A country abandoned

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I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.

The same stranger who had no piggy bank, will leave.

And the child who had no dolls, will leave.

The spell on my exile will be broken tonight.

And the table that had been empty, will be folded.

In suffering, I wandered around the horizons.

It is me, who everyone has seen in wandering.

What I do not have, I’ll lay and leave.

I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.

(A Herati poet who was turned back from Iran)


FOR much of the world Afghanistan is just a drug producing country with rough, aggressive and fundamentalist men who hide their women under veils with no openings.

But there is perhaps another story to be told. I have travelled within Afghanistan and witnessed the reality of life in that nation. In 13 years I have produced two feature films on Afghanistan – The Cyclist (1988) and Kandahar (2001) – for which I have studied numerous books and documents to collect material for the films. Consequently, the Afghanistan that I know is very different from the image that much of the rest of the world has. It is a more complicated, different and tragic picture, yet sharper and more positive. It is an image that needs attention rather than negligence and suppression.


The tragedy in statistics

According to available figures, Afghanistan had a population of 20 million in 1992. In the past 20 years, and since the Russian occupation, about 2.5 million Afghans have died as a direct or indirect result of the war – army assaults, famine or lack of medical attention. In other words, every year 125,000, or about 340 people a day, or 14 people every hour, or one in about every five minutes have either died or been killed. When the crew of that unfortunate Russian submarine, Kursk, was facing certain death some months ago, satellite news reported every minute of the incident. When the Buddha statues of Bamian were being demolished the world heard about it non-stop. But nobody has had time for the death of Afghans every five minutes for the past 20 years. The number of Afghan refugees is even more tragic. According to the more precise statistics available, Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan total 6.3 million [before the current and continuing exodus – Editors]. If this figure is divided by the year, day, hour and minute, in the past 20 years, one person has become a refugee every minute. This number does not include those who scurry from north to south and vice versa to survive the civil war. I personally have no knowledge of any nation whose population has been reduced by 10 per cent via mortality and 30 per cent through migration and yet faced so much indifference from the world.

The customs post at the Dogharoon border between Iran and Afghanistan has a sign that warns visitors of strange looking items. These are mines. It reads: ‘Every 24 hours seven people step on mines in Afghanistan. Be careful not to be one of them today and tomorrow.’ I came across more hard facts at one of the Red Cross camps. A Canadian group that had come to defuse mines found the tragedy simply too vast, lost hope and returned. Now, over the next 50 years the people of Afghanistan must step on mines in large numbers to make their land safe and liveable. The reason is that every group or sect has strewn mines against the other without map or plan. The mines are not set in military fashion as in war and collected in peace. And when, it rains hard, surface water repositions these devices, turning once safe remote roads into dangerous paths. Very simply, a nation has mined itself to the brink of extinction.

Why then should Afghans not migrate when there is constant fear of hunger and death? A nation with a 30 per cent emigration entertains no hope about its future. Those still alive in Afghanistan are people who were not able to cross the borders or if they did, were sent back by neighbouring countries. And when Afghans themselves wish to flee Afghanistan why will there be any constructive foreign presence in the country? Businessman, barring drug dealers, will not risk investing there, and political experts will prefer to meet in western countries. There are no political experts in Afghanistan; only political suppositions offered from a distance. Hence, there are few outsiders to observe the enormous scope of its tragedy.

Around the city of Herat I witnessed about 20,000 men, women and children starving to death. They could not walk and were strewn on the ground awaiting the inevitable. This was the result of the recent famine. That same day, the then United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Japan’s Sadako Ogata, also visited these people and promised them the world’s help. Three months later nothing had changed and Ogata gave the number of Afghans dying of hunger to be a million nationwide. It struck me then that the statue of Buddha at Bamian crumbled out of shame for the world’s ignorance towards Afghanistan. It broke down knowing its greatness did not do any good.

In Dushanbe in Tajikistan I saw 100,000 Afghans running from south to north, on foot. It looked like doomsday. Such scenes are never shown in the media anywhere in the world. War-stricken and hungry children had run for miles and miles, barefoot. This fleeing crowd was attacked and refused asylum in Tajikistan. They died in their thousands in a no-man’s land between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and neither you found out nor anybody else. As a Tajik poet put it: ‘It is not strange if someone in the world dies for so much sorrow that Afghanistan has. What is strange is why nobody dies of this grief.’

