Limbs of No Body: Indifference to the Afghan Tragedy, Part I
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran
November 1, 2001
The chief casualty of any war is a sense of genuine, universal humanity. With the United States now at war in Afghanistan, humanitarian considerations are in short supply—except insofar as they can be used propagandistically to muster further support for a military strike. For this reason we have decided to publish here an edited and adapted version of an essay by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, which appeared in The Iranian (Tehran) on June 20, 2001, and is reprinted as follows with their permission. Makhmalbaf, who is Iran's most celebrated film maker, and was a political prisoner under the Shah, has made such important films as The Cyclist and Kandahar—both about Afghanistan. The intimate portrait of Afghanistan that he provides here should not be read primarily as a political and historical document—in these areas it is clearly inadequate, for example in depicting the role of the United States in forming the Mujahedin in its war against the Soviets—but rather as a deeply moral and humanitarian account of the tragic circumstances of the Afghan people and the callousness of the West. It is thus a vivid portrayal of one of the world's great human tragedies by one of its great artists—imparting a message desperately needed in our times—[Monthly Review] Eds.
If you read my article in full, it will take about an hour of your time. In this hour, fourteen more people will have died in Afghanistan of war and hunger and sixty others will have become refugees in other countries. This article is intended to describe the reasons for this mortality and emigration. If this bitter subject is irrelevant to your sweet life, please don’t read it.
The World’s View of Afghanistan
Last year I attended the Pusan Film Festival in South Korea where I was repeatedly asked about the subject of my next film. I responded, "Afghanistan." Immediately I would be asked, "What is Afghanistan?" Why is it so? Why should a country be so obsolete that the people of another Asian country such as South Korea have not even heard of it?
The reason is clear. Afghanistan does not have a role in today’s world. It is neither a country remembered for a certain commodity, nor for its scientific advancement, nor as a nation that has achieved artistic honors. In the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, however, the situation is different and Afghanistan is recognized as a peculiar country.
This strangeness, however, does not have a positive connotation. Those who recognize the name Afghanistan immediately associate it with smuggling, the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalism, war with the Soviet Union, a long-time civil war, famine, and high mortality. In this subjective portrait there is no trace of peace and stability or development. Thus, no desire is created for tourists to travel to or businessmen to invest in Afghanistan. So why should it not be left to oblivion? The defamation is such that one might soon write in dictionaries that Afghanistan can be described as a drug producing country with rough, aggressive, and fundamentalist people who hide their women under veils with no openings.
Add to all of that the destruction of the largest known statue of Buddha that recently spurred the sympathy of the entire world and led all supporters of art and culture to defend the doomed statue. But why did no one except UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadoko Ogato, express grief over the pending death of one million Afghans as a result of severe famine? Why doesn’t anybody speak of the reasons for this mortality? Why is everyone crying aloud over the demolition of the Buddha statue while nothing is heard about preventing the death of hungry Afghans? Are statues more cherished than humans in the modern world?
I have traveled within Afghanistan and witnessed the reality of life in that nation. As a filmmaker, I produced two feature films on Afghanistan within a thirteen-year interval (The Cyclist, 1988 and Kandahar, 2001). In doing so, I studied about ten thousand pages of various books and documents to collect data for the films.
Consequently I know of a different image of Afghanistan than that of the rest of the world. It is a more complicated, different, and tragic picture, yet sharper and more positive. It is an image that needs attention rather than forgetfulness and suppression.
But where is Sa’di to see this tragedy—the Sa’di whose poem "All people are limbs of one body" is above the portal to the United Nations?
News headlines matching a country’s name must always be checked. The image of a country presented to the world through the media is a combination of facts about that country and an imaginary notion that the people of the world are supposed to have of that place. If some countries of the world are supposed to be coveted places, it is necessary that grounds be provided through the news.
