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The Muckraker

CIR Staff | Update: The Dick Goldensohn Fund | September 13, 2010

A secret history of violence

Earlier this year, CIR correspondent Anna Badkhen traveled from Moscow to Grozny to report on the simmering insurgency and human rights violations that continue to haunt Chechnya. Her reporting trip was supported in part by CIR's Dick Goldensohn Fund.

Badhken writes about her reporting trip in The New Republic.

Read Badkhen's reporting journal from the 43-hour train ride to Grozny on CIR's Muckraker Blog.

 

Three weeks in a hopeless land

"The world was new each day for God so made it daily. Yet it contained within it all the evils as before, no more, no less." -- Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF — Southwest of the airport, where the Northern Plains slope up into the dramatic massif of the Hindu Kush, a clay road meanders through some farmland until it meets a dried-out freshet. Park here and turn off the engine. Step outside and sit among the earthy tang of the grazing goats. Turn your back on the mountains, and watch gusts of wind drive herds of green wheat horses across the emerald valley; the coffee-colored billow of dust undulate above the low sprawl of Mazar-e-Sharif; and, beyond it, the dun, barely irrigated desert shimmer with diffraction.

If you sit here long enough, you will hear a low rumble at the airport: a B-52 Stratofortress bomber taking wing. It can carry 18 2,000-pound "smart" bombs, 51 500-pound bombs, 29,250 cluster bomblets, 12 nuclear cruise missiles. It could pulverize the Hindu Kush into beach sand.

A B-52 cruises at almost 50,000 feet. You can't build a clinic or a well from that high up.

In 2001, I watched this plane's sisters drive the Taliban out of power. I watched the children of my friend, Mahbuhbullah, dance atop the mud-brick fence of his farm and sing, "Airplane, airplane!"

Northern Afghanistan was brimming with hope then.

Almost nine years later, I traveled across the region to visit Mahbuhbullah and his children. The two-day road trip from Mazar-e-Sharif took me in and out of Taliban territory a dozen times. This time around, there were no checkpoints to mark my entries and exits, no friendly gunmen to direct my route. The Afghan government may control a town by day, and the Taliban, by night. There is no front line.

There is also no electricity, no clean water, no health care, no education for most Afghans. The land seems suspended in time. I notice two big changes. One: Islamist insurgents are gaining new ground in the north -- a region largely hostile to the Taliban the first time I came here -- almost daily. Towns that never saw Taliban rule before the war are now little fiefdoms of the militia. Taliban strongholds pincer my friend's village.

Two: the proliferation of cell-phone towers. In 2001, there were no cell phones.

Afghans have little hope for the future. But they have good cell-phone reception almost everywhere.


Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul

Through the window of my Boeing 737, I see the pale veins of ancient clay paths over which the Achaemenid invading armies marched, then the Greeks, then the British. A handful of craters in no particular pattern: a Soviet air raid. A neat row of 12 craters: A B-52 dropped its payload of 1,000-pound bombs here.

Among these scars, people eke out a living the way they have forever: with primitive wooden tools, nursing centuries-old grudges, alone. They bake delicious nan and cook giant vats of rice pilau and grow pomegranates with seeds the color of the fratricidal blood that soaks their tree-roots. They live in fear that their closest neighbors will kill their men and rape their women. They don't trust a government that has done nothing for them. They have no faith in the international donors whose aid has yet, nine years later, to reach them.

They do not invite the Taliban. They do not resist its advance, either. They are just trying to get through whatever misfortune rolls their way across these wracked plains next. These people are experienced at the art of war survival. They have been practicing it, almost incessantly, for millennia.

I had traveled to the north to see what had happened to the people I saw celebrate the Taliban's downfall in 2001. Of all the friends I had made then, I could find only Mahbuhbullah. The only effect the post-Taliban government has had on his life has been a negative one: Kabul has clamped down on the illegal trade of artifacts, and my friend can no longer augment his earnings by fencing small relics looted from Ai Khanuom, the town Alexander the Great built 2,300 years ago on the banks of the ancient Oxus River.

I could not find Hanon, a former Northern Alliance fighter who, in 2001, taught me how to cross a minefield and how to recognize the proximity of a bullet by the sound it makes. I could not find Ghulam Sahib, who drove me around northern Afghanistan in a Soviet-made military jeep with no suspension. The last time I saw them, they lived in Kunduz. Today, the province is mostly under Taliban control.

I imagine that they are not doing too well. Few people in Afghanistan are these days. But I like to think that they, like Mahbuhbullah, are surviving.

A few days before I left northern Afghanistan, I met an old man in a soiled turban sitting on his haunches on the sidewalk of Dasht-e-Shor street in Mazar-e-Sharif, cupping a white pigeon.

"Take her," the man said, thrusting the bird at me. The pigeon fluttered her hollow-boned wings whitely, then settled in his palm again. "Take her."

Men tending nearby juice stalls strolled over to watch. A young boy pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with cement slowed down. Women craned inside the stifling blue nylon of their burqas. I touched the pigeon's neck with my fingertips. Soft, weightless. She unfolded her wings again, and I could see the marble of her underbelly. Her legs were broken.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

My Afghan home

MAZAR-E-SHARIF — At dusk, the woman of the house kneels on the edge of the tandoor built into the cement floor in the corner of her yard, slips her hand into a sleeve ripped off years ago from some old jacket, reaches in, and pulls.

Nothing. The loaf of nan is stuck; the clay oven refuses to release it. She straightens up, pulling her hand away, and hollers for one of the handful of grandchildren in her twilit yard to fetch a long knife from the kitchen. The heat from the coals has colored her full face the color of a ripe orange. She throws back her head, takes a swig from a tall plastic bottle in which a chunk of ice has begun to melt, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, spots me watching her, and laughs.