Such indifference is perhaps the fate of a country without images. Afghan women are faceless, which means 10 million out of the 20 million population do not get a chance to be seen. A nation, half of which is not allowed to be seen is a nation without an image. During the last few years there has been no television broadcasting. There are only a few two-page newspapers with names like Shariat, Heevad and Anise that have only text and no pictures. This is the sum total of the media in Afghanistan. Painting and photography have been prohibited in the name of religion. There are no movie theatres in Afghanistan any more. From the world of cinema nothing is forthcoming from or about Afghanistan. True, Hollywood produced Rambo about the war in Afghanistan. The only authentic scene was Rambo’s presence in Peshawar, Pakistan, thanks to the art of back projection! It was merely employed for action sequences and creating excitement. This is Hollywood’s image of a country where 10 per cent of the people have been decimated and 30 per cent have become refugees and where currently one million are dying of hunger. Afghanistan is without an image despite its history and geography.


The history of an imageless country

Afghanistan emerged when it separated from Iran. It used to be an Iranian possession some 250 years ago, a part of Greater Khorasan province in the era of Nadir Shah. Returning from India, one midnight, Nadir Shah was murdered in Ghoochan. Ahmad Abdali, an Afghan commander in Nadir Shah’s army, fled with a regiment of 4,000 soldiers and declared independence from Iran. Since Ahmad Abdali belonged to the Pashtoon tribe, his absolute authority would not have been recognised by other tribes such as the Tajik, Hazareh and Uzbek. It was agreed, therefore, that each tribe would be governed by its own leaders. The rulers collectively formed a tribal federalism known as the Loya Jirga. From then to the present, a more just and appropriate form of governance has not emerged in Afghanistan.

Equally, from then till now Afghanistan has not evolved economically from an agricultural existence, nor has it moved beyond tribal rule to achieve a sense of nationalism. An Afghan does not regard himself an Afghan. In Afghanistan each Afghan is a Pashtoon, Hazareh, Uzbek or Tajik. Tribalism is the first aspect of their identity. From the time of Ahmad Abdali until today, when the Taliban rule over 95 per cent of the country, the main leaders have always been from the Pashtoon tribe. (Except for the Bacheh Sagha or the nine-month rule of Habiballah Galehkani, and the two years under the Tajik, Burhannuddin Rabbani.) Even the mujahedin of Afghanistan, when they fought the Russians, did not represent a unified struggle against a foreign enemy. Rather, each tribe warred with the enemy in its own region.

In the Niatak refugee camp (on the Iran-Afghanistan border) that accommodates 5,000 residents, it is not easy for Pashtoon and Hazareh children to play with each other and sometimes there is mutual aggression. Tajiks and Hazarehs find Pashtoons their greatest enemy and vice versa. They are not even willing to attend each other’s mosques for prayers. We had difficulty seating their children next to each other to watch a movie.

The reason for Afghanistan’s perpetual tribalism rests with its agrarian economics. Each Afghan tribe is trapped in a valley with geographical walls and is a natural prisoner of a culture stemming from a mountainous environment and farming economy. Cultural tribalism is the product of farming conditions rooted in the deep valleys of Afghanistan. Belief in tribalism is as deep as these valleys. Farming is the foundation of this tribalism which in turn is the basis for deep internal conflicts that prevent this would-be nation from achieving a national identity.

Pashtoons with a population of about six million make up Afghanistan’s largest tribe. Next are the Tajiks with about four million people, followed by Hazarehs and Uzbeks with populations of about four million and one to two million respectively. The rest are small tribes such as the Jmagh, Fars, Balouch, Turkman and Qezelbash. The Pashtoons are mostly concentrated in the south, the Tajiks in the north and the Hazarehs in the central regions. This geographical concentration in different regions will mean either complete and final disintegration or continued tribal federalism through the Loya Jirga system. The only alternative to these two scenarios necessitates changes in the economic infrastructure and the replacement of a tribal identity with a national one. Only such a change can break traditional culture and create a more modern one. But Afghanistan has nothing but drugs to exchange in the world market. Therefore, it has turned back on itself and become isolated.

For the Afghan farmer his world is his valley and his profession is farming when drought spares him. Meanwhile a tribal system resolves his social problems. Given this situation, he cannot have a share in the world economy. Furthermore, USD 80 billion in the global drug turnover depends on Afghanistan remaining as it is, without change, because if change prevails that USD 80 billion is the first thing to be threatened. Hence, Afghanistan is not supposed to realise a considerable profit even from this contraband trade since that itself may yield change for Afghanistan. If we add the USD 500 million income from the sale of opium to the USD 300 million from the sale of northern Afghanistan’s gas, and divide the total by the 20 million population, the result is USD 40 per capita annual income. If we further divide that figure by 365 days, each Afghan would earn about 10 cents a day. How are grounds for his economic and cultural transition to be provided to let him have a share?


