By U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar, 7th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
BAMYAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – For a land that is part of the world’s oldest battleground, there is something strangely spiritual about Bamyan.
The view in all directions is breathtaking. A patchwork of turquoise farmlands spiders out from the main river basin, nudging up to ruddy sandstone walls that step over themselves up to the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains that are jagged violet, blue and white rips in the distant sky.
On the valley floor, farmers plow their lush potato fields around decaying Russian tanks that have sunk into the earth over their treads, the relics of war being slowly consumed by green leaves and soil.
The sounds are beautiful too; water rushing through canyons, the crunch of shovels in the fields, birds chirping, and children playing. The din of conflict that has plagued so much of this country for so long has faded to a low, steady buzz – white noise from beyond the mountains.
And when the crops are blooming, the air smells like lavender.
Bamyan pulses like a peaceful heart encased in the body of a hardened warlord. The hope is that the tranquillity enjoyed here will eventually circulate to the rest of the country.
It is a daunting goal.
Inhabited mainly by the gentle Hazara people, Bamyan is relatively safe, but the surrounding provinces are not. War is always on the doorstep banging to get back in. The few U.S. Soldiers who visit from the much more kinetic provinces that encase this pocket of calm must feel like they’ve passed through some kind of portal when they land here. The roads that lead out of the valley are wrought with danger, and the Afghan police who have taken the lead on security here face serious challenges keeping insurgents from trickling back in, challenges that will get more difficult when ISAF forces pull out by 2014.
“Road security is the main problem, but Bamyan itself will be okay,” said Bamyan Governor Dr. Habiba Sarabi, the only female provincial governor in Afghanistan’s history. “Generally, Hazaras are a very civilized, open and peace-loving people. That’s a reason they suffered under the Taliban. So they want to take this opportunity to support their local government and keep the peace.”
Sarabi refers to an on-going struggle to heal from the nearly mortal wounds inflicted by the Taliban, who committed particularly cruel atrocities to the Hazara people because of archaic ethnic prejudices.
“We are a peace-loving people,” said Bamyan native Ali Abdul Ghani, an interpreter who works with the PRT. “I couldn’t hurt an ant, but if I could get my hands on one member of the Taliban I would not hesitate to cut his head off. I would vomit while I was doing it, but I would do it.”
His sentiments are echoed in every Hazara home in the province, an indication of the strong animosity felt across Bamyan against the Taliban and their ilk.
According to Richard Prendergast, the New Zealand diplomat who serves as the director of the Bamyan Provincial Reconstruction Team, it is the main reason the U.S. backed peacekeeping forces enjoy such a secure working environment here.
“The local Hazara are very resistant to an insurgent threat coming back,” he said. “By default they are very receptive to an international presence, which happens to be led by New Zealand. If a Pashtun suspicious-looking man walks into the bazaar, the locals will immediately ring the PRT.”
There are other challenges facing the region. Lack of electricity being the primary one at the moment, but the area still serves as a model for what Afghanistan can be.
In the decade since the intolerant Taliban regime was ousted from power, a different kind of army has descended upon Bamyan. Do-gooders representing dozens of different countries and non-governmental organizations have come to help this special place stand on its own again. Led by the Bamyan PRT, which is headed by tireless contingents of New Zealand and Malaysian soldiers, real progress is taking root.
Encouraging signs of advancement have sprouted up everywhere: More than 1,000 triangular stone doorways stand to the sides of the cultivated fields, entrances to efficient potato storage units designed by the Japanese. Brooks and streams rush into flumes that divert their energy through micro-hydro dams funded by the United States Agency for International Development. New tractors chug through the fields, plowing deeper and faster than the traditional teams of two oxen, thanks to a mechanization program spearheaded by the Bamyan PRT and funded by New Zealand Aid.
Farmers have stopped toiling alone and, guided by the PRT, formed cooperatives to pool their resources to purchase tractors, construct dams, improve irrigation, and secure micro-loans for members to buy quality seed and fertilizer during the planting season.