My hostess has 13 children. For the last three weeks, I have been the 14th.

Every morning, after I pull on my shoes outside her front door, she throws water in my direction from a red plastic pitcher. A protective charm. The woman knows: This war has no front lines. Any highway or dirt road or city street or courtyard can become a battle zone at the clang of a bullet slipping into the breech of a Kalashnikov. The Taliban is nowhere and everywhere. Last week, insurgents wearing police uniforms set up a roadblock near a rotary I often take and searched passing cars for government employees and Afghan civilians working for NATO. A foreign journalist would have been a prize. Who knows whether one morning, the Taliban won't set up a checkpoint down the street?

If the Islamist militia finds out my hostess has been sheltering an American, the punishment will be severe. Unutterable. (That's why I will not publish the woman's name.) But she is a risk-taker. In 1997, when Hazaras and Uzbeks launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against Pashtuns in Mazar-e-Sharif, she provided sanctuary to a Pashtun family. In 1998, when the Taliban slaughtered and maimed Hazaras, she took in Hazara neighbors.

I know how these people felt inside the mortared walls of my hostess's compound.

Safe.

At home.

Mothered.

During the day, I keep the door to my room open because I know people will be filing in and out anyway, usually without knocking. That's how life happens in this family of 24 (or 27; the matriarch is not sure). Someone will come by to bring me a thermos of fresh green tea. A china saucer of green raisins, sometimes with tiny brown teardrops of almonds mixed in. A pewter tray with some apples, and a paring knife.

One of the woman's nine sons will stop by to see if I need anything else, and if I am feeling well. Another will borrow some stationery. The 8-year-old granddaughter will run in to give me a quick, firm hug, and then run off to the kitchen, where the women are always cooking something good in giant pressure cookers. The 2-year-old granddaughter, the baby of the family who calls me auntie, will stop by to raid the pistachios I keep on my magazine table.

One morning the grandchildren ambush me as I am headed out the door and spray me with deodorant, all over my clothes and headscarf. They want me to smell extra nice out there, in the hostile and unpredictable world beyond their grandmother's protective walls.

Sometimes the matron herself comes in and sits on the couch her sons thoughtfully brought up to my room the day I arrived. She fans herself with the free end of her gauze scarf and complains about the heat. About the housework that has consumed her 50-something years. (She does not know exactly how many. Few Afghans keep track of their age -- who wants to count the seasons of privation?)

She complains about the war that has plundered her country during most of these years.

She talks in Dari, a language I do not speak. But I know what she is saying. An Afghan woman's lot, like war, requires no translation.

Each afternoon, I stumble into the house distraught after another day of reporting. Villagers abandoned by the world to survive or perish in the violence that has been wracking Afghanistan since time immemorial. The slow caving in of the mud-brick compounds whose owners were either fortunate enough to have run away from war -- or unfortunate enough to have been killed in it. Refugees who survive on stale bread soaked in boiling water. Opiated women hand-weaving priceless carpets for 40 cents a day.

Children as young as 7 forced into hard labor by their indigent parents.

Children who die before they become old enough to be forced to wheelbarrow bags of cement, or shoe horses, or pump car tires; whose death is foretold by their poverty.

If she could, my hostess would take in all these children, too.

She would let them fly kites on the flat cement roof of her house. She would mix up their names the way she mixes up the names of her children and grandchildren. (She'll go through five or six names before getting to the one she is looking for. Mothers do that.) They would sleep in the room where I am staying now, with its second-floor view of the labyrinthine sprawl of mud-brick and poured concrete rooftops and courtyards that recede toward the gunmetal knuckles of the northern Hindu Kush. Round loaves of cow manure, for cooking fuel, dry on the rooftops. (The courtyard beneath my window is taken up entirely by a neighbor's milch cow. On hot afternoons, the cow sends wafts of hot, wholesome farm smell into my room. At night, it sighs meaningfully in its sleep.)

She would feed these children fresh disks of whole-wheat nan from her hot clay oven. The nan tastes like love.

I will never forget this taste.

My time in Mazar-e-Sharif is nearly up. I leave the house tomorrow. Tonight is the last time I get to watch my hostess bake bread.

A granddaughter -- the one who likes to run into my room for a quick hug and a kiss -- arrives at the tandoor with a kitchen knife. The woman draws a sharp breath, as though before a deep dive, and leans back into the oven. At knifepoint, the oven surrenders; the bread loaf emerges crusty underneath and soft and ocher on the top. The color of the land that produced it.

She dabs the hot nan with some water from an aluminum basin, to keep it moist, tosses it onto a cut of folded, clean cotton cloth, and reaches into the tandoor again. More loaves come out. Night has sprinkled stars into the high Afghan sky, the rice pilau is seething in the pressure cooker in the kitchen, and it is almost time for dinner.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Eternal enemies, one mile apart


Hajji Nizam, the Hazara leader in Karaghuzhlah.

SHINGILABAD AND KARAGHUZHLAH — An Afghan grave is rarely more than an ovoid mound of dry clay. Sometimes there are a few rocks, arranged in no particular pattern, or a few shards of chipped pottery. Occasionally, some strips of colorful cloth whiffle from an uneven wooden pole that cants over the dead.

But don't be fooled by this lack of mnemonics. The living remember their dead very well here. Especially if the deaths were violent.

Especially if the killers have crossed one of the many ethnic divides that carve up the Afghan countryside into a volatile jigsaw puzzle.