Consequences of geography

Afghanistan has an area of 700,000 square kilometres. People live in cavernous valleys surrounded by towering mountains. To the same degree that these mountains obstruct foreign intrusion, they block the influence of other cultures and commercial activities. A country that is 75 per cent mountainous has problems creating consumer markets in its potential industrial areas and in exporting agriculture products to the cities. And despite the use of modern weapons, wars take longer to wage and seem never to end. Being mountainous increases both the cost of war and reconstruction after peace. If Afghanistan was not so rugged it would have had a different economic, military, political and cultural fate. Afghanistan is a victim of her own topography.

In its present state the economy of Afghanistan can keep its people half fed without any economic development. The average life expectancy of an Afghan has been calculated at 41.5 years and the mortality rate for children under two years of age was between 182 to 200 deaths per 1,000. The average longevity was 34 years in 1960 and in 2000 was pegged at 41. The reality however is that in recent years it has gone down to even lower than what it was in 1960.

The basic question that comes to mind then is, how are the Afghan people supported? It is either through construction work in Iran, participation in political wars, smuggling or becoming theology students in the Taliban madrasas. On the Iranian border the United Nations pays 20 dollars to any Afghan volunteering to return to Afghanistan. They are taken by bus to the nearest cities inside Afghanistan or dropped along the frontiers. Interestingly, due to lack of jobs in Afghanistan, the Afghans quickly come back and if they are not recognised, get back in line again to get another 20 dollars. The jobless Afghans turn every opportunity into an occupation. But there is a grim harvest to be reaped. I never forget those nights of filming Kandahar. While our team searched the deserts with flashlights, we would see dying refugees like herds of sheep left in the sands. When we took those who we thought were dying of cholera to hospitals in Zabol, we realised that they were dying of hunger.

The camp at Zabol looked more like a prison. The Afghans who had fled home because of famine or Taliban assaults were refused asylum and were waiting to be returned to Afghanistan. It all seemed legal and rational upto that point. People who enter a country illegally do get deported. But these particular people were dying of hunger. The camp could not afford to feed so many people and they had not eaten for a week. They had only water to drink. We offered to provide meals. We brought food for 400 Afghans ranging from one-month-old babies to 80-year-old men. Most of them were little kids who had fainted from hunger in their mothers’ arms. For an hour, we were crying and distributing bread and fruits. The authorities expressed grief and regret and said that it took a long time for budget approvals. They kept saying that the flow of hungry refugees was far greater than they could manage. This is the story of a country that has been ravaged by its own nature, history, economy, politics and the unkindness of its neighbours.

If Afghanistan were Kuwait, with a surplus of oil reservoirs, the story would have been different. But Afghanistan has no oil and neighbouring countries deport its underpaid labourers. So it is only natural that when opportunities for normal employment are unavailable the only remaining choices are joining the Taliban, smuggling, or falling to the ground in a corner in Herat, Bamian, Kabul or Kandahar and dying from the world’s indifference.

For many, theology is the obvious alternative to starvation. There are over 2,500 Taliban schools with a capacity between 300 to 1,000 students which attract hungry orphans. In these schools anybody can have a piece of bread and a bowl of soup, read the Quran, memorise prayers and later join the Taliban forces. For some, drug production and narcotic smuggling are the remaining and none-too-lucrative options. According to a UN report, in 2000, 50 per cent of all narcotic drugs worldwide was produced in Afghanistan. From this, Afghanistan earns only half a billion dollars annually, though the final global turnover amounts to 80 billion dollars. In transit to the rest of the world, the mark-up stretches 160 times. Thus, heroin enters Tajikistan at one price and exits at twice that much. The same goes for Uzbekistan. By the time drugs reach consumers in the Netherlands, they cost 160 to 200 times the original price. The money ends up with the various mafias who manipulate the politics of the countries en route.

If it were not for the extremely high drug profits, Iran for example, could have ordered half a billion dollars worth of wheat to Afghanistan as an incentive to stop planting poppy seeds. Yet the 79.5 billion dollar profit is far too valuable for the mob and its allied forces to dispose of poppy seeds. Ironically, the Afghan drug producer is not himself a consumer. Drug use is prohibited but its production is legitimate. Its religious justification is sending deadly poisons to the enemies of Islam in Europe and America.

