Witness to Afghanistan's fall from grace

Helen Dupree first came to the country in the 1960s but now she bemoans its changed state.

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KABUL // When Nancy Hatch Dupree first came to Kabul in the 1960s, she saw a city that is unrecognisable now. Photographs from that time show a place of beauty and innocence, untouched by war. She arrived as the wife of an American diplomat during an era when the US was slowly taking an interest in Afghanistan. It was the start of her love affair with the country and, soon, with a man whose work continues to inspire her all these years later.

But in lots of ways it was also the opening act of a tragedy that is still being played out today. Washington saw an eerily familiar "opportunity to mould the minds of Afghans towards the West" and gain a strategic foothold in Asia, while hippies in search of spiritual enlightenment and the best drugs available passed through en route to India. "It was that group of people that began to sour the Afghans on foreigners for the first time because they were all coming overland from Iran, travelling by bus, and many of them would turn up in a village needing a place to sleep and a shopkeeper would say 'yeah, sure, you can sleep in my shop'. Then the guy would leave in the morning and the shopkeeper would find his safe was empty," Mrs Dupree said.

Now aged "81 going on 82", she has spent more than half of her life trying to preserve the history and culture of Afghanistan. Work on her guide to Bamiyan led to her getting to know the man who would become her second husband, the archaeologist and writer Louis Dupree. They married in 1966 and between them they have conducted some of the most widely read research on this part of the world. In those early days, extravagant diplomatic parties were held in which "we danced until dawn and the next morning the joke was always how many bodies did they find in the hedges". The Afghans who attended were "suave, urbane, beautiful people".

"Then I met Louis Dupree and I married Louis Dupree and my life changed considerably," she said. Together they lived in Kabul until the Afghan government arrested him for alleged spying. They were kicked out of the country in 1978 and went to Pakistan, where they explored the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan - more places whose purity has been lost to violence and uncertainty. From there they saw Afghanistan descend into chaos. Louis often accompanied the Afghan resistance on their missions across the border against Soviet troops, while Mrs Dupree worked among the growing refugee community. Both befriended fundamentalist Mujahideen leaders who would later tear Kabul apart and, in some cases, fight US occupation.

"Then they were heroes. They were heroes. Even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [a rebel commander now wanted by America], he was always open whenever Louis wanted to talk to him. He'd have a big joke with me and say, 'I don't really want you sitting here', but I don't know what else to do with you so sit there and shut up. He was popular cos' he was the best organised," she said. "He wasn't as rabid as he is now. I haven't met him for years, not since Louis died. And I don't know because I haven't done any research on it, but I have a sense that he feels that he's been badly treated because he was so strong at that time and now he's a pariah."

Louis feared the worst for Afghanistan's future when he died in March 1989. And when Mrs Dupree visited Kabul soon after the Mujahideen came to power in 1992, the city was being razed to the ground. Like most people here who saw the anarchy of that period first hand, she described it as the worst point in the country's recent grim history. "It was the Mujahideen who destroyed Kabul with bombs and rockets," she said.

A product of the disillusionment caused by this civil war, the Taliban government that came next was initially welcomed by many Afghans and Mrs Dupree also remembers it with relative fondness. "I had a very good relationship with the Taliban. I try to tell people there were some who were very unpalatable and I am the first one to say that. But not all of them had horns and forked tails," she said.

For years she was able to work with the help of a few key officials and send messages to Mullah Mohammed Omar whenever it seemed a historical monument might be in danger. Only later, when foreign jihadis led by Osama bin Laden exerted more of an influence, did the situation again take a turn for the worse. "When they had that meeting about blowing up the [Buddhist statues in Bamiyan] it was no simple decision, it went on for the whole day. It was hardliners who were pushing for this and the others who were resisting and saying, 'No, this is not what Islam teaches us'," Mrs Dupree said.

"That was my indication that Mullah Omar had lost power and I felt so sorry for him. He was forced to give that order by the cabinet which was now in the hands of the hardliners." Mrs Dupree lives in Peshawar now, a Pakistani city near the Afghan border encircled by the insurgency that threatens to engulf both countries. She continues to write and visits Afghanistan regularly. A foundation named after her and her late husband supports a cultural centre at Kabul University.

The 2001 US-led invasion was wrong, she said, and "an arbitrary thing, a knee-jerk reaction". The high concrete blast walls, fortress-like embassies and mansions built on drug money that have sprung up under American occupation make her "madder than hell". So does the corruption among foreign contractors and the myth that constitutions and democracy are new to Afghanistan. Yet despite - and perhaps because of - everything that has happened since the 1960s, she still has hope.

"It's changed superficially but I think the basic values in this culture, they're still there and I see this every day. The basic values are honour and also respect for parents and respect for the elderly - I see this all the time." csands@thenational.ae