Beneath the vaulted ceiling of his living room in the village of Shingilabad, Hajji Sultan, a Pashtun elder with henna-painted toenails, recounts murders that took place 15 years ago as though they happened yesterday.

"Hazara people from Karaghuzhlah village killed my brother and my nephew," Hajji Sultan says. His long gray beard fades to ivory where it reaches his chest. "In broad daylight. At four o'clock, on a Thursday. They ambushed them on the road, walked them off to the desert, broke their arms, and shot them in the head, several times."

Hajji Sultan bends his fingers to count the 22 people Hazaras killed in Shingilabad that year: "Khan, Ghazi, Qamalladin, Sakhedad, Matai, Abdul Rauf..." Half of the old man's right thumb is missing. "Shrapnel," he explains, but refuses to tell me which battle the shrapnel had come from, and whom he was fighting.

I drive over to Karaghuzhlah, a mile or so to the southeast. Hot spring air along the gravel road quivers with bad blood and recriminations.

In the shadow of a white mulberry tree, Hajji Nizam, the Hazara leader in Karaghuzhlah, offers a tally of his own.

"Mohammad, Alivar, Haidar, Ghulam Sakhi, Nawruz." Hajji Nizam touches the outstretched fingers of his right hand with the index finger of his left. His grandchildren, squatting around him, listen carefully, so that they, too, can remember the names of their ancestors murdered by the Pashtuns. So that they can one day repeat them to their children. Overripe berries fall soundlessly to the ground. "We also found two dead bodies of our people near Shingilabad," Hajji Nizam says.

The old man cannot recall the exact year the Karaghuzhlah Hazara were murdered. Was it 1998, the year the Taliban, which is made up mostly of ethnic Pashtuns, mutilated, shot, and slit the throats of some 6,000 Hazaras in Mazar-e-Sharif?

Or was it 1997, the year members of the Hazara Hezb-e-Wahdat party joined the Uzbek Junbish-e-Milli militia in the massacre of 3,000 Pashtun Taliban soldiers in the Balkh capital?


Hajji Sultan, Pashtun elder.

In a country racked by ethnic bloodshed for centuries, what's a year or two -- and who is to say that the decade-old crimes will not repeat tomorrow? The presence of Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan is itself the product of a 120-year-old state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing of Hazaras, the Shia Muslim minority who are believed to have descended from the armies of Genghis Khan, and who are traditionally shunned by other Afghans. As part of an anti-Shia campaign, the Afghan king Abdur Rahman -- the "Iron Amir," the history books here call him -- forcibly settled 10,000 Pashtun families north of the Hindu Kush in the 1890s.

Today, the resurgent Taliban is finding a foothold in the pockets of Pashtun settlements across northern Afghanistan that date back to that forced migration. Fear of ethnic violence is one of the reasons some Pashtuns in the north embrace the return of the Islamic militia. Hajji Sultan says that only during the Taliban regime did he feel protected from his Hazara neighbors.

"Maybe there are good men among them," the Pashtun elder concedes. "But how can we trust them? They want to rape our women and kill us, kill all the Pashtuns."

"Maybe there are good Pashtuns in Shingilabad," responds a young Hazara man named Sayed Aref. His village, Nawaqel, is a small oasis about three miles southeast of the Pashtun settlement. Sayed Aref's cousin, Azghar, was one of the 14 villagers Taliban soldiers killed in 1998. The soldiers put him in a ditch and emptied a Kalashnikov magazine into his body. Azghar was 13 years old.

"I think these villagers are Taliban, or helped the Taliban," Sayed Aref says. "We see them as a threat."

On the way back to Mazar-e-Sharif, the gravel road takes me past a smattering of settlements: Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara. Each village sits apart from the rest, isolated within its thick clay walls like a small fortress. A few minutes outside the district center, Dawlatabad, the road cuts through what is left of the village of Desham.

Ethnic Pashtuns lived here once, until the U.S.-led offensive drove out the Taliban regime in 2001. Fearing reprisals by Uzbek and Hazara militias, the villagers fled. Some say they went to Pakistan; others say they moved to Chardara, the Taliban stronghold in Kunduz province. Stray blades of wheat and pale-blue wildflowers have sprouted beneath the caved-in domes of derelict rooftops.

But beyond the ruined houses, the fallow fields are still furrowed. As though eight years count for nothing. As though the abandoned village still remembers the men who once tilled its blood-soaked earth.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

In the children’s ward

MAZAR-E-SHARIF — By the time the government-run Mazar Civil Hospital finally accepted Nadia four days ago, the 22-month-old girl had been unable to hold down any food for eight months. She couldn't walk. She couldn't stand.

Now she lies motionless, sweating on top of a cruddy synthetic blanket in 90-degree heat, with an IV catheter sticking out of her limp right foot. The catheter is hooked up to nothing.

The diagnosis on the handwritten chart Nadia's grandmother has tucked behind some clothes tied into a filthy checkered scarf reads: Diarrhea. Dehydration. Malnutrition. Pneumonia.

The same diagnosis is scribbled on the chart of the 22-day-old Khurzadeh, who passes in and out of conscience next to a plastic bag holding two cucumbers, his mother's beggarly dinner.

And on the chart of the three-month-old Naqibullah, he of the thumb-thin legs and the horrid, scratching cough; he whose moonfaced mother spends her days rocking him in her arms -- because what else can she do? Her breasts are barren from too many children and too little food.

She cannot afford to buy most of the medicine the doctors here have prescribed. Love and oscillation is all she can offer.