What I’ve perceived is that unfortunately in today’s Afghanistan, except for poppy seeds, there is almost nothing to spark desire. Thus Afghanistan has little or no share in world news, and the resolution of its problems in the near future is far-fetched. If like Kuwait, Afghanistan had oil and surplus oil income, it could also have been taken back in three days by the Americans and the cost of the American army could have been covered by that surplus income.
When the Soviet Union existed, Afghans received Western media attention for fighting against Communism. With the Soviet retreat and later disintegration, why is the United States, which supports human rights, not taking any serious actions for ten million women deprived of education and social activities, or for the eradication of poverty and famine that is taking the lives of so many people?
The answer is because Afghanistan offers nothing to long for. Afghanistan is not a beautiful young woman who raises the heartbeat of her thousand lovers. And we know that Sa’di was not speaking of our time when he said "All people are limbs of one body."
The Tragedy of Afghanistan in Statistics
There has been no rigorous collection of statistics in Afghanistan in the past two decades. Hence, all data and numbers are relative and approximate. According to these figures, Afghanistan had a population of twenty million in 1992. During the past twenty years, about 2.5 million Afghans have died as a direct or indirect result of 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 1 in about every five minutes, have been either killed or died because of this tragedy. This is a world wherein the crew of that unfortunate Russian submarine was facing death some months ago and satellite news was reporting every minute of the incident. It is a world that reported nonstop the demolition of the Buddha statue. Yet nobody speaks of the tragic death of Afghans every five minutes for the past twenty years. The number of Afghan refugees is even more tragic. According to more precise statistics the number of Afghan refugees outside of Afghanistan living in Iran and Pakistan is 6.3 million. If this figure is divided by the year, day, hour, and minute, in the past twenty years, one person has become a refugee every minute. The number does not include those who run from north to south and vice versa to survive the civil war.
I personally do not recollect any nation whose population was reduced by 10 percent via mortality, and 30 percent through migration, and yet faced so much indifference from the world. The total number of people killed and made refugees in Afghanistan equals the entire Palestinian population, but even among us Iranians our share of sympathy for Afghanistan does not reach 10 percent of that for Palestine or Bosnia, despite the fact that we have a common language and border.
When crossing the border at the Dogharoon customs to enter Afghanistan, I saw a sign that warned visitors of strange looking items. These were mines. It read: "Every twenty-four hours seven people step on mines in Afghanistan. Be careful not to be one of them today and tomorrow."
I came across more hard figures in one of the Red Cross camps. The Canadian group that had come to defuse mines found the tragedy simply too vast; they lost hope and returned home. Based on these same figures, over the next fifty years large numbers of Afghans will step on mines before their land is safe and livable. The reason is because every group or sect has strewn mines against the other without a map or plan for later collection. The mines were not set in military fashion to be collected in peace. This means that a nation has placed mines against itself. And when it rains hard, surface waters reposition these devices turning once safe remote roads into dangerous paths.
These statistics reveal the extent of the unsafe living environment in Afghanistan that leads to continuous emigration. Afghans perceive their situation as dangerous. There’s constant fear of hunger and death. Why shouldn’t Afghans emigrate? A nation with an emigration rate of 30 percent certainly feels hopeless about its future. Of the 70 percent remaining, 10 percent have been killed or died and the rest (or 60 percent) were not able to cross the borders or if they did, they were sent back by the neighboring countries.
This perilous situation has also been an impediment to any foreign presence in Afghanistan. A businessman would never risk investing there unless he is a drug dealer, and political experts prefer to fly directly to Western countries. This makes it difficult to resolve the crisis that Afghanistan is faced with. This adds to the ambiguity of crisis in a country burdened with such an enormous scope of tragedy and ignorance on the part of the world. I witnessed about twenty thousand men, women, and children around the city of Herat starving to death. They couldn’t walk and were scattered on the ground awaiting the inevitable. This was the result of the recent famine. That same day Sadako Ogato also visited these same people and promised that the world would help them. Three months later, I heard on Iranian radio that Madame Ogato gave the number of Afghans dying of hunger to be a million nationwide.
