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.
Leaving Bamiyan city, we drive through what amounts to a slum. The sights are jarring. This is where some of the poorest people in the world scrape out a ragged existence on the edges of a society with little to spare. Destitute families crowd into caves cut out from the rocky cliffs. There is no running water, no electricity, and just a few rudimentary outdoor latrines. The six month Bamiyan winter is often deadly for children and pregnant women living in these caves.
Along the road that leads through the caves area, I see children with thin limbs carrying cans of fuel. Their hair so dry and dirty it sticks out at all angles, and they have badly sunburned, prematurely wrinkled skin. Their clothing is tattered and they don’t smile. It is impossible for me to tell how old they are.
Bisharat shakes his head. “They waited for aid, but it didn’t come. The people feel they are being punished for peace.”
Since 2002, the Afghan government has broken most of its promises to the people of Bamiyan. Pledged infrastructure has been delivered slowly, when delivered at all. The Provincial Reconstruction Team, led by New Zealand, is under-resourced and too small to cover an area as large and rugged as Bamiyan province.
Half-way between Bamiyan city and Yakawlang, we stop at a place called Qarghana To, a collection of single-room shops that sell gasoline and expired snack cakes.
I need to pee, so I ask where the latrine is. Bisharat grins and tells me to pick a spot.
Back in the car a few minutes later, Bisharat hands me some cookies he purchased. He says that the people of this region see education as the key to upward social mobility at last, and are determined to seize the current window of opportunity, however long it remains open.
“People from Bamiyan city and Yakawlang district send their daughters to Kabul to study in high school and university,” Bisharat says. “These girls live together in the apartments, and some of them are just teenagers. Can you believe that?”
It is a rare and heartening thing, I tell him, that these parents are willing to challenge the prevailing social norms of this conservative country in hope of better days ahead. There will be no revolution that liberates the women of Afghanistan, but acts of positive deviance will slowly reshape the culture to one that gives women more control over their minds and bodies. If fragile gains hold, that is –something by no means guaranteed as NATO states seek an exit date for their troops and the Afghan government looks to ensure its survival beyond that point by reaching out to extremist groups that have waged a relentless campaign of violence against women and girls for more than two decades.
Afghan feminists, including men like Bisharat, never had the political support they needed from the international community, and they may be fighting their battles alone in a few years.
The last rays of sunlight disappear behind the hills and the bus driver turns on his high beams. Lightening from the distant storm zigzags across the rapidly darkening sky.
The roads narrow and the bus wobbles. I clutch the seat in front of me with one hand. “You should put on your seatbelt,” I tell Bisharat, “We’d stand a chance of surviving a rollover from this height, but not without seatbelts.”
He chuckles and slouches defiantly lower in his seat. Afghans almost never wear seatbelts. On the roads, like everywhere else, a kind of “if my time comes, it comes” fatalism applies.
It is after 10pm when we reach Yakawlang district.
The minibus stops in front of a river. A low yellow moon hangs above. I can just make out buildings. A young man who introduces himself as Salim, another AHRDO theater trainer, helps me carry my bags. I follow Bisharat, Salim and several others over a footbridge and through woods. We reach a dirt trail leading up a mountain. Bisharat points to lights high above. “That’s the Yakawlang Shohada guesthouse, let’s go,” he says. We hike up a mountain in the moonlight. The air is so clear it stings my lungs, which have for months been choked by dust and diesel from the streets of Kabul.
In the guesthouse, men are sitting on the floor of a living room dimly lit by a single fluorescent lightbulb. Yakawlang has a few hours of weak electricity at night thanks to a small hyrdo power station the local resident built when they realized no one was coming to help them. Salim pours me tea while introducing me to Dr. Sharif, AHRDO’s primary actor.
The conversation turns to the reconciliation and reintegration debate. Dr. Sharif opposes any reconciliation with Gulbuddin Heckmatyar, leader of the Hezb-i-Islami – Gulbuddin (HIG) insurgent faction. During his student days, Dr. Sharif was imprisoned by HIG and subjected to torture by beating and electric shock. He witnesses the summary executions of dozens at the hands of Heckmatyar’s forces, and lost six of his brothers in the violence. “If I see Heckmatyar on TV in Kabul, I will have to leave Afghanistan,” he says.
“If it comes to that –if Heckmatyar really does come to Kabul, or some of the Taliban leaders do, or both—what will civil society’s reaction be?” I ask Bisharat. He says he doesn’t know, but he believes that the return of notorious figures from the bloody past will weaken civil society by inducing people like Dr. Sharif to go into exile.
The conversation stops when it reaches the point where what needs to be said is best conveyed by silence.