Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Letter From Bamian

A visitor from Kabul is shocked and saddened by conditions in one of the country’s most backward provinces.

Cliff face around empty Buddha niche is pockmarked with cave homes. Picture by Jean MacKenzie.

Bamian is a province imprisoned by history. Its residents, in fact, seem unable to exit the Stone Age.

Many of its people are still living in caves, burning animal dung to keep warm in the winter. Agriculture, too, is a primitive affair – the wheat is separated from the chaff by simply throwing the harvested ears of grain up into the air. The chaff blows away, the grain falls to the ground.

The eerily empty niches of the once-magnificent Buddhas dominate the landscape, a grim reminder of the Taleban years. In March 2001, the country’s black-turbaned rulers demolished the giant statues which had stood guard for nearly 2,000 years.

Unable to conquer the Buddhas with tanks and rockets, the Taleban paid villagers less than a dollar a day to climb to the top of the statues and pack them with explosives. Several Bamian natives died in the process; others were permanently crippled.

But the Taleban had their way: the niches house nothing more than rubble now.

I came to Bamian as a Kabuli, a resident of the relatively advanced capital. I am Pashtun, so share my ethnic origin with the majority of Taleban, but staring across the valley at the gaping holes, I wanted to hit something. If there had been a Taleban nearby, I think I would have taken him on.

Not that the Buddhas were the only, or even the main, victims of the Taleban’s anger and hatred. Bamian’s residents are almost exclusively Hazara, and the enmity between this ethnic group and the fundamentalists is legendary.

During the Taleban’s three-year reign in Bamian, the population was hit nearly as thoroughly as the Buddhas. Men, women, children, and livestock all fell to Taleban weapons. Many fled to the mountains, where they hid in caves for months, afraid to come near to the town.

Zia-ul-Haq, who now works as a guide, steering tourists over the mine-strewn hills, tells tales of his months on the run, with no furniture or even blankets for warmth, sneaking into town at night to beg food from those villagers who had stayed behind.

“It was a very difficult time,” he said, smiling now.

In other parts of Afghanistan, the Hazara gave as good as they got. Tales abound of atrocities on both sides of the equation, but here in Bamian it is hard to see the Hazara as torturers and killers. They seem a gentle, easy-going people, open and friendly, with a childlike curiosity.

There seems to be little awareness of the outside world. My travelling companion was an American woman – but we both seemed equally foreign to the people of Bamian.

When my companion asked in broken Dari whether one shopkeeper intended to vote for a woman in the upcoming parliamentary elections, he asked quite seriously whether she was running.

“I will vote for you,” he smiled.

There are some signs of ethnic tension, however. We were trying to buy “krut”, the dried yoghurt balls for which Bamian is famous. I found one shopkeeper whose product, I had heard, was second to none.

“I have no krut for you,” he said harshly, shooing me away. “Why?” I asked. “I am your neighbour.”

“You are no neighbour of mine,” he spat. “You talk like a Panjshiri, and I won’t sell you a thing.”

I am not a Panjshiri at all, and in fact hail from Wardak, just south of Bamian province. But he refused to hear my explanations, and finally appealed to my American companion, who confirmed that I was in fact telling the truth.

“Her I’ll believe,” he said, finally relaxing a bit. “But all Afghans are liars.”

In the end, we did not buy his krut. It had too much anger in it.

Tourism would seem to be Bamian’s ticket out of backwardness and poverty, but much remains to be done before any but the hardiest visitors will venture into the beautiful mountain valley.

Hotels are pretty basic and much too expensive: 40 US dollars a night buys a room little better than a prison cell, although to be fair, you do get an en suite bathroom. Of course, it has no hot water, and periodically runs out of cold water as well.

Restaurants here are not for the fainthearted. Our first stop in town was a café where my travelling companion and I ordered kabob and meat korma. The food came covered thickly in flies, and I wondered uneasily whether our next stop would be the hospital.

There are some timid signs of progress, however. The Roshan mobile phone network works here and there is an internet café for the few people who need to be connected. It is expensive, though – 60 afghani (1.20 dollars) for an hour online. Those are Kabul rates, but the population here does not have Kabul salaries. In fact, most of them have no salaries at all, unless they manage to scrape a living clearing debris out of the Buddha niches or working with one of the non-governmental organisations in town.

The area seems at least fortunate in its governor. Habiba Sorabi is the first woman to head a province in Afghanistan and the reviews are enthusiastic.

“Her heart hurts for her province,” said one parliamentary candidate. “She has a master plan, and wants to do good things for Bamian.”

The strong-willed governor has had a beneficial effect on the province’s women, as well.

“Since Habiba Sorabi came back as governor, women here feel more active, more able to join the community,” said Amina Hassanpour, health officer at the provincial department for women’s affairs.

The governor stands in stark contrast to what residents say is the central government’s neglect. They grumble that they get nothing from Kabul except broken promises. Almost four years into the regime of President Hamed Karzai, they still have no paved roads anywhere in Bamian, no electricity, and little in the way of healthcare.

It seems quite strange to me that people in my country should live like this.

But Bamian’s young people seem determined to edge their way out of poverty and into the bigger world. As we were coming back from a trek to Shahr-e-Zuhak, the red stone ruins of a once-great city, a group of children approached us, begging. They did not ask for candy, or chewing gum, or even money: They asked if we had pens or pencils, so they could use them at school.

What is going to happen in Bamian? The big question is, again, about the Buddhas. Will they be rebuilt? I think they will. They will attract tourists, and maybe the province will get some money out of it.

There is a lot of talk of a third, still hidden Buddha – a sleeping giant. Everyone claims to have found him. We saw people working, but there is nothing to see, just people chipping away where they think the Buddha might lie. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking - to replace what was lost.

But my view is that they should not rebuild the Buddhas. We should leave them as they are. It is painful to look at, but it is genuine. The emptiness is truer than any reconstruction could be. We should look into that emptiness – and remember.

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff writer in Kabul.

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