I reached the conclusion that the statue of Buddha was not demolished by anybody; it crumbled out of shame. Out of shame for the world’s ignorance towards Afghanistan. It broke down knowing its greatness did no good.
In Dushanbeh in Tajikistan I saw a scene where 100,000 Afghans were running from south to north, on foot. It looked like doomsday. These scenes are never shown in the media anywhere in the world. The war-stricken and hungry children had run for miles and miles barefoot. Later on the same fleeing crowd was attacked by internal enemies and was also refused asylum in Tajikistan. In the thousands, they died and died in a no man’s land between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and neither you nor anybody else found out.
A Country with No Images
Afghanistan is a country with no images, for various reasons. Afghan women are faceless which means ten million out of the twenty million population don’t get a chance to be seen. A nation, half of which is not even seen by its own women, 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 by the names of 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 also been prohibited in the name of religion. In addition, no journalists are allowed to enter Afghanistan, let alone take pictures.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century there are no film productions or movie theaters in Afghanistan. Previously there were fourteen cinemas that showed Indian movies, and film studios made small productions imitating Indian movies, but that too has vanished.
In the world of cinema where thousands of films are made every year, nothing is forthcoming from Afghanistan. Hollywood, however, produced Rambo about war in Afghanistan. The whole movie was filmed in Hollywood and not one Afghan was included. 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. Is this Hollywood’s image of a country where 10 percent of the people have been decimated and 30 percent have become refugees and where currently one million are dying of hunger?
The Russians produced two films concerning the memoirs of Russian soldiers. The Mujahedin made a few films after the Soviet retreat, which are essentially propaganda movies and not a real image of the situation of the past or present-day Afghanistan. They are basically heroic pictures of a few Afghans fighting in the deserts.
Two feature films have been produced in Iran on the situation of Afghan immigrants, Friday and Rain. I made two films The Cyclist and Kandahar. This is the entire catalogue of images about Afghans in the Iranian and world media. Even in TV productions worldwide there are a limited number of documentaries. Perhaps, it is an external and internal conspiracy or universal ignorance that maintains Afghanistan as a country without an image.
Tribal Conflicts—Past and Present
Afghanistan emerged when it separated from Iran. It used to be an Iranian province some 250 years ago and 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 four thousand soldiers. He declared independence from Iran and thus Afghanistan was created.
In those days it was comprised of farmers and overwhelmingly ruled by tribes. Since Ahmad Abdali belonged to the Pashtoon tribe, naturally, he could not have been accepted as the absolute authority by other tribes such as the Tajik, Hazareh and Uzbek. Thus, it was agreed that each tribe would be governed by its own leaders. The rulers collectively formed a tribal federalism known as the Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga system reveals that not only has Afghanistan never evolved economically from an agricultural existence, it has never moved beyond tribal rule, and has failed to achieve a sense of nationalism.
An Afghan does not regard himself an Afghan until he leaves his homeland. Then he is regarded with pity or suffers humiliation. In Afghanistan, each Afghan is a Pashtoon, Hazareh, Uzbek, or Tajik. In Iran, perhaps except in the province of Kurdistan, we are all Iranians first. Nationalism is the first aspect of our
perception of a common identity. But in Afghanistan all are primarily members of a tribe. Tribalism is the first aspect of their identity. This is the most obvious difference between the spirit of an Iranian and that of an Afghan. Even in presidential elections in Iran, the candidate’s ethnicity has no national significance and draws no special vote. In Afghanistan since the era of Ahmad Abdali until today, as the Taliban rule over 95 percent of the country, the main leaders have always been from the Pashtoon tribe. (Except for the nine months of Habiballah Galehkani’s rule known as Bacheh Sagha and the two years of the Tajik Burhannuddin Rabbani respectively, Tajiks have not otherwise held power.) During the making of Kandahar while I was in the refugee camps at the border of Iran and Afghanistan, I realized that even those Afghan refugees who have lived in difficult camp conditions, did not accept their Afghan national identity. They still had conflicts over being Tajik, Hazareh, or Pashtoon. Inter-tribal
marriages still do not take place among Afghans nor is there any business conducted between them. And with the most minor conflict, the danger of mass bloodshed prevails. I once witnessed the killing of a member of one tribe, by a member of another, in revenge for cutting in a bread line.