The hospital is foul-smelling and grimy. The floor has not been washed for days. A piece of old gauze hard with black dried blood lies in the hallway. But the children who are here are the lucky ones. In most of rural Afghanistan, sick children just die. Oxfam, the British relief agency, reports that the mortality rate for Afghan children under five is 257 out of 1,000.

In a country where less than a third of adults can read and policemen adorn their stations with ram's horns to block jinxes, taking a sick child to the hospital is usually the last resort. Government hospitals and clinics are free, but travel is too expensive, or too distant. Few parents recognize the symptoms of disease. The mothers who squat over their children at the pediatric ward had waited for weeks, even months, before they decided to come here. Abdul Rauf Furukh, the chief doctor of the pediatric ward, says two out of every 100 children arrive in his care too late to be saved. That number seems low, given the circumstances.

With a piece of coal, Sharifa has drawn a black vertical line on the forehead of her five-month-old son, Hasan, to ward off the evil eye. She also has stitched a special prayer -- written for her on a piece of paper by a mullah at her mosque -- into a square of brown cloth, pinned that cloth and some beads to a white cotton sheet, and wound the sheet tightly around Hasan. Hasan was born prematurely; his twin brother died at birth, before Sharifa had a chance to name him.

Sharifa says Hasan has always been sick.

"Even with the doctors and the mullah, he is not well," Sharifa sighs.

The same four words -- diarrhea, pneumonia, dehydration, and malnutrition -- are written in Hasan's chart. But who is to say for sure that the diagnosis is correct?

"Our diagnostic system is antiquated," says Dr. Furukh. "It has not been updated in 50 years."

Across the aisle from Hasan, two emaciated toddlers share a rusty metal cot by the window, next to the cardboard box inscribed with the word BIOHAZARD; three used syringes stick out of the top of the box. There are not enough cots in the 120-bed pediatric ward for each patient to have one to himself. The boys' mothers sleep in this cot, too: The ward has only 15 nurses, and relatives have to stay by their children at all times.

I ask the women how the four of them fit on the same bed at night. They don't seem to understand the question. Their children got admitted to the hospital. Maybe they will get better. Who are these mothers to complain?

At one point during the winter, when the annual pneumonia epidemic spread through northern Afghanistan, the ward had three, even four children -- and their mothers -- to a cot.

As the desert air outside the hospital windows pulsates in the heat, Dr. Furukh prepares for another annual epidemic: dysentery. Children will ingest infection with river water (only a third of Afghans has access to clean drinking water) and lick it off their fingers at family meals; they will pass bacteria to each other at night, on the sweaty mattresses they share with their siblings.

Sick children at the hospital will have to double and triple up on beds again. Doctors will have to stop admitting new patients.

It was winter, pneumonia time, when the hospital turned Nadia away.

"They said there was no room, no medicine," says Nadia's grandmother, Safia. "Eight days ago, they finally accepted us."

But there is still no medicine for Nadia. Her treatment at the hospital consists of some IV fluid and milk formula, which she still does not hold down. Safia has wrapped the doctors' prescriptions for antibiotics and anti-diarrheal drugs into the same filthy checkered kerchief in which she keeps a change of clothes. The prescriptions add up to almost $150 worth of medicine to fill at the bazaar. Nadia's mother is recovering from giving birth to another baby, her fifth. Nadia's father, a day laborer in a western suburb of Mazar-e-Sharif, earns enough for the family to eat dinners of stale bread soaked in hot water.

Flies land on Nadia's face. Her eyes are open, unfocused, unseeing.

Safia will not buy the medicine.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Homesick for nowhere

MAWJIR KISHLAK — Homesickness.

Dictionaries define it as the longing for home during a period of absence. There must be, then, a separate term for the pining of the 1,300 people who have settled in the wind-beaten tents, dugouts, and hand-slapped mud huts of Mawjir Kishlak. Their homesickness is without a specific object or duration; it is metaphysical and infinite. Their period of absence began before most of them were born.

Who knows when it will end?

The two knolls of Mawjir Kishlak -- "Immigrant Village" in Dari -- rise out of the clay road like the twin humps of a Bactrian camel. Children in bright dresses eddy around the dwellings that saddle the hillocks. Most of the children are barefoot. Their hair and voices are thick with dust. None of them seem to know their exact age. But their parents can tell you in which refugee camp they were born.

Most were born in Jalozai Refugee Camp, near Peshawar, Pakistan, where the 225 families that now squat in Mawjir Kishlak lived after fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 28 years ago.

Some were born in Sholgara, a town southwest of Mazar-e-Sharif, in a field designated for buzkashi, the Afghan national sport that involves horsemen and a beheaded goat. The buzkashi field was where the Afghan Ministry for Refugees and Repatriation first dumped the families when they returned to their homeland two years ago.

The littlest ones were born here, in Mawjir Kishlak, where the ministry's officials moved the families when the buzkashi season started. The ministry promised the refugees that Mawjir Kishlak was their final destination. That this land was in government possession and the government was allocating it to them. That finally, they were home.

When word of this reached Malim Salam in his large family house in Kishlak Qadim, two miles away, he was surprised.

Malim Salam spreads a piece of paper on the carpet of his large living room. The paper shows a map and some official-looking stamps. It is a deed to the hills of Mawjir Kishlak. His father owned the land before him, and his father's father owned it before that. It is the pasturage of his sheep and goats. The government has never asked Malim Salam for permission to put any refugees on this land.

"I respect these people; I have nothing against them," Malim Salam tells me. "I respect their human rights and I respect the government, so I have not kicked them out by force. But they have usurped my land."