Drugs are an interesting business for many. Just a few months ago when I was in Afghanistan, it was said that every day an airplane full of drugs flew directly from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf states. In 1986, when I was doing research for the making of The Cyclist, I journeyed by road from Mirjaveh in Pakistan to Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. It took me a few days. When I entered Miijaveh, I boarded a colourful bus of the kind that you might have seen in The Cyclist. The bus was filled with all kinds of strange people. People with long thin beards, turbans on the head and long dresses.

At first, I was unaware that the bus roof was filled with drugs. We drove across dirt expanses without roads. Everywhere was filled with dust and the wheels would sink into the soft soil. We arrived at a surreal gate like the ones in Dali’s paintings. It was a gate that neither separated nor connected anything from or to anything. It was just a superfluous gate in the middle of the desert. The bus stopped at the gate. There appeared a group of bikers who asked our driver to step down. They talked a little and then brought out a sack of money and counted it with the driver. Two of the bikers came and took over our bus. Our driver and his assistant took the money and left on the bikes. The new driver announced that he was now the owner of the bus and everything in it. Together with the bus, we too had been sold. This transaction was repeated every few hours and we were sold several times along the way. We found out that a particular party of smugglers controlled each leg of the route and every time the bus was sold, the price increased. First it was one sack of money then it went up to two and three towards the end. There were also caravans that carried Dushka heavy machineguns on camelback. If you eliminated our bus and the arms on the camels, you were in the primitive depths of history. Again we would arrive in places where they sold arms. Bullets were sold in bags as if they were beans. Kilos of bullets were weighed on scales and exchanged.

I had gone to Khorasan and along the border was looking for a site for filming. By sunset the villages near the border would be evacuated. The villagers would flee to other cities for fear of smugglers. They also encouraged us to take flight. Rumours of insecurity were so widespread that few cars passed after sundown. In the darkness of the night, the roads awaited the smuggling caravans. The caravans are believed to be made up of groups of five to a hundred people between 12 to 30 years of age. Each carries a sack of drugs on his back and some carry hand-held rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs to protect the caravan.


Emigre destinies

The Afghan’s choices are clearly very limited. Upon waking up each day, an Afghan has four options to consider. First is his livestock and this depends on drought not being an obstacle. The Afghans between 1986 to 1989 had about 22 million sheep. That is one sheep per person. This has traditionally been the main wealth of Afghanistan. This wealth was lost in the recent drought. Fighting for a group or sect is his second concern and generally because of unemployment he enters the army. All else failing, he enters the drug business. But the possibilites of this last opportunity is limited and the labour options of a nation of 20 million people cannot really be settled with a $500 million account accrued from cultivating poppy seeds.

Emigration and theology are therefore the compelling Afghan reality. Because of widespread need to migrate, human smuggling has become a new occupation for Iranian smugglers. Afghan families that reach the borders have to go a long way to arrive in Tehran and since their arrest is likely in Zabol, Zahedan, Kerman or any other city en route, they leave their fate in the hands of pickup-driving smugglers. The smugglers demand one million rials for every refugee hauled to Tehran.

Since in 99 per cent of the cases, the Afghan family lacks this kind of money, a couple of 13-14 year old girls are taken hostage and the rest of the family is secreted into Tehran through back roads. The girls are kept until their family finds jobs and pays the debt. In most cases the money is never provided. A 10 member family with a 10 million rial debt has to pay the interest as well after three months. Consequently, a great many Afghan girls are either kept as hostages around the borders or become the personal belonging of the smugglers. An official in the region related that the number of girl hostages in just one of those cities is in the region of 24,000.

Those who emigrate to Iran are Hazarehs, who are Farsi speaking Shiites. Language and religion incline them towards Iran. Their misfortune is their distinctive appearance: their Mongoloid features distinguish them from Iranians. The Pashtoon who goes to Pakistan, however, blends in with Pakistanis because of common language, religion and ethnicity. Although the Shiite Hazarehs find Pakistan more liberal than Iran, job opportunities in Iran are more appealing to them than the freedom in Pakistan. Bread clearly has priority over freedom.

For the Sunni Pashtoon it is a different trek that ends in the trap of another nation’s politics. As a result of not finding a suitable occupation, a hungry Pashtoon is attracted to the theological schools ready to offer food and shelter. Pakistan has promoted, organised and put into action the Taliban government for a variety of reasons. The first is the Durand line. Before Pakistani independence, Afghanistan shared borders with undivided India and serious disputes ensued over the Pashtoonestan region. The British drew the Durand line and divided the region between the two countries, on the condition that after 100 years Afghanistan would regain control over the Indian part of Pashtoonestan. When Pakistan declared independence, British-held Pashtoonestan became part of Pakistan. Some six years ago, Pakistan, according to international law was supposed to cede Pashtoonestan back to Afghanistan. But how will Pakistan that still has claims over Kashmir agree to return this land?