“We now have 158 co-ops,” said Dr. Shrikant Jagtap, the Senior PRT Advisor for agriculture. “We want at least 50 families in each, so that’s a minimum of 2,500 families participating in the program. Bamyan typically produces about 300,000 tons of potatoes per year. With our programs we’re expecting that to become 500,000 tons this year. These things are game-changers.”
“On health service, we have 76 health facilities, one provincial hospital and three district hospitals,” said Sarabi. “On development, good roads are very important, and we have many that are nearly complete.”
Perhaps the most heartening image seen around the province are the smiling, chattering girls with white head scarves streaming by the dozens out of schools each afternoon, their bright bobbing lines stretching for hundreds of meters. It’s a profound sight in a country where girls in many places still risk their lives to seek an education.
“We have 125,000 students going to school, and out of that 45 percent are girls,” said Sarabi. “It means we have the highest number of girls going to school. It is a great achievement for women everywhere.”
All of these good things and many more are happening in Bamyan for one simple reason – because they can.
“The reality is we have much less challenging security issues,” said Prendergast. “The south and east of Afghanistan, the Pashtun belt, suffers hugely from ethnic tensions, insurgency, and a sort of creeping foreign intervention from people like Pakistan. Those issues make it very difficult to make progress. Bamyan doesn’t deal with those issues.”
New Zealand, Japan, and Malaysia, in particular, should be acknowledged for their significant contributions to that end, said Prendergast, but it is the United States that deserves a lion’s share of the credit.
“Although it’s morphed into a state-building role, the reason we came into Afghanistan was to support our U.S. colleagues following September 11,” he said. “Why else would New Zealand be here? It’s not really in our strategic interest.”
The proof of ISAF’s success can be seen now as the PRT begins winding down and preparing for a complete exit by 2013, he said.
“Bamyan will have a lot of support and development beyond our exit, but our role now is to try to close our projects out, draw our footprint down, and hand it over to the Afghan leadership,” he said. “The fact that we’ve moved to a transition lead, to Afghan authorities, and Bamyan has stayed secure is itself a success. It could easily have deteriorated or been problematic.”
So can the whole of Afghanistan ever hope to achieve a peace like that in Bamyan?
The answer, like so many things in this country, is complicated.
“The level of understanding [between different ethnic groups] must increase,” said Fatima Razia, a student at Bamyan University. “One of the keys will be to transfer services from the population centers to more remote areas.”
“I can’t tell you exactly what the most important thing for progress is, but people need to be informed about the value and modern techniques of agriculture,” said another Bamyan University student, Mohammad Kavir. “The development of agriculture will be the development of Afghanistan.”
“I feel that doing the smaller projects empowers the community,” said Jagtap. “The people think, we can do this too. From the micro loans, the tractor programs, the small dams … they are not asking for anything free. They just need access to resources so they can help themselves.”
Of course, the main roadblock to overall peace in Afghanistan after 2014 will be security.
“We are very sick and tired of war,” said Soheila Rezai, a Bamyan native who owns and operates a beauty salon in the bazaar with her 16-year old daughter, Zahra. “One of my brothers was killed, and another was injured. We cannot sacrifice any more. We pray to God the days of the Taliban do not come back. We are hopeful for a brighter future, and we believe God will help us.”
“It will be challenging,” said Prendergast. “But [Afghanistan] is much stronger than it used to be, and I think it will hold.”
The key will be to convince all Afghan people to be as vigilant as the citizens of Bamyan.
For them, forgetting is impossible because two monumental reminders of the Taliban’s brutality rise over everything here.
The famous “Buddha’s of Bamyan” were more than 1,500 years old. 180 and 121-foot tall goliaths, carved by the hands of monks into the sheer cliff sides, they were the largest statues of a standing Buddha on Earth. They were also the spiritual epicenter for generations of Bamyan people.
The Taliban, in their typically small-minded fashion, destroyed them in 2001 for being idolatrous.
What’s left are two empty chambers, towering eye sockets where two of the most important archaeological treasures of history should be, forever watching with the rest of the world how life in Afghanistan plays out.
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