Misallocation of land has plagued the return of refugees to Afghanistan. Many refugees end up on land like the stretch of infertile, salt desert I visited two weeks ago, in Camp Shahraqi Mawjirin, with no access to jobs or health care or schools for the children. Many others, like the families in Mawjir Kishlak, are placed on contested or private land. People in Mawjir Kishlak, incidentally, have no access to health care or schools, either. The nearest water source is the Balkh River, a muddy mountain runoff that gurgles through a valley near Malim Salam's house.

The conflict over Mawjir Kishlak is all the more contentious because the landowner is an ethnic Uzbek, and the returnees are Baluch, a Pashto-speaking people. Northern Afghanistan dwells in the blood Uzbek and Pashtun militias have spilled over decades of recurrent fighting with each other.

April is ending; it is time to take livestock to pasture. Malim Salam wants his grazing land back. Last week, he filed a petition to the government, asking that the refugees be removed.

"I'm not a powerful man. I am not against the government. I am not a warlord. I want to solve my problem legally," he says, pushing the deed toward me again across the black-and-red crystal pattern of his carpet.

But the squatters' elder, Mullah Ghulam Rasul, says that the families are not leaving. That the government has put them on this land and therefore it is rightfully theirs. That vagrancy has exhausted his small flock. He is a beautiful, tall man with an aquiline nose and ember-like eyes. He looks three decades older than his 54 years. A homesick year counts for two.

I don't know the age of Bibi Rangina, who lets her wild gray hair hang unbraided under a large black scarf. She looks to be 100.

"They should either give us land, or bury us all in it," she croaks, and spits.

Last year, the settlers began to fortify their encampment. Among the weathered donated tents bearing sky-blue UNHCR stamps, they built single-room huts out of clay. They clawed caves out of the face of the hill and roofed them with straw and sticks. They spread colorful, threadbare kilims inside and nailed wooden hooks into walls to hang handwoven cradles for their infants. Their dwellings began to take on the appearance of home.

Like the Little Prince, who started each day by pulling baobab sprouts out of his tiny planet, the women of Mawjir Kishlak begin each day by sweeping out snakes and frogs that have crawled into their huts and caves overnight.

And then, they keep sweeping. All day. Until their arms go numb. Until the kilims are impeccably, painfully clean. Until they can almost forget that clumps of dry earth shake loose out of the walls each time someone walks by. Until they can almost believe that they are home.

Until night seeps into the unlit camp in streaks of dusty ultramarine and umber, and white flashes of dry lightening flare over the twin humps of Mawjir Kishlak, and it is time to put another homeless, homesick day to bed.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Is the U.S. airlifting Taliban troops into northern Afghanistan?

NAUBAD AND UMAKOI — On moonless nights, after the agony of a fuchsia and orange desert sunset fades to complete blackness, U.S. helicopters airlift Taliban fighters from Kandahar and Helmand to highly secretive drop areas on the sedimentary planes of northern Afghanistan.

Qaqa Satar, my opinionated driver from Mazar-e-Sharif, believes this. My host in Kabul, a shoe salesman, believes this. His daughter's fiancé, a freelance radio journalist, believes this, as does my old friend Mahbuhbullah in Dasht-e-Qaleh, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kunduz, and the turbaned elder of Naubad and Umakoi, two farming villages just outside the ancient, limestone walls of Balkh, their porous dry clay pale through the fields of unripe wheat like the bones of some prehistoric dragon.

Do not rush to dismiss this far-fetched conspiracy theory as the unenlightened jabber of uneducated men. Consider it, instead, a byproduct of the grotesque failure by international donors and NATO to improve life here, despite the billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops pumped into this country since the war began on Oct. 7, 2001.

Think of it this way: The notion of an unholy, clandestine partnership between the United States and the Islamist militia it has been trying, unsuccessfully, to defeat for eight and a half years is the only plausible explanation of a reality these Afghans find all but unbelievable -- that the Taliban is getting stronger. That for most people here, life is not changing for the better.

Eighty percent of Afghans today live in the same exact landscape Alexander the Great must have beheld when he sacked Balkh in 327 B.C., and Genghis Khan when he sacked it again in 1221: walls of straw and mud, half-gnawed away by weather and age; hand-sown fields tilled by doubled-over farmers in unbleached robes with knobbly, wooden tools. Most have no electricity. No clean water. No paved roads. No doctors nearby.

Naubad and Umakoi are like that. There, Ajab Khan, a turbaned elder in once-tasseled slip-ons that now are more mud than leather, demands that I explain to him why, despite the alphabet soup of relief agencies that operate in Afghanistan, despite the cutting-edge military technology that allows U.S. planes soaring invisibly high to precision-bomb tiny targets on the ground, despite cell phone towers that have sprung up all over the country, his people still live in the 11th century (if the 11th century had limited access to cell phones).

"The Taliban levied taxes on everyone," Ajab Khan says, "but" -- he holds up a gnarled finger for effect -- "there was order, there was security. There was no corruption. No theft."

I hear the same refrain from Sayed Karim Talash, the head of the Kunduz office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. I ask him what precipitated the return of the Taliban to parts of northern Afghanistan that, in 2001 and 2002, seemed relieved to be rid of the Islamist movement's unforgiving rule.

He replies, "The Taliban had a fair, unbiased justice system. People's problems were solved in less time. The Taliban helped the needy. They didn't allow crime."

I hear it, also, from Qaqa Satar -- except the driver is reminiscing about life under the Soviet-backed rule of President Mohammed Najibullah instead of the Taliban.