The obvious solution was to raise hungry Afghan mujaheds to control Afghanistan. The Pakistan-trained Taliban would naturally no longer harbour ambitions of recovering Pashtoonestan from their patron. No wonder the Taliban appeared just as the 100-year deadline drew to a close. From a distance, the Taliban appear to be irrational and dangerous fundamentalists. When you look at them closely, you see hungry Pashtoon orphans who are theology students by vocation, whose impetus for attending school is hunger. When you review the rise of the Taliban you see the political interests of Pakistan. If fundamentalism was the reason for Pakistan’s independence from Gandhi’s democratic India, the same applies for Pakistan’s survival and expansion at the expense of Afghanistan.

The Taliban have always been criticised for their fundamentalism but little has been said about the reasons for their arrival on the scene. The Herati poet who had come to Iran on foot returned to Afghanistan on foot, but the orphan who had walked to Peshawar in Pakistan returned to conquer Afghanistan driving Toyotas offered by Arab countries. How could Pakistan afford to feed, train and equip the Taliban? With the help of Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


Who are the Taliban?

A nation’s demand for security from its government is greater than any other consideration. Welfare, development and freedom come next. After the Soviet retreat, the outbreak of intense civil war created nationwide insecurity and the country was in perilous straits. Each group sought to provide its own security through continuous fighting. None, however, was able to provide safety for the nation. The mocking irony of this period was that everyone tried to ensure security by making the country unsafe.

The people were exhausted by civil war and when Pakistan dispatched the army of the Taliban holding white flags with the motto of public disarmament and peace, they were welcomed. In a short time, the Taliban had control over most of Afghanistan. It was then that the Taliban’s Pakistani roots became evident.

The strategy of disarmament and dispatch of the religious Taliban claiming to be harbingers of peace quickly succeeded in winning popular consent. In Herat, where they speak Farsi, when I inquired about the Taliban, who speak Pashtoon, the reply I heard from the shopkeepers was that prior to the Taliban, their shops were robbed daily by armed and hungry men. Even those who opposed the Taliban were happy with the security they brought.

Security was established for two reasons. One was the disarmament of the public and the other the severe punitive measures, such as cutting the hands of thieves. These punishments are so harsh, intolerable and quick that if 20,000 hungry Afghans in Herat saw a piece of bread before them, nobody would dare take it. Today, when you enter Afghanistan, you see people lying around on street corners. Nobody has the energy to move and no arms to fight with. Fear of punishment stops them from committing crimes. The only remedy is to stay and die in the face of humanity’s indifference.

In order to film these starving Afghans, I called Dr. Kamal Hussein, the UN representative from Bangladesh. I told him I wanted to get permission to go to north Afghanistan (then controlled by the late Ahmad Shah Massoud) and Kandahar (controlled by the Taliban). It was decided that a small group would go and eventually just two of us (my son and I) received approval to travel with only a small video camera. We were to be permitted to go to Islamabad (Pakistan) and take a small 10-seater UN airplane that flew once a week to the north of the country and once a week to the south.

It took two weeks for the UN office to call and inquire when it was convenient for us to depart. We were ready but they said that it would take another month. ‘Since it will get colder in a month and more people will be dying, it will make your film more interesting,’ they said. They recommended February. I asked, ‘More interesting?’ They replied that perhaps it would provoke the conscience of the world. I did not know what to say. We were silent for a while. Then I asked whether or not we could go to both north and south. The Taliban did not agree. They are not too fond of journalists. I made a promise to film only those dying of hunger. Again the Taliban did not approve. I told them I needed another invitation from the UN to re-enter Pakistan. Later, I received a facsimile stating that I had to go to the Pakistan Embassy in Tehran. I was happy because on an earlier occasion I had gotten a visa to Pakistan from the embassy to bring costumes for Kandahar from Peshawar.

At the embassy, at first I am not received warmly. A little while passes and I am called in. A very respectable lady and a gentleman direct me to a room. For 15 of the 20 minutes that I am in that room they talk about my daughter Samira and her international success in cinema. They avoid the main issue and in between I am asked why I applied through the UN to get a visa. They informed me that it would have been better if I had approached them directly. In addition they do not favour a film that misrepresents the Taliban government. They prefer that I go to Pakistan and not Afghanistan. I feel like I am in the embassy of the Taliban. I ask if they have seen The Cyclist and tell them I made a part of it in Peshawar and that it is not a political film. I tell them that my intentions are humanitarian and I want to help the Afghans. I tell them that my film is about the crisis of employment and hunger. They say, you have 2.5 million Afghans in Iran. Why not film them? It is useless to continue the discussion. They keep my passport and I am kindly asked to leave. A few days later, I receive my passport with a statement saying that if I want to go to Pakistan as a tourist, the visa can be issued but not for filming or going to Afghanistan. When I leave the embassy, all of what I have read or heard about the Taliban passes before my eyes.