In the Niatak refugee camp (on the Iran-Afghanistan border) which accommodates five thousand residents, it is not easy for Pashtoon and Hazareh children to play with each other. This sometimes leads to mutual aggression. Tajiks and Hazarehs find Pashtoons their greatest enemy on earth and vice versa. None of them are even willing to attend each other’s mosques for prayers. We had difficulty seating their children next to each other to watch a movie. They offered a compromise wherein Hazareh and Pashtoon children took turns watching.
Many diseases were prevalent in this camp and there were no doctors. When a doctor was brought in from the city, the camp residents didn’t give priority to treating those who were most ill. Only a tribal order was accepted. They appointed a day for Hazareh patients and another for Pashtoons. In addition, class distinctions among the Pashtoons prevented them from coming to the clinic on the same day.
In shooting scenes that needed extras, we had to decide to choose from among either Hazarehs or Pashtoons, though all of them were refugees and both suffered the same misery. Yet, tribal disposition came first in any decisions. Of course, the majority were unfamiliar with cinema. Like my grandmother, they thanked God for not having stepped foot inside a movie theatre. The reason for Afghanistan’s perpetual tribalism rests with its agrarian economy. Each Afghan tribe is trapped in a valley with geographical walls and is the 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 those valleys.
The topography of Afghanistan is 75 percent mountainous of which only 7 percent is suitable for farming. It lacks any semblance of industry. The country is solely dependent on farming, as grasslands (in non-drought years) are the only resources for economic continuity. Again, farming is the foundation
of this tribalism that in turn is the basis for deep internal conflicts. This not only stops Afghanistan from becoming a modern country it also prevents this would-be nation from achieving a national identity.
There is no intrinsic popular belief in what is called Afghanistan and Afghans. Afghans are not yet ready to be absorbed into a bigger collective identity called the people of Afghanistan. Contrary to the misnomer of religious war, the origin of disputes lies with tribal conflicts. The Tajiks who fight the Taliban today are both Muslim and Sunni—as are the Taliban. The intelligence of Ahmad Abdali is yet to be appreciated for having created the notion of tribal federalism. He was smarter than those who fancy the ruling of one tribe over all others or one individual over a nation—when tribalism and the economic infrastructure was still intact. Pashtoons with a population of about six million make up Afghanistan’s largest tribe. Next are Tajiks with about four million people, and third and fourth are Hazarehs and Uzbeks with populations of about four million and one to two million respectively. The rest are small tribes such as the Imagh, Fars, Balouch, Turkman, and Qezelbash.
The Pashtoons are mostly in the south, the Tajiks in the north and the Hazarehs in the central regions. This geographical concentration in different regions will lead either to complete and final disintegration or the continued connection from the head of the tribe 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.
If we can elect a president in Iran today, free from issues of ethnicity, it is because of the economic transformation resulting from oil, at least in the last century. The question is not the quality or quantity of oil in the Iranian economy. The point is that when oil enters the economy of a country such as Iran, that was basically agricultural, it changes the economic infrastructure and the role of Iran becomes significant in political interactions. It becomes an exporter of a valued raw material and in return receives the surplus productions of industrial countries.
This transformation changes the socioeconomic infrastructure that in turn breaks the traditional culture and creates a more modern one, exporting oil and consuming the products of industrialized countries. If we omit money as the symbolic medium, then we have given oil in exchange for consumer products. But Afghanistan has nothing but drugs to exchange in the world market. Therefore, it has turned back on itself and become isolated. Perhaps, if Afghanistan had not separated from Iran 250 years ago, it would have had a different fate based on its share of oil revenues.
