Scarred heartland fears future

With devastation still visible on Bamiyan's beautiful landscape, villagers revisit horrors as insurgents gain ground nearby

Afghan girls walk past an empty crevice where ancient Buddha statues once stood before the Taliban destroyed them.
Powered by automated translation

BAMIYAN // As the Taliban edge closer to Kabul, villagers in one Afghan province are still living with the destruction caused when the militants last held power. The burnt-out shells of homes continue to scar the otherwise beautiful landscape of Bamiyan. Charred black, they are both a testament to the past and a warning for the future. "I heard the Taliban shooting and saw lots of pickup lorries, so we took all the women and children and escaped to the mountains," said Mohammad Hussein, recalling the militant's arrival at his house all those years ago. Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, is the heartland of the country's Shiite Hazara community. The Sunni-fundamentalist Taliban movement captured the area in 1998, but fierce resistance meant they were soon driven out. Then, in 1999, they seized power again. "They killed my uncle, my sister's sons and my brother's sons," said Mr Hussein, from inside a fire-damaged part of his home. Bamiyan has become synonymous with the Taliban regime's extremism because of a single act: the blowing up of the ancient Buddhist statues that were carved into a cliff-face in the provincial capital. A decade since their initial arrival here, the human cost of Taliban rule is equally obvious, yet the idea of them returning no longer seems as far-fetched as the US-led invasion once made it appear. They already control huge swathes of territory in the country's south, east and west, effectively operating like a government in those areas. Bamiyan itself is relatively peaceful, but the unrest is closing in, and no one knows what the future holds. Mr Hussein lives in the village of Pai-Katol-Mamora, which fell to the Taliban on three different occasions during the late 1990s. With Arabs and Pakistanis in their ranks, they destroyed his home and the local mosque. "Now we are just passing our lives," he said. "We don't have money, and we can't even eat rice or meat. All we have to survive on is bread and water from the river." Throughout the Shaidan Valley, similar horror stories are told. Bodies of innocent farmers scattered the fields, mullahs were arrested and murdered, and children died in the mountains as they tried to flee the carnage. Hussein Ali, who is in his late sixties, recalled how no one was quite sure what to expect as the militants approached. "At the beginning, I heard from lots of people on the way that the Taliban were good people who do not steal," he said. "But when the Taliban arrived in Maidan Shah, slowly, slowly, we started to hear they were stealing and killing civilians." Mr Ali eventually escaped and did not return until after the 2001 war. "When we came back here there was nothing - just land and dust," he said. This year looks to be the most violent since the Taliban regime collapsed, and there is now a real sense across Afghanistan that the insurgents have gained the upper hand. Foreign soldiers are dying at record levels, with more than 100 American troops already killed in 2008 alone. A key reason for the chaos is the government's lack of support among the general population. All ethnic groups often feel sidelined and suspicion towards Hamid Karzai, the president, is widespread. Abdul Hadi Rezai, a school principal in the village of Nal-e-Shera, said leaders of the Mujahideen - warlords who resisted Soviet occupation and the Taliban - should now be used to crush the insurgency. "The people of Bamiyan believe that Karzai and the Taliban are going the same way," he said. "Karzai does not want to finish the Taliban because then he will lose his position. He wants to show the people that if he leaves, the Taliban will return." Perhaps that day will never come, but no one here seems 100 per cent certain that the bloodshed is fully behind them. In Haji Gak Shaidan, near Shaidan, some of the buildings are still charred wrecks and there is not a radio or car to be found. For the meantime at least, the residents are happy in their isolation. "We don't know anything about the Taliban now - if they are finished, if they are still fighting, if they are close to us," said Mohammed Hassan, 25. "We are living in the mountains so if we see people running away we will know the Taliban are coming."