July 31, 2010
AWAZ Ali opens his mouth to reveal two rows of broken teeth. ”The Taliban did this when they came to our valley,” he says, with an incongruous smile. The 40-year-old potato farmer tells The Age that if the fundamentalists regain any measure of power, they will return to Bamiyan province and inflict further horrors on him and his fellow Hazaras.
”When the Taliban controlled this place, we fled to Pakistan, to Iran, to other provinces. Each household left one person here to watch over our land. We need the central government to protect us, so this does not happen again,” he says through an interpreter.
As the war in Afghanistan staggers onward in a welter of leaks, casualties and withdrawals by allied nations, some parts of the country are successfully struggling clear of the violence that has marred its recent history.
The bright green valleys of Bamiyan, watered by the myriad snow-fed streams, are surrounded by bare red mountains, carved by wind and water into geometric shapes. The air is clear, so the snow-capped mountains in the distance appear minutely detailed. As well as its lush natural beauty, Bamiyan is blessed by a wealth of cultural artefacts from its distant past, including the remains of the celebrated giant Buddhas.
Although the Buddhas were almost completely demolished by the Taliban in 2001, their outlines are visible within the massive niches carved into cliffs looming over Bamiyan township.
If it was anywhere else in Asia, Bamiyan would be a magnet for tourists, as it was in the 1960s and ’70s, when its location on the famed Silk Route made it a popular stop on the hippie trail. But the decades of war mean it has been a long time since anyone other than journalists and NGO workers have made the trip.
Under the umbrella of coalition forces, the Hazara, a traditionally persecuted ethnic group, have secured the province and are now broadening their ambitions, while keeping a wary eye on events 270 kilometres away in Kabul.
The province is administered by the country’s only female governor, Dr Habiba Sarabi, a haematologist and former refugee from the Taliban regime. The New Zealand soldiers stationed in Bamiyan are able to drive around in unarmoured vehicles, and are greeted by waving, smiling children as they bump along the horrendous dirt roads. Hazara farmers – some of whom look Tibetan, others almost European – lead short, fat donkeys through the potato and wheat fields.
There is now talk of resurrecting the tourist industry to capitalise on the nearby snowfields, ancient ruins and the proximity of Afghanistan’s only national park – Band-e-Amir, based around five lakes high in the Hindu Kush mountains.
Amir Foladi, a softly spoken businessman and head of Bamiyan’s nascent tourism department, says that during the 1970s, 64,000 people a year came to the province to see the Buddhas and other attractions such as the ruined City of Sighs, so-called because the Mongols massacred the Hazara there in the 13th century.
Apart from the lack of security in other parts of the country, the main impediment to tourism in the area is its isolation. Bamiyan is only a 30-minute flight from Kabul, over spectacular scenery, but the airstrip is gravel. The biggest problem, however, is the bumpy dirt road leading down from the mountains to Kabul. It takes eight hours to complete the journey, and although a foreign-funded tarmac road is under construction, it will not be completed for years.
The Hazara are also convinced that the Pashtun-dominated national government is neglecting them in favour of more troublesome, predominantly Pashtun provinces.
”We will support the government to the last drop of our blood, but sometimes we think we might be treated better if we picked up guns and attacked the police and soldiers,” one farmer told The Age as he tended his potato fields.
Despite its natural beauty, Bamiyan remains one of the poorest and most underdeveloped provinces in one of the world’s poorest and underdeveloped nations. ”In other provinces we have reconstruction, whereas in Bamiyan we have construction. We never had the infrastructure that other places benefited from,” Foladi says. ”When the road comes, and if the airstrip is improved, people could come here on a Thursday, ski, or see the Buddhas, then leave on Saturday evening.”
Foladi admits that his job would be made easier if tourists did not have to pass through Kabul, with its armed men on every corner, rubble in the streets and chronic pollution.
But with a tinge of exasperation, he also concedes the Bamiyan people might not quite be ready for mass tourism.
When this correspondent tried to visit the site of one of the Buddhas, the ticket seller angrily told me he wouldn’t accept US dollars, which are usually welcomed. The sum he rejected was also roughly equivalent to the average weekly wage.
There is debate in the province about whether the Buddhas, blasted first with dynamite and then by a tank, should be reconstructed. ”There is no doubt that the destruction was a tragedy, but it was also a part of history,” Foladi says. ”Maybe we will reconstruct one of them and leave the other as a reminder.”