by Wazhmah Osman
– Afghanistan/USA –
I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan during the good years, in the early seventies. Among my fondest memories is walking to and from school holding the hand of my stylish mother who was then a French teacher at Lycee Malalai where I was in the first grade. I remember a lively city where men and women, Afghans and non-Afghans, wearing a variety of ethnic and western outfits, all mingled at the busy outdoor bazaars. On Christmas Eve 1979, the world as I knew it was shattered when the Soviets invaded, throwing Afghanistan into a war that has yet to end. It was one of the saddest and darkest days in Afghan history and for my family.
Today’s Kabul is a stark comparison to the Kabul of my childhood. It’s a hollowed out skeleton, a city of ghosts where the living look more like the walking dead. Traumatized from three decades of war, many are disabled physically and/or emotionally, most have been displaced frequently, and virtually everyone has been subjected to bombs, rockets, and gunfire. The least fortunate have been imprisoned, tortured, raped. Most Afghans under thirty years of age have never known or experienced the good years.
Now eight years after the start of the American military operations, the “defeat” of the Taliban, and billions spent in aid money, what has emerged is two different Afghanistans. Kabul has become a stratified city of extremes. The few remaining paved roads are reserved by military checkpoints for the armored SUVs of internationals (and the elite Afghans who enjoy their patronage), while the war-torn roads that put New York’s FDR to shame are crowded with everybody else.
Shiny new glass high-rises, luxury guesthouses, and gated resorts are being built next to crumbling homes that continue to lack basic services like electricity and water. Nice restaurants won’t allow most locals, who have saved their money for a special occasion, to enter without a foreign passport. So while the international fat cats and the Afghan elites enjoy first world lifestyles, according the latest Oxfam and Asia Foundation surveys, the 40% unemployment rate and cost of living are suffocating the Afghan population. The same reports cite that 71% of those polled not only feel that the government is doing poorly at creating jobs, but they also see unemployment and poverty as the root cause of the country’s conflict.
This disparity was glaringly evident at President Ahmed Karzai’s second inauguration. He threw himself a big bash, much bigger than the last one, rolling out the red carpets, saluting soldiers, and marching bands for his high profile invited guests. Heads of state from over 40 countries attended the grand ball at the Presidential Palace. Partygoers included Hillary Clinton and the French and British Interior Ministers – dignitaries from countries that have been very critical of his government’s lack of effectiveness and rampant corruption.
Perhaps the scale and grandiosity of the celebration was meant to offset the election fraud that plagued his candidacy by projecting legitimacy. The fact that on election day Kabul was on complete security lockdown due to fears of suicide bombs and insurgent (Taliban) attacks is a sign of the country’s present state and the fact that most Afghans are not celebrating.
The everyday lives of Afghans are looking ever more bleak and the bigger picture they are seeing in the media does not look any brighter. Every time I turn on the TV, there are bloody bodies lying in pain, strewn on the sides of roads as a result of yet another suicide bombing in yet another province. Afghans are horrified by suicide bombings, which do not have a precedent in Afghanistan until now, the Post-9/11 era. During my eight months here, I have mapped out 11 different attacks (on the Indian Embassy, Serena Hotel, ISAF Base, the Kabul Airport Road, near the American Embassy, among others) within a 20-mile radius around my neighborhood. I have heard and felt the explosions shaking my apartment, and seen through my shattered windows various parts of Kabul on fire, smoking and smoldering.
From my bedroom window on October 28th, I witnessed the attacks on the UN guesthouse which killed a number of UN employees and which the Taliban took credit for. A number of my international friends quickly packed their bags and got their visas for Dubai and other nearby tourist destinations for all-expense paid R&Rs.
My Afghan friends on the other hand, continued to do their laundry and wondered how to stretch their money for the night’s dinner. This is the only home they have. They do not have an escape plan. They are stuck between the warlordism, Islamism, cronyism, and corruption of their own government and the international governments – mainly America’s – that support it. Having witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Centers from my other home in New York City, I know how fragile the façade of western invincibility is and how easily and quickly it can collapse. As any refugee can tell you, there are no guarantees in life – especially of peace.
Anyone who has lived in Afghanistan for the past couple of years would agree that the situation is becoming increasingly worse. If things do not change, the Taliban, with their severe brand of Islam and violent enforcement of Shariah law, will once again emerge as the better alternative, offering both security and enough money for followers to eat.
Looking at Karzai partaking in his presidential inauguration on the eve of another five-year term, surrounded by high-ranking warlords with Hillary Clinton in the audience, it seems like the usual business of war and politics will prevail over the peace and nation-building that Afghanistan needs.
In her series, Wazhmah addresses the modern day reality facing Afghans,
the pervasive corruption and numerous obstacles to rebuilding, and her recommendations for the US’ future engagement in Afghanistan. – Ed.
About the Author
Wazhmah Osman is a Social Science Research Council Fellow, currently completing her dissertation fieldwork in Afghanistan. She is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Media, Culture, and Communication program. Wazhmah earned a Masters degree in Near Eastern Studies from New York University and completed the innovative Graduate Program in Culture and Media through NYU Anthropology.
Wazhmah’s critically acclaimed documentary Postcards from Tora Bora, co-directed with Kelly Dolak, has screened in film festivals internationally. For more information please visit www.postcardsfromtorabora.com. She travels frequently between Kabul and NYC.