I remember a Taliban school in Peshawar where I was escorted out as soon as my Iranian identity became known. And I remember a day when in Peshawar for filming The Cyclist, I was arrested and handcuffed. I do not know why every time I intend to make a film about Afghanistan I end up in Pakistan! People tell me to be careful. There is always the threat of kidnapping or terrorism at the borders. The Taliban are reputed to assassinate suspected opponents en route between Zahedan and Zabol. I keep saying my subject is humanitarian not political. Eventually, one day when we are finished filming near the border, as I am walking around, I come across a group that has come to either kill or kidnap me. They ask me about Makhmalbaf. I am sporting a long thin beard and wearing an Afghan dress. A Massoudi hat with a shawl covering it and half of my face makes me look like an Afghan. I send them the other way and begin running. I cannot figure out whether they have been dispatched by a political group or smugglers have sent them to extort money.

Let me go back to the issue of security. The Taliban have brought an apparent security to Afghanistan. On Shariat Radio (the voice of Taliban), which only has a two-hour programme daily, even if there is fighting somewhere they do not announce it, just to maintain a sense of national security. When they say, for example, that the people of Takhar welcomed the Taliban, it means that the Taliban attacked and conquered Takhar. The rest is just news about the Friday prayer or the amputation of the hand of some bandit in Bamian, the stoning to death of a young adulterer in Kandahar or the punishment of some barbers who have cut a few teenagers’ hair in the style of the western infidels. Whatever it is, with all the punishments and propaganda, a sense of national security suffuses Afghanistan.

But this has also created for the world an enduring image of Afghan aggression and barbarism. According to Freud, human aggression stems from human animalism and civilizations cover this with a thin veneer that splits at the snap of a finger. Violence exists in both East and West. What is different is the style not the fact of its existence. What is the difference between death by decapitation using knives, daggers or swords and dying by bullets, grenades, mines and missiles? In most cases, criticism of aggression is really the disapproval of the means of aggression. The death of one million Afghans as a result of the world’s injustice is not regarded as aggression. The death of 10 per cent of the Afghan population by civil war and war with Russia is not perceived as aggression. But decapitation by the sword will for long remain the headline of satellite television news.

It is naturally fearsome and horrible to see a person being decapitated but why does the death of people every day by land mines not give us the same feeling? The West can create a tragic story for a fallen statue, but for death by the millions, statistics suffice. As Stalin put it: ‘The death of one person is tragedy, but the death of one million is only a statistic.’


Who is Mullah Omar?

In my seemingly endless trip to Kandahar, everywhere there is talk of Mullah Omar. His title is Amir-al-M’omenin (Commander of the Faithful). Nobody really knows much about his background. Some say he is 40 years old and blind in one eye but there is no photograph of him to prove or disprove this. How does a nation choose a half-blind man overnight to lead them, when not even a picture of him has been seen? I am tempted to make a film about Mullah Omar. For political reasons I avoid it but my curiosity is not satisfied. If Pakistan prepares a precise script for the war-stricken people of Afghanistan under the rubric of disarmament, by what analysis do they plan for a leader called Mullah Omar who has no prior image? Someone who is nobody and has not been seen by anybody, becomes the leader of a country in which each tribe or sect has its own leader.

Perhaps this is where the secret lies. If a known person were appointed leader of Afghanistan, then many would have an excuse to oppose him. I hear a joke near the border about a teahouse. ‘A teahouse hosted Afghan customers on a regular basis. There was a TV set in this teahouse equipped with a windshield wiper. When necessary, the owner would spray water on the screen and clean the stains on it. The owner was asked about this and he replied that whenever there was a TV programme on the mujahedin in the border areas, their opponents spit on the TV. Since the customers used snuff their spittle was coloured. After a while the TV screen would became opaque so he invented the wiper.’

