Volume 18 Number 2
Return to Afghanistan, My Grey Land
01 April 2005
Shabibi Shah has been longing to return home for 22 years: the reality was a shock.
When I decided to go back to Afghanistan last November, I was excited but frightened at the same time. I had left 22 years ago, as a refugee, crossing the mountains to Pakistan by truck, donkey and foot with my three children, and eventually found asylum in Britain. The prospect of going back was daunting.
My daughter and I changed planes in Dubai, where we put on Afghan clothing: big scarves and long coats. We were the only women on the plane. As we were about to land, I looked down on a breathtaking view of the wild mountains, the harsh beauty of the landscape that I had missed for so long. From that distance you could not see the ruins that lay beneath.
When we disembarked at Kabul airport, I felt like crying and kissing the ground, which had such deep connections with my past. I was shocked by the difference between the picture I had in my head and the one that I was seeing before me— grey bone-dry land, scattered with old Russian tanks and pieces of cars and lorries. No trees, no greenery and no flowers. Everything including the people was covered with dust and dirt.
Inside the dilapidated airport building, it was chaotic: we couldn’t even tell who were officials and who weren’t. Suddenly a woman appeared and pulled us out of the queue, took our passports and then disappeared into a small cubicle. We panicked, but she came back, gave us our passports without asking any questions, welcomed us and let us go. At the time I had no idea whether she was hoping for a reward or was just being kind. Later on, when I understood that others would have asked for money, I felt bad that I had not given her any.
Three men fought over who should take our luggage—and we hired them all, so as not to create any more tension. We passed through the gate and there, waiting for us, were my brother and his daughter. It was such an emotional moment seeing him after so long. He seemed 100 years old to me. He had been in exile in Pakistan for 10 years, before returning to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban.
The taxi drive to my brother’s house was a revelation. The airport road used to be lined by plane trees and marigolds, ending at Pashtonistan Square, with a huge fountain lit by colourful lights at night. Now it does not exist anymore.
The city of Kabul, which was once so beautiful, green and clean, lay beneath clouds of dust. The roads were a mess: no traffic lights, no zebra crossings, no traffic police. There were old men lying on the streets, begging: some with no arms, some with no legs. I felt as if I was watching a horror film set in the Stone Age. I had expected poverty but not to this extent.
My brother’s tiny house, which, with us, would be holding 13 people, was falling apart. I cannot describe what it was like to see my brother’s family after dreaming about our reunion for so long.
Electricity in Kabul is switched on for about three hours every other night, and is off all day. Richer families have their own generators, but the rest have to make do. My brother’s family were overjoyed when I bought them a generator for 6,000 Afghanis (equivalent to .60). Most houses do not have running water: showers and hot water are a dream. There is no sewerage system and so people have to use holes in the ground. Every now and then a man comes with a donkey to collect the waste and take it to a disposal site or to the plantation areas.
In the streets, pedestrians and cars, cyclists, children, lorries, animals, beggars all share the same lanes. In some well-off areas, police try to bring some sort of organization, but the cars just speed wildly past them.
The roads are cluttered with rubbish. Children play with whatever they can find, burning litter for fun and for warmth. Oddly enough this helps to get rid of some of the germs and rubbish.
Children in Kabul are not children any more. They walk long distances to fetch water and look after their younger siblings while their parents go out to work for a little money. Kids as young as eight or nine work in bakeries or butchers’ shops. Others walk around the streets and beg for money. I saw a little girl in the middle of a traffic jam selling two pieces of toilet tissue. There are thousands of children sleeping rough in the streets of Kabul. The Afghan government should make their needs a first priority.
The only hope I saw was when I visited the Khorasan organization, a charity for which I have raised money in the UK. In 1999 Seema Ghani started an orphanage for Afghan children in Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban, the orphanage moved to Afghanistan. There are 16 children living there at the moment, between the ages of seven and 16. They seemed happy and comfortable. But this small organization is just a drop in the ocean.
I was upset by the degree of mismanagement, poor communication, rivalry, distrust and tribalism in the government offices in Kabul. In every office I entered, they asked for a bribe. For example, a friend sent a fax to me from London to the Foreign Office in Afghanistan. Every time I went to collect it, I was told that it had not arrived, although the sender told me it had been sent long before. On my fourth trip I managed to find someone who had authority and finally got my fax. If I had paid a bribe I would have got it on my first visit. Retrieving a simple official document from another office cost us 1,000 Afghanis.
Afghan women are still far from equality. The select few who have been picked to work in offices are simply a front. The majority have not been given the opportunity to play a real part in the reconstruction of their country. Women still live under the domination of their husbands, brothers and fathers. Even educated men feel threatened by strong women and will not work under their management. The fundamentalists have shaved off their beards, but they still control the country unofficially.
Despite the fact that people do not like the Taliban and are enjoying their little bit of freedom, they are unhappy about having foreigners in their country. They joke about the US: ‘Where is our money?’ ‘Where is our help, Big Uncle?’ They call Afghans who are associated with Americans ‘dogwashers’. They expected the Americans to get fully involved with the reconstruction of Afghanistan rather than just hunting for the Taliban and al-Qaida.
All I saw in the way of reconstruction were some newly asphalted streets and the highrise buildings which belong to rich people, who have returned from abroad to start up businesses, or to warlords, who get their money nobody dares ask where. Building is booming in Vazeer Akbar Khan, which is a posh area, and the rest of the country is a shambles. I wondered where all the aid had been allocated. The shops in Kabul are full of goods from India, Pakistan and Iran but the prices are too high for the poor.
Now I am back in my little house in London, with mixed feelings. I feel guilty that I am not able to help my countrymen and women, but grateful that I do not have to dream of the luxury of a shower. And I miss the hospitality of my people who share what little food they have with you and jump to their feet whenever you need help.