"The Russians cared for the people," he tells me. We are driving to Mazar-e-Sharif after slogging through a camp of dugouts, tents, and clay huts some 1,000 former refugees slapped together by hand after returning from exile in Pakistan two years ago. From each tent, each dugout, hands thrust at me wads of prescriptions the refugees cannot afford to fill. Doctors' orders they cannot afford to follow. Filthy infants they cannot afford to clothe.

This would have never happened when the communists were in charge, Qaqa Satar tells me, shaking his head.

"People were happy," he says.

Never mind that the Taliban publicly maimed and executed people for misdemeanors, and officially excluded women from public life.

Or that Soviet troops killed upward a million Afghans, deliberately bombing hospitals, razing entire villages, and scattering bomblets disguised as children's toys.

The men I speak to profess no recollection of any such crimes.

"Sure, the Taliban didn't allow women to go out -- but the security was good," says Talash.

"The Soviets punished very few people, and only those who deserved it," Qaqa Satar retorts.

It occurs to me that perhaps they need this selective memory loss, this nostalgia that erases and smoothes out the memories of past iniquities. In a land where history is a progression of savageries inflicted by men with ever-evolving weapons upon the same mud-brick landscape, a sanguine recollection of the past allows for the belief that life has been better.

It allows for the chance that one day, life will be good again.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Warped lives

OQA, AFGHANISTAN — The wooden loom takes up the whole room, clay wall to clay wall, south to north. In the southern end of the room, two women sit cross-legged on top of the first few inches of the carpet they started weaving this month.

Fine clay dust dances in the light that seeps into the room through the entryway, a woozy approximation of a rectangle. There is no door. There is no roof, just some dry desert scrub brush over unfinished wooden rafters. There is no glass in the windows the size and the shape of a sheep's head. There are only the coarse, undyed wefts stretched tautly over the loom; the maroon, beige, and black warp threads; the women's fingers that knot the warps over the wefts; and the small, black scythes the women use to cut the warp thread after each tiny knot has been fastened.

Then they fasten the next knot.

The scythes go: Thk. Thk. Thk.

It takes six months to weave a carpet because the women can only weave from eight until 11 in the morning, and then from one until five in the afternoon. Before eight, they have to bake bread in the clay ovens that stand outside and boil eggs laid by the emaciated chicken that wander into the room to balance on loom beams. From 11 to one, they must cook rice for lunch. After five, they must cook rice for dinner. The diet has not changed for years, maybe centuries. In the fall, the women's husbands will kill some chickens and hunt hare and gray fox in the infertile desert, and the women will cook some poultry and meat.

Thk. Thk. Thk.

This carpet will be six feet by 18 feet, and in the West, it will sell for $5,000 or more. The two weavers have never seen this kind of money. When they are finished, their husbands will take the carpet to a dealer in Mazar-e-Sharif -- first, a three-hour trek by donkey to the nearest town; after that two hours by taxi -- who will buy it for $150, plus wool for the next rug.

"The shopkeeper keeps half the money," complains Chareh, the husband of one of the weavers. The shopkeeper keeps much more than that, I think to myself. But what's the point of saying this to Chareh? I say nothing.

Under the fingers of women -- and one day, under the faraway feet of some unknown patron who will pick out this carpet to grace a distant living room floor -- small octagonal flowers with ogival petals bloom in frames of brown and beige rhombi over a field of deep maroon. Each flower is a thousand knots.

Thk. Thk. Thk.

Each knot traps the omnipresent dust, the hot sun that heats up the room like one of the clay tandoors the women use to bake bread in the morning.

It traps the dreadful cough of the small children who sometimes sleep in the two cloth cradles mounted to the walls above the loom. The small, perpetually sick children who sometimes die in these two cloth cradles: because winters here are cold and there are no doors and no glass in the window and the roof sponges and seeps cold rainwater onto the cribs, and the nearest doctor is three hours away by donkey (but even that only in the summer, because there is no road out of Oqa, only clay desert, and in the winter, when it is so cold that children die from sickness, rain and snow make the clay impassable, even by donkey).

Last winter, little Siaqol died like that. He was three months old.

Thk.

Forty families live in Oqa, a village on a hilltop that protrudes slightly from the grey desert. There is no farmland, and no livestock. Most of the women weave carpets. Most of the men collect dry desert brush, burn it into coal, and sell that in Mazar-e-Sharif for $4 a bag. A four-day trip to the desert will yield four or five bags of coal. The men mount the bags on camels and take them to the town where there are taxis. The taxis charge $1 per bag.

Qaqa Satar, who has been driving me all over northern Afghanistan, brought me to Oqa; he often comes here to hunt. He said it was a place I needed to see. To find Oqa, you drive through the desert. At first a dirt road weaves through mine fields, which some international demining agency has thoughtfully marked with clusters of rocks painted red. Then the road ends, and there is just silvery scrub tufting a clay expanse. There is no road to Oqa because no one in Oqa has a car. From a distance, because of diffraction, the village looks like a city of skyscrapers. The villagers' dozen camels look like dragons floating on air.

Qaqa Satar has heard that a thousand years ago, or maybe more, Oqa men ruled the desert on stealthy camels that flew like the wind, conquering and sacking castles all over northern Balkh. He thinks it might be true. People from Oqa had told him this, and their ancestors before them had told them.

Sometimes the women weave camels and dragons into their carpets. Thk. Thk. Thk.

The women don't want to talk to me. One is hiding behind a soiled white burqa. The other interrupts her weaving to assess me, an alien presence over her loom. The room is dim; the woman's pupils are very small. I have seen these pupils before, in the eyes of addicts. With no doctor around, the villagers use the traditional remedy for every kind of ache, the local panacea: opium. Opium eases pain, stupefies hunger. At night, the villagers give it to their children to chew, to ease them into sleep.