The revenue from opium that I will elaborate on later is far too insignificant to be compared to revenue from Iranian oil. In 2000, Iran’s surplus income from the oil price windfall exceeded $10 billion. Total sales of opium in Afghanistan remained at $500 million.
Iran has played its role in the world economy and by consuming the products of others, has understood that we have choices and have thus become somewhat more modern. But for the Afghan farmer his world is his valleys and his profession is farming when drought spares him. Meanwhile a tribal system resolves his social problems. Given that, he cannot have a share in the world economy. How are grounds for his economic and cultural transition to be provided to let him have a share? In addition, $80 billion in the global drug turnover depends on Afghanistan remaining in its present situation without change because if change prevails, that $80 billion is the first thing to be threatened. Hence, Afghanistan is not supposed to realize a considerable profit since that itself may yield change for Afghanistan. Although Iran and Afghanistan shared the same history some 250 years ago, due to oil the history of Iran took a turn that is impossible for Afghanistan to take for a very long time. Opium is the only product that Afghanistan offers to the world. Yet both because of the nature of this product and the insignificant amount of this tainted national wealth, it cannot be compared to oil. If we add the $500 million income from the sale of opium to the $300 million from the sale of northern Afghanistan’s gas, and divide the total by the twenty million population, the result is $40 per capita annual income. If we further divide that figure by 365 days each Afghan would earn about ten cents a day or the equivalent of the price a loaf of bread on normal days.
But the country’s annual earnings belong to the government and the domestic criminal organizations and it doesn’t get divided fairly. This revenue, therefore, is both insufficient to meet the needs of people and too low to bring about significant change in the economic, social, political, and cultural infrastructure.
Why Have 30 Percent Emigrated?
Livestock breeders habitually move to resolve their living problems. Urban residents and agricultural farmers are less likely to move often. The main reason for the Afghan livestock breeders’ mobility is related to the farming seasons. They constantly move to green and warm areas to avoid dry lands and cold weather. Movement is a natural reflex for livestock farmers. The second reason is lack of a fixed occupation. Afghans migrate to avoid death from unemployment.
Upon waking up each day, an Afghan has four burdens to consider. First is his livestock and this depends on drought not being an obstacle. Fighting for a group or sect is his second concern and generally because of employment he enters the army. Earning a living to support his family is another reason why he moves and if all else fails, he enters the drug business. The extent of this last option is limited and the labor options of a nation of twenty million people cannot really be measured with a $500 million account accrued from cultivating poppy seeds. Thus, characterizing the people of Afghanistan as opium smugglers is unreal and applies only to a very limited number.
Immunized Against Modernism
Amanullah Khan, who ruled in Afghanistan from 1919–1928, was a contemporary of Reza Shah and Kemal Ataturk. On a personal level he was inclined towards modernism. In 1924, Amanullah traveled to Europe, returned with a Rolls Royce and made known his reform program. The plan included a change in attire. He told his wife to unveil herself and asked men to forego their Afghan costumes for western suits. Contrary to Afghan male custom, he prohibited polygamy. Traditionalists immediately begin opposing Amanullah modernizing. None of the agrarian tribes submitted to these changes and rioting ensued against him.
Here, modernism without a socioeconomic basis, is but a non-homogeneous imposition of culture on a tribal society economically dependent on farming, and lacking any industry, agriculture or even preliminary means of exploiting its resources, not to mention prohibition of inter-tribal marriages. This superficial, formalistic and petty modernism served only as an antibody to stimulate traditional Afghan culture, making Afghanistan so immune to modernism that even in the following decades it could not penetrate the culture in a more rational form.
