(First appeared in The Hindu, 12.01.2003)
A look back at the days spent in Kabul in the early months of President Karzai’s regime.
ENTERING Afghanistan engenders more than the usual fear of the unknown. Inhospitable mountain ranges as far as the eye can see, which the United States has been combing for reported remnants of the Al Qaeda is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
On the ground, the country hasn’t had the time to get itself together — much like the wreckage of damaged aircraft which lie strewn around the airport. Add to it the cultural biases that come to the fore on seeing the bearded Afghan men … this is Afghanistan today.
Unexpectedly, Kabul’s streets are wide and well planned with broad footpaths and medians. But they have taken a battering. The lamp posts have no bulbs and the ravages of war on what were once homes, tell a tragic human tale.
Kabul city is shaped like a saucer, chiselled out of the endless chain of hills.
Sunrise is a pretty sight.
There are no traces of exhibitionist mass religion. Even the occasional religious chants attain decent decibel levels. The most popular colour — on shop shutters to the national airline — is blue, not green.
Afghanistan’s original name is Ariyana — the physiognomy is unmistakably Aryan. India and Afghanistan once had a common boundary — to cross-over one needed no transit visa. There is more than just history behind the goodwill India enjoys among the people. What the second wave of the Taliban, most from Pakistan, did to them, is still fresh in the memory. Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan is still very porous — for goods and the not so good elements. If you remove the Hindi titles, cassette shop shelves will be nearly empty. Bollywood heroes are popular and familiar names. Exchanging greetings on the street often ends up with invitations for dinner, once they confirm you are from India and not Pakistan.
Thirty, may be 40 kilometres outside Kabul is still Al Qaeda country, one is told. Even within the city, antecedents are hard to trace. The Afghan National Army is only 2,000 strong — a tenth of the personal armies some of the warlords have. There is no wishing away the subterranean ethnic divide that threatens to surface, even as gun-totting multinational International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) members roam the streets in their Toyotas and Pajeros.
In the relative peace of Kabul, against the surrealistic background of a 70-mm war scene, life goes on: but for the frenzy of the markets, people seem to go through the paces of life with the languidity of a slow-movie sequence. What to an outsider’s eyes are visible signs of a vast human tragedy is accepted as normal. These impressions can indeed be misleading.
Close-up, it is a different story… Hasmathulla Shums is all of 20 years. From eight in the morning till six in the evening (not a minute extra), he plies his Toyota Corolla taxi attached to Kabul’s Hotel Intercontinental. At six he is ready in his maroon uniform, at the hotel’s desk, on duty till midnight. He is sharp, chirpy and enterprising.
Picking up and mending the many broken strands of life, the people of Afghanistan are taking a hard look at the losses and gains in terms of the number of freedoms restored; it includes the freedom of expression which they are learning to use.
As a visitor, one looks back at the days spent in Kabul as an experience in time-travel to a country whose clock has been set back. And it is a mix of mortal fear and relief one experiences on being told that the shortcut one almost took to the city hotel still has land mines. Kabul is full of them — call it the delayed action in war?