Several months ago:
Earlier this week I spent a few days in Bamyan – an Afghan jewel few people have heard of and even fewer are lucky enough to have visited. It is a place steeped in history, culture and striving for peace. It is also isolated in the mountainous centre of a country descending into violent chaos. Bamyan should have been among the most hopeful provinces in Afghanistan, but is instead one of the least; economic difficulties and Taliban gains threaten a future that mirrors its dark and bloody past.
Visiting Bamyan is to feel removed from Afghanistan altogether. To be there is to be released from the tension that permeates a person residing in Kabul and many of the other population centers. The people are welcoming and westerners are met with neutrality at worse. The air is clear and the views spectacular. It is a place where the visitor cannot help but to imagine its potential and the excited stream of intrepid travellers who would relish the opportunity to visit such a unique and little visited land.
The stream, however, never exceeded a trickle. While Bamyan remains peaceful, surrounding areas are witnessing the Taliban grow in strength. But Bamyan remains relatively isolated from the wider decay in Afghanistan. It’s the Switzerland in 1940’s Europe. The people are skeptical of Afghan visitors who are not of their ethic group and understandably so. The Hazara people were slaughtered by the Taliban less than two decades ago, for their beliefs. The people of Bamyan are almost entirely Shia Muslims, whereas the Taliban are primarily Wahabbist Sunnis. Unfortuntely, Hazaras cannot easily melt away into the larger population because they look Central Asian. Differences in pronounciation may succeed in betraying them, even if their appearance does not.
So the people of Bamyan can only watch, wait and hope. Some farm their homeland, while others reside in communities elsewhere in the country, all of which appear to sit at the bottom of the pile. Many are manual labourers or engage in other forms of low-paid work. With the capture of Kunduz by the Taliban on the 28th of September and fears that Faizabad might be similarly attacked only yesterday, the security situation in Afghanistan is poised on the brink: will the weak and divided government be able to wrest back control and infuse the people with confidence in future success? Or have the people already accepted that it is only a matter of time before the Taliban regains control of the country and that they should avoid supporting the side that will invariably lose?
What fate awaits Bamyan and its people? It has already seen the destruction of its archeological heritage (the 1500 year old giant rock carved buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001) and fallen victim to ethnic cleansing. Even two years ago, there was hopeful talk of runway extensions, international flights arriving from Dubai or Delhi (at present, travellers must transit Kabul) and hopes of an embryonic tourist trade. Such things are not even mentioned today. The place and its people appear suspended in a dream far removed from the brutal realities unfolding elsewhere in the country. Life goes on. A handful of foreigners (often working elsewhere in Afghanistan) may visit the buddhas, or ascend the slopes of Ghol Ghola (the ‘City of Screams’, where Genhis Khan’s hoardes slaughtered the inhabitants of a hilltop citadel), but they sense the waiting too. Much as the inhabitants of Ghol Ghola awaited a seemingly undeniable fate, so too do the people of Bamyan.