Back. Back in Afghanistan. Back in Mazar-i-Sharif. Back in the winter’s adhesive mud and bitter cold. Shivering showering in a bucket. Stinky, sooty diesel heaters that… no, no wait, that was 2003.
We are back in Afghanistan though. And we are showering in a bucket. But, it is great to be back, and we feel strangely happy. It probably seems hard to understand why we keep coming back to this place: you may have to come and visit to experience the particular beauty of this country and the pull it exerts on your heart.
We arrived in Kabul last Friday – a week ago. It was a long flight via Singapore and Delhi, but comfortable. On arriving in Kabul, we were pleased to find all our bags had come with us and not ended up in Bogota. Then began the long ridiculous trek from the airport to the carpark: because of security, cars are not permitted closer than a kilometre to the airport, thus ensuring a brisk trade for porters and an annoying end to the journey. While we were locating our transport, a fight ensued between two porters, which was resolved by a policeman wading in and swinging his fist; unfortunately on his backstroke he biffed our daughter in the face. Welcome to Afghanistan.
After a few days in a guesthouse, we flew in a tiny plane up to Lal wa Sarjangal, in central Hazarajat. This part of Afghanistan is easily the poorest and most marginal in a poor and marginal country. The town, Lal is a street with mud houses scattered either side, a scrounge of stray, violent dogs and a river. Onions and flat Afghan bread are generally available, as is tea, second hand clothes and a smattering of other goods – soap, rope, broken motorcycles and oil cans, tyres and shovels. My colleague here, Andy, needed a key cut – a modern type key that you would typically use for a door or padlock. He asked his Afghan co-worker where he could get another cut here, and the co-worker laughed, as though he’d been asked where the local gym and day-spa was. ‘You can’t do that here! No, no, no! you have to get that done in Kabul.’
Andy then produced another key, an old-fashioned one, the sort your grandmother used to lock her wardrobe with. Here, these keys are still in common use and are cast in cheap metal and then filed to shape. It is iron-age technology. ‘What about this key?’, Andy asked tremulously. ‘Ha! No! No, that you must also get done in Kabul. Here is it impossible. Send it on the plane that comes next week. In a few weeks he will bring you a new one.’
Such is life in Lal. We travelled out to a village last week, as part of the assessment Julie and I have been asked to do. This village is 40km away, and it took us two hours to get there. Andy was wearing a pedometer, wanting to know how far we walked around the village, but before we even got out of the car, it registered 5.2km in bumps travelled.
But our children are happy. Our son in fact told us he wants to buy the house we are staying in and live here when he is married. It is unlikely that even by then (he is 4), there will be running water or electricity: presently, we pump water by hand from the well and cart it to the house. A fair part of each day is simply spent filling buckets. But it is comfortable and clean and warm, unlike the homes of people we have seen in the villages. It is difficult to imagine how life in some of these villages goes on. It is something like -30 in the winter, and the ground so unyielding that only potatoes and onions might grow. The diet here, day in, day out, year in, year out, is bread and tea. People count themselves lucky to have a spud: meat and fruit are luxuries in the same way that a ride in a limousine might be in Australia. No, not a limousine. That is attainable for most people, and probably not novel. A ride in a private jet, is a better metaphor.
Poverty and peace. It is interesting: those parts of the country that are in some ways wealthiest from poppy crops, are also attracting the greatest donor interest, in an effort to stem opium and replace it with legitimate, ‘friendly’ crops. Peaceful areas, like Lal, on not on anyone’s radar screen for investment or reconstruction.