the city has regressed into a bygone age. The ruins of a destroyed Hindu temple, long blown-up by the Mujaheedim, is a stark contrast to the numerous Mosques which stand out proud and untouched amongst the rubble of the houses which surround them. Then our UN vehicle turns the corner. I thought where we had just came from was heavily bombed, but nothing prepares you for this part of town, referred to simply as the front-line district. It's divided from the rest of the city by the big hill upon which sits a now-closed restaurant. I realised, standing in these remains I was trying to access some kind of emotional vocabulary that would enable me to contextualise what I was seeing. The word 'devastation' had lost all application; most of the dwellings here had been pounded into sand. Kids fill in the holes on the road with rubble from bombed buildings requesting ‘buckshish’ from passing drivers for their services.20Some, particularly in the rural areas, do an excellent job, scrupulously maintaining sections of the road and are rewarded for their efforts, especially by truckers. Here, many are just desperate, bored and hopeful of extorting some change. Stay outside the car for too long and you attract a crowd. The Kabul street kids mob up quicker than Millwall and in numbers which would do Cardiff City proud. Our next port of call is the Al’Qaida training camp, where we pay five dollars admission to some Northern Alliance people who live there and guard it, acting as unofficial museum attendants. We’re not far from the city but could be hundreds of miles away. Even with the destroyed buildings and the wrecked military hardware around, this is still a surprisingly beautiful, serene place. A lush green valley full of fruit trees divides the battered fortifications from the towering hills above. It’s hard to imagine artillery fire being exchanged and US jets screaming overhead. Later, a shopping expedition takes us to Chicken Street, the ex-chicken market, now full of antique rug and20gift shops. Flower Street is the former flower market, now lined with food stores. Somewhat comfortingly, you can still purchase meat in Meat Street. But it’s a long, tedious and hot pastime, way beyond my threshold, especially as Terry has invited us to swing by his guest house where he has beers chilling (a real luxury) and white wine, vodka and cider. Terry and his pal Stanley, an exuberant Jamaican guy, get the party into full swing with their dancing routines. Stan moves like a man half his age and is a fair singer of reggae tunes as well. A water engineer, he encourages me to do a piece on sanitation. ‘Make sanitation sexy,' he urges. It gets late and we all sleep over at Terry's, the hosts insisting we have their rooms and beds while they crash out in sleeping bags on mattresses. The curfew is to be taken seriously. The streets empty and if you're on them after ten o’ clock, you’re fairly likely to be shot. Yet despite these restrictions, it's Kabul’s nightlife that provides the biggest impression of post-Taliban reconstruction. Shops, especially the kebab restaurants, are colourfully lit with bright neon, while music from Pakistan blares out from every street corner. One big cinema has reopened, showing Hindu Bollywood films to packed houses. Kids sell postcards of the latest Pakistan and Indian pin-up girls. All this would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. The next day we head off to Herat, excited, yet sad to leave behind the new friends we made in Kabul. A straight, smooth road bounded on either side by elevated pine trees takes us from the airport into the city. Our driver tells us that he was jailed for cutting his beard too short. More evidence that the term 'fundamentalist' contains a lot more of the 'mental' than it does of the 'fun'. The local school we visit seems well organised compared to what we witnessed in Kabul. Many more girls here seem to have attended the secret schools. A teacher tells me that women frequented clubs where they watched TV and smuggled pirate videos, with blankets pinned over the windows. Outside in the playground, the boys are rowdy. They’re herded up on the bell by brown-coated, stick wielding ‘janitors’. In the classroom, however, they become models of discipline and concentration. Romin wants to be a pop star. With his protruding teeth and perpetual air of mischief, he looks more likely to make it as a stand-up comedian. His moody-looking mate with amazing Elvis-like hair will be the one with the girl appeal. Some boys in this class attended the Taliban's religious schools. It seemed an experience likely to turn anyone off education for life: vicious zealots or bored old mullahs reciting, rather than explaining, the Koran. Now they love school, and even appreciate Islam more. 'The Taliban were only concerned with hatred, while Islam teaches us love.’ We encounter a local meteorological phenomenon called ‘the 120 days of wind’. This is initially welcome in the stifling heat but it heralds a severe dust storm. Visibility is zero as we sit in the land cruiser until the worst of it blows over. When we resume, I note that there seems to be more cars on the road here than in the capital, and I’m told that they come in from Japan via Iran and Turkmenistan. Yet despite its relative affluence, it’s Herat that offers us our most depressing sight, in the form of the internally displaced person’s camp a few miles outside the city. From its high of 117,000 inhabitants, its population now stands at 60,000. The problem is that most of the people remaining have little immediate prospect of leaving. I brought over some football strips and scarves, thinking that I could nip into a settlement and have a chat with a family, surreptitiously slipping the parents a strip or scarf to present to their kid. It doesn't quite work out that way. Bored and restless in the heat, the boys are soon following us around in a growing mob, going crazy for the goods. I'm feeling a little foolish at being so naïve, my perspective conditioned by the last UNICEF trip I was on in Africa, where the kids were friendly but shy. They too had nothing, yet were still coy about accepting gifts. Here the boys are straight in, hundreds of pairs of large eyes full of need urging me to give the stuff to them. We literally can't move so quickly hand over the goods to the parents from the nearby homes to distribute to their children. One of the boys who gets a Hibs strip has his name down for the camp’s school, but can't get in as it’s so oversubscribed it seems it would be easier for him to gain entry to a British public school. His name is Abdul Ali, he's 12 and he wants to be a teacher. The strip is way too big for him and I only hope that he lives long enough to grow into it. For this camp is a crumbling cesspool of disease and malnutrition set in a barren, baking hot valley of dust and stones. The level of desperation one would need to have to come here is something I can't even begin to comprehend. I strive to find some sort of perspective on the journey back, which seems a lot less grueling when I think of the plight of those refugees. In the end, I can't shake of a troubling thought. In the new global order, too many Afghan people are tied to a way of life that is no longer sustainable, even in the short-term. And in this world, the notion of a cultural pluralism is, however many people aspire to it, nothing but a cruel myth. A massive energy and will for change in the Afghan people exists, but this is held back by a lack of national consciousness. Regional, tribal and ethnic thinking is strong, especially outside Kabul. But there is a growing recognition of the need to work together, bolstered by returning refugees who have seen what other countries have and are creating an aspiration. Parents now see education as more important than medicine for long-term protection of their families. A new Department of Women’s Rights exists, yet it remains to be seen whether or not this is just a token sop to the Bonn Agreement, and its emphasis on human rights. Monumentally impressive though, were the young girls at the schools. They have largely grown up hidden away behind closed doors, large parts of their childhood stolen from them by lunatics. But their humanity burns incandescently, their lust for life and knowledge so magnificent that it instantly strips away your cynicism. The elections will come along soon, following the transitional Loya Jirka council. Most Afghanistan people have probably seen too much to be over-excited by what we call democracy. All we can reasonably hope is that they’re not too disappointed by it.


Originally featured in the Daily Telegraph.