Opium helps the women focus on the ogival petals and the acute angles of the rhombi.

Thk, thk, thk.

What has changed in Oqa in recent years, I ask Baba Nazar, the local elder who says he is 70 years old.

Nothing, he says.

He thinks about it.

At first we had to travel to Mazar-e-Sharif by donkey or camel, and then cars appeared in the nearest town.

How long ago was that?

Thirty years? he guesses.

Chareh interjects: Three years ago the government came here in trucks and brought a generator. The generator is easy to find. It is inside the only building with sharp corners and straight walls.

It is a 23-horsepower generator, made in China by Shandong Laidong Engine Co., Ltd. It is not connected to the short power line the government has stretched the length of the village on poles. Nor is the power line connected to any of the houses, or street lamps, or any electric outputs anywhere.

When the generator first arrived the villagers ran it at night, to see how much it would cost to operate it. After two nights, the fuel ran out. The men figured that each family would need to pay 20 cents per night for gas. Chareh laughs. No one here has this kind of money. At $75 a carpet every six months, the weavers earn 40 cents a day. The villagers have not turned on the generator since.

But there is hope from foreign aid. One time, last year, two Britons came every day for 20 days by car and filmed something. And last month, a group of doctors showed up in Oqa and asked if there were any opium addicts who needed treatment. Three villagers went with the doctors: two women and one man.

They took them to a hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif, to make them healthy, Chareh says. They will come back in a month or so, Baba Nazar adds. The doctors will bring them back, corrects another villager. The doctors came in big shining trucks: Of course they will bring them back, and pay them money, says another.

The men tell the stories of these foreign visitors as though they have already appropriated these stories into the oral library of village yarns, full of legends of weavers who wove sun into the sky, and of thousand-strong armies of Oqa men who conquered distant castles on the backs of winged camels.

As though the foreigners and the hope they bring will fade into the woolen warp thread and become, just like the other sagas of the past, something the Oqa women might one day weave into their knotted carpets.

Thk, thk, thk, go the scythes over the loom.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Afghanistan's little men


Hasan, center.

Mazar-e-Sharif

Before it dead-ends in a crowded burst of kiosks, pilgrims, and taxicabs at the northern gate of the Blue Mosque, Dasht-e-Shor Street is a motley procession of businesses that constellate by type.

First come the auto body shops, with gauges and hoses and pipes protruding from dark, sooty metal shipping containers. Then the welders, displaying heavy iron gates painted blue and green to ward off evil spirits. Then the bicycle dealers, decked out with rows of well-worn bikes and wheelbarrows (here the street is interrupted by a soccer field behind the wrecked wall of a bombed-out building); then a few small rice pilau and kebab stalls; and, finally, a long white-and-blue stretch of pharmacies.

Somewhere between the welders and the bike dealers, I buy a small box of pomegranate juice from Mahdi.

Mahdi is 11 years old. He has been running the soft drinks stall on Dasht-e-Shor for his uncle since he was seven. At first, the work was part-time, but after he graduated 4th grade he quit school to become a full-time street vendor.

Mahdi rolls up the metal blinds of the shop at 6:30 in the morning; he closes at seven or eight at night. The uncle is usually there to help open and lock up the store, but generally, Mahdi is on his own. How much does he earn for his work? I ask. Mahdi counts my change and juts out his chin in proud indignation.

"He is my uncle!" the boy says. "It would be totally embarrassing to take money from him."

The child mortality rate in Afghanistan is second only to Sierra Leone's. More than 2 million Afghan children are orphans. Children are also the casualties of the war over Afghanistan's modernization: Last weekend, someone pumped poison gas into two schools for girls in Kunduz, poisoning scores of students.

Despite the billions of international aid dollars funneled into Afghanistan since 2001, the country is weighed down by crushing poverty -- a burden that falls heavily on children. The United Nations estimates that one-third of Afghanistan's children under 14 work. Drive out of any city in any direction, and you will see children as young as seven herding livestock, tilling fields, leveling dirt roads. Peek inside the shops of Dasht-e-Shor Street: Half of the workforce on this grimy boulevard appears to be children. There are child welders, child carpenters, child auto mechanics, child haulers of bags of cement, child shredders of carrots for someone else's pilau.

There are no child pharmacists. A child cannot be trusted with something so delicate as medicine. Especially if he hasn't finished elementary school.

Walk south on Dasht-e-Shor, toward the cyanic mosque thought to enshrine the remains of both Imam Ali and Zoroaster. Several blocks before the mosque, take a right on Mandawi Street, toward the main bazaar, and, if you are in the mood, pick up some cottage cheese from Hasan. He is the kid in the canary yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the words TOM AND JERRY and AIR HERO COME. He buys his cottage cheese from a wholesaler down the street and sells it at a very slight markup that will set you back a penny or two.

Hasan says he is 10; from the distance of a few feet, he looks about six. But look at his face. Those worry wrinkles across his forehead. That skeptical down-curve of his mouth. Those eyes, suspicious of life. It is the face of an old man, a man who has already seen everything and knows that no more is coming.

While Hasan and I chat, a crowd of boys surrounds us. One sells tomatoes, another wild garlic; a third sells toys for children whose parents can afford to buy toys -- children who don't have to work in the street all day. Although these children work, too, in the homes of their parents: doing the dishes and the laundry, preparing and serving breakfast and dinner, serving innumerable cups of tea to their parents' guests and cleaning up afterward, even if they stay till midnight on a school night. They eat leftovers of their fathers' dinners. Few eat meat.

