AFGHANISTAN Despite problems, peace welcome
A former Valley resident finds cheer amid the rubble in Afghanistan.
By MARK BAKER
SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR
KABUL, Afghanistan -- The first thing visitors see on arrival at Kabul's international airport are the remains of dozens of passenger jetliners that lie scattered in a field by the only functioning runway.
This is what's left of the country's national carrier, Ariana Airlines, and is the first hint of the scope of the destruction here.
More than half of the Afghan capital has been reduced to rubble. There is not a building standing that does not show evidence of a mortar attack, shelling or bullets fired from a Kalashnikov rifle.
This destruction was not caused by U.S. airstrikes last year in the anti-terror coalition war against Al-Qaida and the Taliban. Nor did it come in Afghanistan's 10-year war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Instead, Kabul was destroyed in a war that few Americans have ever heard of -- the Afghan civil war.
Afghan warlords, after uniting to defeat the Soviet Union, suddenly turned on one another in 1992. The three-year civil war that followed spared no city, building or group of civilians.
At the time, American and international attention was not fixed on Afghanistan, but on Somalia and Yugoslavia. The civil war carried on here with little outside effort to stop it.
It was the Taliban -- the fundamentalist religious group that later offered shelter to Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaida terror organization -- who eventually stopped the civil war.
The Taliban, mostly students from Pakistan, were first welcomed as liberators. It was only after they imposed harsh measures in the name of Islam, such as banning girls from attending school, that people began to recognize them as oppressors.
Peace at last
It's often said that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed the world. Nowhere is that more true than here in Kabul. Almost overnight, thanks to the U.S.-led military effort, the Taliban was gone and Al-Qaida was defeated. Twenty-three years of war and conflict had come to end.
Afghans are grateful for the changes. More than once I've been stopped in the street by a stranger simply wanting to thank me as an American. I have yet to hear a mean remark or even get a hostile stare. The changes in the city -- in the span of just a few months -- are breathtaking.
Schools, stores and homes are being rebuilt. The carpet dealers on Chicken Street in the city center are back in business hawking hand-made Persian rugs at rock-bottom prices.
The shelves of the mom-and-pop stores on nearby Flower Street are filled with every food item imaginable, from peanut butter to Pringles potato chips supplied by the military bases.
Prices are marked in U.S. dollars. The local currency is nearly worthless. The highest-denomination Afghan bill in circulation, 10,000 afghanis, is worth about 25 cents. Paying for something as small as a restaurant meal in local currency requires a wad of bills an inch thick.
The girls are back in school after being banished by the Taliban for five years. I had the opportunity to visit a girls school rebuilt this year by international peacekeepers and saw the smiles on students' faces. That school is in the middle of bombed-out western Kabul. It's literally the only building standing amid miles and piles of rubble.
The problems are still immense. In addition to the war, Afghanistan is in the midst of a three-year drought. The Kabul River, which runs through the center of the city, is dry. Water is scarce. Every once in a while, the wind kicks up a dust storm that reduces visibility -- and the ability to breathe -- to near zero.
Kabul is overrun by refugees returning from camps in Pakistan and Iran. The U.N. estimates that as many 1.7 million Afghans have come back to their home country since the end of the war -- the biggest refugee return in history.
Many of them -- more than a third of the total -- have chosen to come to Kabul. The city's population, normally about 1.5 million, has swelled to more than 2 million.
International organizations such as UNICEF, Care and Save the Children are out in droves to ensure that these people, along with the city's permanent population, have access to shelter, food and basic health care.
Still, conditions are barely livable. I visited one camp near the city center and found an extended family of about 20 sharing a makeshift tent and almost nothing else. The kids play in the burned wreckages of cars strewn around an empty lot. Dinner is cooked in a pot over a flame fueled by dried animal dung.
Even here, though, there is hope and optimism.
Tazagul, a man of about 65 and the head of the family at this camp, told me that in spite of the poor living conditions, he was happy finally to be back in Afghanistan. He had lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan for 20 years, but he said when he heard this year the Americans had come, he said it was time to go home.