Even today, the preconditions for modernism, which include exploiting resources and presenting cheap raw materials in exchange for goods, have not been created. The most advanced people in Afghanistan still believe that Afghan society is not yet ready for female suffrage. When the most progressive sect involved in the civil war finds it too early for women to vote it is obvious that the most conservative will prohibit schooling and social activities to them. It follows naturally that ten million women are held captive under their burqas (veils). This is Afghan society seventy years after Amanullah’s modernism aimed to impose monogamy on a male dominated Afghanistan, whose only perception of family is the harem. In 2001, polygamy is still an accepted fact by women even in refugee camps on the Iran-Afghanistan border. I attended two weddings among the Pashtoon and Hazareh tribes and heard them wishing for more prosperous weddings for the groom. At first I thought it was a joke. In another case the bride’s family said: "If the groom can afford it, up to four wives is indeed very good and it is a religious tradition as well as helping a bunch of hungry people."
When I went to the camp in Saveh to record the wedding music for Kandahar, I saw a two-year-old girl being wedded to a seven-year-old boy. I never understood the meaning of this. Neither could that boy or that little girl, who was sucking on a pacifier, have made the choice. Given this portrait of traditional society, Amanullah’s modernism seemed an overwhelming imitation of another country.
Of course, some people believe if a woman changes her burqa into a less concealing veil, she may be struck with God’s wrath and turned into black stone. Perhaps, someone has to forcibly rid her of her burqa so she’ll realize that the assumption is untrue and she can choose for herself.
There is another biased viewpoint to Amanullah’s modernism. In traditional societies, the culture of hypocrisy is a form of class camouflage. In Iranian society, wealthy traditional families decorate the interior of their home like a castle but keep the exterior looking like a shack, out of fear of the poor. In other words, that aristocratic nucleus needs to have a poor rustic shell.
Opposition to modernism is not necessarily expressed by traditional organizations. Sometimes it is a reaction by the poor against the rich. For the poor society in Amanullah’s time, while having horses as opposed to mules was a symbol of honor and nobility, a Rolls Royce was an insult to the poor. The war between tradition and modernism is primarily the same as the battle of the Rolls Royce and the mule. It is 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. Afghanistan can no longer fight with knives and daggers even though it lags behind the contemporary age. The consumption of weapons is a serious matter. Stinger missiles next to long beards and burqas are still symbols of profound modernism that are proportionate to consumption and modern culture.
For the Afghan Mujahed, weapons have an economic basis that creates jobs. If all weapons are removed from Afghanistan, the war ends and all accept that if there were no more assaults on anyone, given the sub-zero economic conditions, all of today’s Mujahedin would join the refugees in other countries. The issue of tradition and modernism, war and peace, tribalism and nationalism in Afghanistan must be analyzed with an eye to the economic situation and employment crisis. It has to be understood that there is no immediate solution for the economic crisis in Afghanistan.
A long-term resolution is contingent on an economic miracle and not on a nationwide military attack from north to south or vice versa. Have these miracles not happened time and again? Was the Soviet retreat not a miracle? Was the sovereignty of the Mujahedin not a miracle on their part? Was the sudden conquest of the Taliban not a miracle of its kind? Then why do problems remain? Modernism under discussion here faces two fundamental problems. One is rooted in economics and the second is the immunization of Afghan traditional culture against premature modernism.
Geography and Its Consequences
Afghanistan has an area of 700,000 square kilometers. Mountains account for 75 percent of the land. People live in cavernous valleys surrounded by towering mountains. These elevations not only attest to a rough nature, difficult passage and impediments to business, but are also viewed as cultural and spiritual fortresses among Afghan tribes. It is obvious why Afghanistan lacks inter-state routes. The shortage of roads not only creates obstacles for the fighters who seek to occupy Afghanistan, it stops businessmen whose prosperity may become a means of economic growth.
To the same degree that these mountains obstruct foreign intrusion, they block interference of other cultures and commercial activities. A country that is 75 percent mountains has problems creating consumer markets in its potential industrial cities and in exporting agriculture products to the cities. Despite the use of modern weapons, wars take longer and find no conclusion.