Amin, his broad face discolored in blotches by malnutrition, comes pushing his beat-up wheelbarrow: For 20 cents he will follow you around the market and trundle your purchases to your car. If the car is far away, he will charge 40 cents.

I ask Amin how old he is. He doesn't know.

The boys don't chatter the way other kids do, don't push each other out of the way. They listen to each other talk, then offer their reserved, monosyllabic opinions about street work.

"Porter work pays better than selling plastic bags," one opines.

"You'd better move your wheelbarrow closer to the cheese row: You'd get more customers," another advises Hasan.

Businesslike. Adult-like. In the evening, when purple and red rhombi of boys' kites cut through the smog colored orange by the sunset, none of the kites will be theirs. Theirs will be the kiosks to push through the streets and lock up, the wheelbarrows to put away, the juice stalls to shutter, the money to bring home.

I bid the boys farewell, and they nod. They don't like to waste words.

I am 20 paces away, and someone calls: "Bye, auntie."

A block down Mandawi Street, across the black gutter from where men and boys sell little hot suns of fresh bread, two boys who look like brothers squat at the edge of an oblong heap of rotting trash. They don't seem to notice anyone else. The older picks out of the fetid mess two strings of green onions, brushes off the more decomposed parts with his fingers. He hands one of the onion shoots to the younger boy, and they eat.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Afghanistan’s boys in blue

Sholgara

There have been so many police chiefs in the district of Sholgara in recent years that the people who live in this granitoid bowl of smooth mountains tapering toward the Balkh river valley in a mellow polychrome of fields have forgotten to count them. All that anyone can tell you is that Captain Ghawsuddin Tufal has been chief of Sholgara police for five months.

Who knows how long he will last?

The Taliban is not known to operate in Sholgara, but someone claiming to be a member of the Islamist militia has already called his cell phone twice to threaten to kill him if he doesn't quit. To protect a population of 100,000 he has a police force of 45 men. And three cars. And a sole police station on the edge of downtown Sholgara: a gravel-strewn compound suffocating in the sun where the men, wrapped in impressive bandoliers of 7.62 rounds, stand and squat along low walls all day, swatting at flies, while the chief chain-smokes in his tiny office.

The couches that clutter the room exhale puffs of dust every now and then, as though the captain's lungs and the furniture's upholstery are somehow connected.

Has he mentioned -- he inquires between drags -- that he receives absolutely no money to pay for gas for the police cars? When someone calls the cops, he pays out of his own pocket. Some villages are 30 miles away from the police station. Captain Tufal's monthly paycheck is $400; a gallon of gas costs about $3.60.

The 120 villages in his charge are a dizzying kaleidoscope of ethnicities, political alliances, family and village feuds so old that the sides cannot quite remember how they started. There is a lot of bad blood here; there is a lot of spilled blood. In the last three decades, everyone has fought everyone in Sholgara: The mujaheddin fought the Soviets; the Tajiks fought the Uzbeks; the Hazaras fought the Pashtuns; the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance; various Northern Alliance warlords fought each other.

The fighting continues today: A few months ago, in the riverside village of Siaub, one former anti-Taliban warlord killed another. Provincial police drove down from Mazar-e-Sharif to arrest him; five days later, the prosecutors set him free.

"Let's put it this way: He has powerful supporters," Captain Tufal says, tweezing another cheap Korean cigarette out of the pack. "If I were to arrest him, I wouldn't last a day. This is Afghanistan, not America."

The people of Sholgara don't call the cops very often. Once they called Captain Tufal when they found a cache of rocket-propelled grenades hidden under some crumbs of dry clay by an old T-54 tank that sits upside-down on the unpaved main road, the words "People of Sholgara, Vote for Abdullah!" scrawled in black spray paint across its corroded hull.

Another time, some men called when they stumbled upon four 122-millimeter rounds wired together to form a powerful, remote-controlled roadside bomb, farther south on the same road. The captain doesn't know who put the explosives there: maybe a warlord trying to kill a rival, or a villager seeking revenge for some century-old offense.

Generally, though, people here don't look to police for security. Anyone here will tell you: They don't trust the police. And why should they? En route from Sholgara to Mazar-e-Sharif today I watch a policeman at a checkpoint demand a bribe from a pickup truck with a camel and some burlap sacks tied to the bed with rope.

"Too little," the officer tells a careworn Uzbek driver offering, through a rolled-down cab window, a soiled, sweat-drenched green bank note: 10 Afghanis, or about 22 cents. A line forms. Men stuck behind the camel truck relax the grip of their steering wheels and rummage in their pockets for bills.

At this checkpoint, in the middle of a road that could at any moment be besieged by bandits, by Taliban fighters, by kidnapping gangs, Afghanistan's centralized government doesn't offer protection to these men. Instead, the men require protection from it. No wonder they cling to the traditional feudal semi-anarchy of fortified villages, and erect the thick walls of mud and straw of their family compounds patiently, by hand. They know: In the end, these will be the only walls that will matter.

Less than a mile away from the Sholgara police station, a small, 60-year-old castle presides over 15 acres of farmland that belong to two brothers. The outer walls are painted ocher; at first, I think the two towers and the primitive battlements are a stylization.

No, no, the owners assure me, and show me the four-foot-thick walls, and the castellations that provide a 360-degree view of the valley. Our grandfather built this, for fighting. For defending ourselves so that our houses are not looted and our women are not raped. This is real, it can be used very efficiently, you see?

From whom are you defending yourselves? I ask.

The farmers study me for a moment, trying to understand whether I am being deliberately obtuse.

Then, one of the men shrugs, and they say, in unison:

"Everyone."

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.