Afghanistan Vignettes

[ Dani Sulu ]

Life has a way of throwing surprises, and one such unexpected road which took my life unawares was my posting to Afghanistan. In hindsight it was a wonderful experience, but living that experience was a completely different song. As one of the many aids the Indian government was providing to the fledgling Afghanistan government, the road from Zaranj to Delaram (215KM) was also taken up by India. I was a part of this aid project from 2005 to 2007.

I landed up at Kabul Airport on 25th October, 2005. The birds eye view of the town surrounded by barren hills, reminded me of Kathmandu Valley.  The winter was setting in and whip of cold wind played with my unkempt hair as I stepped out of Aeroplane. Kabul Airport itself reminded me of our old Ziro Airport. The only difference was that it had potholes near the edges of the runway and numerous bombed aircrafts lay scattered all over, like broken toy airplanes in my children’s room.

As we slowly piled up in front of the immigration counter,  the Afghan officials looked at my passport and at me, and scrutinized my face to a point of embarrassment.

They repeated it for some time and took me to a different room and kind of interrogated me. They refused to believe that I was an Indian and put my pass port to scrutiny repeatedly. Only after I showed my disquiet and showed the Ministry of External Affairs letter to the Afghanistan Embassy, did they let me through ever so reluctantly.

Next morning I flew down to a place called Zaranj in an eight-seater small plane. The weather was clear and the sky was a deep blue; stretching far into the universe. Down below, there was not a whip of cloud.  I could fill my eyes with awesome landscapes. As we crossed mountain range after mountain range, in a two hours flight to Zaranj, not a forest could be seen. The mountains looked dark and barren, which reminded me much about the surface of Mars and other planets we see in science fiction movies.

Landing at Zaranj was a totally different experience. The runway was not metalled and it was laid with small stone chips. I had the childish fear that one of that stones might pierce the tyre and it would burst. Nonetheless, it landed safely and I experienced the most wonderful flight I had ever flown.

Zaranj is the capital of Nimroz Province and the city centre is hardly half a mile from the Iranian border. This is one of the remotest parts of Afghanistan. I suppose it should rank among the remotest in the world. The whole province had not had any metalled road in history. There is a huge market for second hand four-wheel SUVs as all the journey is a cross country run through the desert. There is no system of vehicle registration and driving license, so all the vehicles have the registration numbers of previous countries and owners.

No banks existed when I landed in Zaranj. People kept their money with money lenders. There is a money market where various currencies are sold and bought. Currencies of various countries are kept piled up on the shelves and people come and purchase them as we buy vegetables from the market in India. It was very new to me and I took some time to understand the system.

The Iran currency, i.e Rial and Thuman are the prevalent medium of exchange, although the US dollar is also favoured by many. The Afghanistan government has introduced the Afghani currency and the DA Afghan Bank. But people hardly showed their faith in the Afghani currency or the DA Afghan Bank. They still preferred to keep their money with money lenders and hold foreign currencies. There are no cultivable lands or any industry, but God has blessed them with acumen for money management. The Afghans are very astute businessmen.

Security was a big issue. Although the Taliban government had fallen two years back, it was resurfacing in this part of Afghanistan with much more vigour and determination.

Within 20 days of my joining, one of our men from Kerala was kidnapped and beheaded. Our people were ambushed on the road sides many times. There was a constant fear stalking us whenever we moved outside. Every vehicle we passed by was viewed as a potential suicide jihadist. There were times at night when one would watch rockets falling around the camp with total despondency. These were moments of helplessness. We lost numerous of our own people and also Afghan soldiers who were guarding us, to Taliban fighters. It reminds me of the old adage: “There are no atheists in a cornered place.” Everybody thought of their maker in such situations.

I came back to India towards the end of November 2007. The road was completed on time and the remotest place in Afghanistan was connected to the rest of Afghanistan.

Afghan people are warm and hospitable, but have that trait of short temper which comes in a package with honesty and simplicity.

After 20 years, the Taliban came back to power in Afghanistan on 15th August, 2021. Their return to power, as soon as the USA left Afghanistan was a foregone conclusion even during 2007.

The common Afghanis with whom we interacted, did not express much ill will towards the Talibans. In fact they would say they all are the Talibs in essence. In contrast, almost all the common Afghans would express resentment over the USA occupation and wanted the US Army to leave Afghanistan.

No government can survive, without the people’s support. Therefore, not surprisingly, as soon as the USA left, the Taliban seized power without any resistance from government forces or from the general public. Perhaps, the destiny of Afghanistan is much more complex than what the westerners tried to visualise and draw for them.

My best wishes are with people of Afghanistan at these trying times. Hopefully, the Government of India aids in terms of the numerous roads, dams, hospitals, schools, public sanitation, parliament building and many such other infrastructure projects, which it had built for the people of Afghanistan over a 20-year period, will be of much use to the people of Afghanistan, irrespective of who forms the government in Kabul.


Life Blossoms

once I was,
in the so called BAD LANDS of Afghanistan,
where I found the GOOD SIDES of life.
there were bombs and ambushes,
and scattered bodies – dead and lifeless,
of people I knew and friends too.
dessert stretched 100s of miles all around,
without a blade of grass.

in this perched land,
I saw the hope of life on the faces of people.
love blossomed as grandpa’s walked to school,
with their little grand daughters on their back.
as the toddler stumbled and walked,
holding their mothers fingers,
I saw tender bloom of human heart.
I saw life, the life’s desires,
to bloom, blossom and break free itself,
even under the harshest conditions.
life is much more than bullets and roses,
it outlives good times and bad times.
and in the most trying times,
life finds it’s best spirits.
in the so called bad lands of Afghanistan,
i found the goodness of life.

`Thus Sulu muses.

(The contributor is Secretary to GoAP. The views expressed are of the writer and doesn’t reflect the official position at the time of writing this article)