In the past Afghanistan was a passageway for caravans on the Silk Road traversing China through Balkh and India through Kandahar. The discovery of waterways, and then airways in the last century, changed Afghanistan from an ancient commercial route to a dead end. The old Silk Road was a passage of camels and horses and didn’t have the characteristics of a modern road. Through the same winding roads Nadir Shah, Alexander, Timur, and Mahmmod Ghaznavi went to India. There used to be primitive wooden bridges, which have been badly damaged in the past twenty years of war. Perhaps today, after two decades of foreign and civil war the people want the strongest party to win and give a single direction to Afghanistan’s historical fate, no matter what. These same mountains, however, are a hindrance. Perhaps, the true fighters of Afghanistan are not its hungry people but the high mountains that don’t surrender. The Northern Alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud,* owes its survival to the Panjshir valley. Conceivably, if Afghanistan was not mountainous, the Soviets could have easily conquered it; or it could have been prey for the Americans to hunt down like the plains of Kuwait, and bring it closer to the Central Asian markets.
Being mountainous increases both the costs of war and reconstruction after peace. If Afghanistan was not so rugged it would have had a different economical, military, political, and cultural fate. Is this a geographical misfortune? Imagine a fighter who has to constantly climb up and down mountains. Suppose he conquered all of Afghanistan. He then has to constantly conquer the peaks to provide for his army. These mountains have been sufficient to save Afghanistan from foreign enemies and domestic friends.
Each tribe has defended the valley it was trapped in. When the enemy left, again, everyone saw their valley as the center of the world. The same mountains have made agriculture very difficult. Only 15 percent of the land is suited for agriculture and practically just half of this is actually cultivated. The reason for livestock farming is that the grasslands are on the mountainsides or its environs.
It can be said that Afghanistan is a victim of her own topography. There are no routes in the mountains and road construction is expensive. The roads if any, are either military or narrow paths for smugglers. The only trunk road passes around the borders. How can a border road function like a primary artery in the body of Afghanistan to resolve problems of social, cultural and economic communications? The few interstate roads that existed were destroyed in the war. To whose advantage is it to pay for the costs of drilling these tough and elevated mountains? For which potential profit should this exorbitant cost be borne?
It is said that Afghanistan is full of unexplored mines. From what route are these possibly exploitable resources supposed to reach their destinations? Who will be the first to invest in mines that will generate profits in an uncertain future? Has the lack of roads prevented the Soviets and Afghans from excavating the mines?
On the other hand, Afghanistan is a land of eternal hidden paths that are quite efficient for smuggling drugs. There are as many winding roads as you want for smuggling, but for crushing the smugglers, you need straight ones that don’t exist. You can’t know the infinite number of paths and you can’t attack a path every day. At the most, you can await a caravan at a junction. A smuggler was arrested around the city of Semnan in Iran who had walked barefoot from Kandahar carrying a sack of drugs. He had no skin on his soles when arrested, but kept on walking.
In the mountains of Afghanistan water is more of a calamity than a blessing. In winter it is freezing. It floods in spring and in the summer its shortage yields drought. This is the property of mountains without dams. Uncontrolled waters and hard soil reduce agricultural possibility. This is the geographical picture of Afghanistan: arduous to cross, incapable of cultivation, and with mines impossible to exploit due to transport costs. The fact that some find Afghanistan a museum of tribes, races, and languages is because of the sheer difficulty of its geography. Every tradition in this country has remained intact because of isolation and lack of interference. It is only natural for this rough and dry country to turn to cultivation of poppy seeds to support its people.
In its present state the economy of Afghanistan can keep its people half full without any economic development. Wealth though, rests with the domestic criminal organizations, or gets spent on unstable Afghan regimes, and the people don’t get a share of it.
How do the Afghan people support themselves beyond farming? It is either through construction work in Iran, participation in political wars, or becoming theology students in the Taliban schools. Over twenty-five hundred Taliban schools, with a capacity between three hundred to one thousand students each, attract hungry orphans. In these schools anybody can have a piece of bread and a bowl of soup, read the Qur’an, memorize prayers, and later join the Taliban forces. This is the only remaining option for employment. It is because of this geography that emigration, smuggling and war remain as occupations and I’m wondering how the Northern Alliance is going to meet the needs of the people after a possible victory over the Taliban? Will it be through continued war, development of poppy seeds, or prayer for rain?