When leaders are needed to rule Afghanistan, the best way Is to design an imageless leadership that cannot be criticised for its form or background. Everyone I ask about Mullah Omar says he is a representative of God on earth who introduced the Qur’an as the country’s constitution. He is extremely devout, as are his followers. His wages are as paltry as the Herat’s governor’s – USD 15 a month – and he lives like the poor people who are dying in the streets. I realise that the image of this imageless man is complete and appealing because in the East, nobody expects leaders to be updated and specialised or to possess a national vision and universal insight. If only the leaders seem a little ordinary, it is enough to satisfy the people. As a starving Afghan put it, though he was starving he was happy that Mullah Omar too was always fasting. They were like each other. He thanked God for such a leader.

In Herat I speak to a medical student. He is hesitant to be seen talking to me. I ask him if he knows the total number of college students in Afghanistan. While he keeps walking and looking directly ahead, he says: ‘A thousand.’ ‘In what major?’ I ask. He says: ‘Only medicine and engineering.’ ‘Which one are you studying?’ I ask, and he says: ‘Theoretical medicine.’ I asked what that meant and he replied that Mullah Omar thinks human dissection is a sin. I asked if he had ever seen MuIlah Omar’s picture. He said no, and left. Among the Pashtoo refugees, I ran across someone who had himself not seen Mullah Omar but knew of people who had. I even met Iranian politicians who believe Mullah Omar does really exist and that he is also handsome. A few Afghans who sleep in Iran at night and cross the border by day to sell dates in Afghanistan are fascinated by Mullah Omar. They tell me that he is an ordinary monk who dreamed of Prophet Mohammad one night and was commissioned by him to save Afghanistan. Since God was with him, he was able to conquer Afghanistan in one month.


Afghanistan’s failed modernity

This is Afghanistan some 70 years after its first brush with modernity and reform. Between 1919-1928 Afghanistan was ruled by Amanullah Khan. He was inclined towards modernism, travelled to Europe, returned with a Rolls Royce and made known his reform programme. This included a change in attire. He told his wife to unveil herself and asked men to forego their Afghan costumes for western suits. He also prohibited polygamy. Traditionalists immediately begin opposing Amanullah’s modernising.

None of the agrarian tribes submitted to these changes and nothing ensued. The superficial, formalistic and petty modernism served only as an antibody to stimulate traditional Afghan culture, making Afghanistan so immune to it that even in the following decades, modernism could not penetrate the culture in a more rational form. The most advanced people in Afghanistan do not believe that Afghan society is ready yet for female suffrage. It is obvious then that the most conservative will prohibit schooling and social activities. It follows naturally that 10 million women will be held captive under their burqas.

With the coming of the Taliban, girls’ schools were closed and for a long time women were not allowed on the streets. Even before the Taliban, only one out of every 20 women was able to read and write. For all practical purposes, Afghan culture had denied education to 95 per cent of its women. The Taliban denied it to the remaining 5 per cent. The realistic question to ask then is whether the culture of Afghanistan is affected by the Taliban or was it the cause for the Taliban’s appearance?

When I was in Afghanistan, I saw women with burqas on their head begging in the streets or shopping in second-hand stores. What caught my attention were the ladies who brought out their hands from under the burqas and asked little peddler boys to polish their nails. For long I wondered why they did not buy nail polish to use at home? Subsequently, I found out that this was the cheapest way to do it. Initially I told myself that this was a good sign that women under burqas still like living and, despite their poverty, care about their beauty. It struck me later that there is really little satisfaction to be derived from seeing socially imprisoned women adorn themselves with cosmetics.

An Afghan woman has to maintain herself so that she will not be overlooked in the competition with her rivals. Polygamy is quite common even among the younger generation, and many Afghan homes have been turned into harems. Getting married means buying a woman. I have seen old men giving away l0-year old girls and, with the bride price that they receive, marrying other l0-year old girls. Scarce capital is circulated in a closed society by transferring young girls from one house to the other. Time and again I asked myself, did the Taliban bring the burqas or did the burqas bring the Taliban? Do politics affect change in culture or does culture bring politics?

Opposition to modernism is not necessarily expressed by traditional organisations. Sometimes it is a reaction by the poor against the rich, a war between poverty and wealth. Today, in Afghanistan the only modern objects are weapons. The ubiquitous civil war that has created jobs, in addition to being a political-military action, has also become a market for modern weapons. Even though it lags behind the contemporary age, Afghanistan can no longer fight with knives and daggers. The consumption of weapons is a serious matter. Stinger missiles next to long beards and burqas are still symbols of a profound modernism that are proportionate to consumption and modern culture.

