In May 2010, I was given the opportunity to accompany the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO), an NGO that promotes human rights through arts and culture, as its staff conducted participatory theater workshops as psycho-social therapy and organized civilian war victims to take an active role in shaping the national debate over the government’s intention to negotiate with some of the insurgent factions currently battling Afghan and international forces.
Around 8am, we stop in a small village in a mountainous area of Parwan. It’s breakfast time, and we are half-way to Bamiyan city.
The restaurant is the kind most often found along the roads of rural Afghanistan –a few rooms with tiny windows in a mud-walled building. A lanky teenage waiter escorts us to the family section, where men and women can dine together. We sit on the floor and the waiter rolls out a long strip of leather in front of us. Tea and bread are brought. The rest of my party orders kebabs. Being a vegetarian, I stick with the bread and tea. After tsk-tsking me for not eating enough, Aziza produces sweet cakes from her backpack and I happily accept them.
A family sits down next to my party. An elderly woman eyes me curiously. She asks Bisharat if I am Afghan. Bisharat tells her I am a foreigner. The woman looks incredulous and asks what I am doing in the village, and where I am going. When Bisharat answers, the woman squints at me through cataracts and shakes her head.
Foreigners rarely travel to Bamiyan by road. I was warned not to. “There is only one safe way to travel to Bamiyan,” one fellow expat told me seriously days before I left, “That is to fly.”
Bamiyan province itself is among the safest in Afghanistan –there is no insurgency, and the local Hazara population was brutally oppressed under the Taliban regime– but getting there can be risky.
From Kabul, the longer overland route leads through a dubiously secure district in Parwan (there were IEDs near the town of Ghorband a few years ago) and over roads that are dicey in the warm months and almost completely impassable because of heavy snow half the year. The shorter route goes through Wardak province, where the dangers include Taliban checkpoints, armed bandits, local militias, and mistargeted NATO airstrikes. My party took the longer way.
After breakfast, we climb back into the minibus. There’s ample room, because most of AHRDO’s staff arrived in Bamiyan five days earlier to conduct a week-long participatory theatre workshop, so I stretch out on the back row of seats. “Why are you not talking?” Bisharat asks me.
“Because I am tired, and when I’m tired I say stupid things,” I tell him. He laughs.
I’ve had only two hours of sleep, so I pull my scarf over the bottom half of my face, drape my long coat over my body and drift off.
Hours and kilometers are consumed by dreamless sleep.
When I awake, the sun is high and the temperature has shot up. I throw my coat off and pull myself upright against the window. The minibus is rolling through a sandy desert. A slight breeze blows sand from the tops of low dunes. The snow-capped Hindu Kush Mountains loom in the distance.
“Where are we now?” I ask Bisharat as I search for my water bottle and shoes under the seats.
“This is the beginning of Bamiyan province.”
We enter the canyons. Streams of melting mountain snow flow over the road and through crevasses in the sheer rock walls.
As we draw closer to the city, we pass through valleys of potato fields and squat adobe homes. Girls in colorful dresses are washing clothes in streams and working alongside men in groves of white birch trees.
“What do you think Bamiyan city looks like?” Bisharat asks me.
I think for a minute and realize I have never seen any aerial photos or cityscapes, so I venture a guess. “Mostly mud homes and a few Peshawari-style villas?”
“There are no Peshawari houses in Bamiyan,” says Bisharat. “You’ll see.”
After passing through a police checkpoint, we enter the capital district.
Bisharat points to a lone Soviet tank carcass rusting on the side of the road. “The symbol of jihad,” he says.
Reminders of war are never far in Afghanistan, even in the most peaceful areas.