On the Iranian border the UN pays $20 to any Afghan volunteering to return to Afghanistan. They are taken by bus to the first cities inside Afghanistan or dropped around the borders. Interestingly, due to lack of jobs in Afghanistan, the Afghans quickly come back and if not recognized, go in line again to get another $20. The jobless Afghans turn every solution into an occupation. And as much as war may be a profession, few Afghan leaders have died pursuing it.
Continued war provides opportunity for the U.S., the Russians and the six neighboring countries to give aid to forces loyal to them. This largesse is normally aimed at continuing a war or balancing power, but in the case of Afghanistan it merely creates jobs. Let’s not forget that there’s been a two-year drought and livestock have died as a result. The mortality is predicted by the UN to be one million within the next few months. The war has nothing to do with this. It is poverty and famine. Whenever farming has been threatened by a shortage of water, emigration has increased, and wars have worsened.
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.
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 desert. When we took those that we thought were dying of cholera to hospitals in Zabol, we realized that they were dying of hunger. Since those days and nights of seeing so many people starving to death, I haven’t been able to forgive myself for eating any meals.
Between 1986 and 1989 the Afghans had about twenty–two million sheep. That is one sheep per person. This has traditionally been the main wealth of a farming nation such as Afghanistan. This wealth was lost in the recent famine. Imagine the situation of a farming nation without livestock. The original tragedy of Afghanistan today is poverty and the only way to resolve the problems is through economic rehabilitation.
If I had gone to support the Mujahedin, instead of the true freedom fighters who are ordinary people struggling to stay alive, I would have come back. If I were president of a neighboring country, I would encourage economic relations with Afghanistan in lieu of political-military interventions. God forbid if I was in the place of God, I would bless Afghanistan with something else that would benefit this forgotten nation. And I write this without believing it will have any impact in this era, which is very different than that of Sa’di’s when, "all men are limbs of one body."
Dr. Kamal Hossein, the UN Humanitarian Adviser for Afghanistan affairs from Bangladesh, visited our office in the summer of 2000 and told us that he had been reporting quite futilely to the UN for ten years. He had come to assist me in making a movie that perhaps would awaken the world. I said: "I’m looking for that which will affect."
It must be added that Afghanistan has not so much suffered from foreign interference as it has from indifference. Again if Afghanistan were Kuwait with a surplus of oil income, the story would have been different. But Afghanistan has no oil and the neighboring countries deport its underpaid laborers. It’s only natural when occupational options fail—as explained earlier in the text—the only remaining choices are smuggling, joining the Taliban, or falling down in a corner in Herat, Bamian, Kabul, or Kandahar and dying for the world’s ignorance.
Once, I happened to be in a camp around Zabol that was filled with illegal immigrants. I wasn’t sure if it was a camp or a prison. The Afghans who had fled their homes because of famine or Taliban assaults had been refused asylum and were waiting to be returned to Afghanistan. It all seemed legal and rational to that point. People, who for any reason enter a country illegally and are afterward refused, get deported. But these particular people were dying of hunger. We had ended up there to choose extras for my film. I asked the authorities and found out that the camp could not afford to feed so many people and they hadn’t eaten for a week. They had only water to drink. We offered to provide meals. They wished we’d go there every day.
We brought food for four hundred Afghans ranging from one-month-old babies to eighty-year-old men. Most of them were little kids who had fainted of 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 and kept saying that the flow of hungry refugees was far greater than what they could manage. This is the story of a country that’s been ravaged by its own nature, history, economy, politics, and the unkindness of its neighbors. An Afghan poet who was being deported from Iran back to Afghanistan expressed his feelings in a poem and left:
I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.
The 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 down and leave.
I came on foot, I’ll leave on foot.
Reprinted from Monthly Review, vol. 53, no. 6 (November 2001).
*Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan, was murdered by unknown assailants on September 9, 2001.—Eds.