For the Afghan mujahed, weapons have an economic basis. If all weapons are removed from Afghanistan, the war ends and then, given the sub-zero economic conditions, all of today’s mujahedin will join the refugees in other countries. The issue of tradition and modernism, war and peace, tribalism and nationalism in Afghanistan must be analysed with an eye to the economic situation and employment crisis.


Of hope and despair

Some 180 international organizations are said to be active in Afghanistan. They too avoid my non-political questions. I soon learn that they have taken on colossal tasks. One is to distribute bread among the starving. A second is to negotiate the exchange of north-south prisoners and a third is to make artificial limbs for land mine victims.

I am fascinated by the young people who have come here through the Red Cross. I meet a 19-year old British girl who says the reason she has come ‘is to be useful’. It is only here in Afghanistan that she can make so many artificial hands and legs for people each day. In England, which offers so much satisfaction, she cannot find a job. Since she came, a few hundred people have been able to walk with the artificial limbs she has made. But can all this do anything more than remedy the deep and extensive wounds of this nation in some very limited way?

Dr. Kamal Hossein, who is probably embarrassed about the visa to Pakistan, does not call me anymore. I remember his words the day he came to our office saying how he felt his job and efforts were in vain. And now, after I have finished making Kandahar, I feel futile about my own profession. I do not believe that the little flame of knowledge kindled by a report or a film can part the deep ocean of human ignorance. And I do not believe that a country whose people in the next 50 years will loose their hands and legs to anti-personnel devices will be saved by a 19-year old British girl. Why does she go to Afghanistan? Why does Dr. Kamal Hossein with all his despair, still report to the UN? Why did I make that film or write this note? I do not know, but as Pascal put it: ‘The heart has its reasons that the mind is unaware of.’

When I was crossing the border, I saw Iranian artillery pointing towards Afghanistan. When I entered Afghanistan, I saw artillery pointing to Iran. On the Afghan side of the border, I heard that the region’s military commander had called the Iranian consul and told him that their homes were made of clay, so what did the Iranian guns aim to target? He had said, ‘The worst that you can do is bombard our houses and when it rains we will take the wet mud and build our homes anew. Don’t you find it a pity if our guns destroy your beautiful homes? You can’t make glass and iron and ceramics with rain. Why don’t you come and build the road to Herat for us?’

The road from Dogharoon to Herat is worse than the winding roads of Iran. On the undulating terrain ahead, shovel-wielding men and boys stand for eternity. As far as the eye can see, there are shovel-wielding men. As soon as our car gets close to them, they start filling up the ditches with dirt and, while throwing worthless Afghan paper currency to them, we see them in the dust the same way that we saw the dance of leaves in Once-Upon-A-Time-Cinema. It is a scene of shovel-wielding men who disappear in the dust and have created an occupation for themselves out of nothing. This is the most surreal scene that I see in Afghanistan.

I ask the driver how many cars pass this road every day. He says, ‘About 30.’ I ask if these thousands of shovel-wielding men gather for only 30 cars, but the driver is preoccupied and is not in the mood to answer me. I turn on the radio. It has been years since I listened to the radio or watched TV and I have not read any paper for months. The 2 o’clock Iranian news is on. It makes me cry to hear that two million Iranian kids have gone to first grade today. I do not know if it is out of joy for the children who are going to school or out of sorrow for those who do not go to school here in Afghanistan. I look at the road and I feel like I am watching a movie. The driver tells me that in some of these houses girls’ schools are established secretly and some girls study at home. I keep thinking here is a subject for a film.

I arrive in Herat and see women polishing their nails from under the burqas. I tell myself here is another subject for a film. I see the 19-year old British girl who has come to dangerous Afghanistan to be useful. I tell myself again, here is another subject. I see loads of lame men who have lost their legs to mines. One of them, in lieu of an artificial leg, has tied a shovel to the left side of his body and walks with it. I tell myself, here is yet another subject. I arrive in Herat and see dying people covering the streets like carpets. I no longer see it as another subject. I feel like quitting cinema and seeking another occupation. In my opinion, the only solution for Afghanistan is a rigorous scientific identification of its problems and the projection of the real image of a nation that has remained obscure and imageless both to itself and to others.

Since the day I saw a little Afghan girl 12 years of age – the same age as my own daughter Hanna – fluttering in my arms in hunger, I have tried to bring forth the tragedy of this hunger, but I always ended up giving statistics. I have become powerless, like Afghanistan. I feel like going to that same poem, to that same vagrancy and, like that Herati poet, get lost somewhere, or collapse out of shame like the Buddha of Bamian.

I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.’

Mohsen Makhmalbaf



* Reprinted with permission from Himal South Asian 14(10), October 2001.