War is only a secondary concern in a village that keeps being invaded

by Patrick Cockburn

It is a strange battlefield. The front line cuts across the green Shomali plain, one of the most fertile parts of Afghanistan, its fields fed by the rivers flowing out of the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains.

Here, amid the close-packed mud-brick villages, home to 800,000 people, the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance have repeatedly fought bloody battles over the past five years as each, in turn, advanced and retreated across the plain.

The signs of war are everywhere. Beside the road are the rusting carcasses of old tanks. The main bridges on the road to Kabul have been blown up by one side or the other. The metal bridge, replacing the old one, in the town of Jabal Saraj must be the only bridge in the world to rest on buttresses made out of crumpled armoured personnel carriers.

“Our village has been captured by the Taliban four times and then recaptured by us,” said Mohammed Akbar, a local mujahedin commander in Khalay Malek, a poor village even by the standards of the Shomali. Its tumble-down mud-brick houses looked as if they were melting into the landscape.

Mr Akbar, an energetic, cheerful looking man, was drawing water from a deep well. He explained that the 40 families who live in Khalay Malek faced problems other than war. He pointed at the village pool a few yards away which was completely dry. “There has been no water in it for five years,” he said. “Before that it was always full. Our worst problem is lack of water.”

He added that the problem was the drought ? the worst for half a century in central Asia ? and the damage caused by the Taliban three years ago when they captured almost all of the Shomali. They were forced to retreat with heavy losses but, before doing so, dynamited two enormous concrete pipes feeding the main irrigation canal at Totom Dara.

The people of the Shomali ? today some 500,000 are under the control of the Northern Alliance and 300,000 live in territory held by the Taliban ? were always poor.

“Some 80 per cent of the children here are malnourished,” said Dr Mirzon Mohammed, who runs a health centre at Kapisa. “Farmers’ incomes have fallen so far that they cannot get enough food and are vulnerable to disease.”

It is difficult, just by looking at people, to know if they are getting enough to eat. At Totum Dara, where the concrete pipes are being repaired, several dozen excited children surrounded our pick-up truck. We asked them what they ate during a normal day.

A 12-year-old boy called Hamid, who seemed less shy than the others, said: “I have tea and bread in the morning, rice at lunch and meat in the evening.” As soon as he mentioned that his family ate meat once a day all the other children laughed loudly and shouted: “He is a liar! It’s not true!”

It is possible to find water in the Shomali. “You have to dig down about 25 metres,” Sardar Agha, a farmer pushing a wheelbarrow, told us. “It takes about three people and six days’ work. You can drink the water but there is not enough to irrigate the fields.”

But, even for farmers who have enough land and the water to irrigate it, there are hidden dangers. They lie just under the soil in the shape of anti-personnel mines shaped like over-sized mushrooms. Both sides have sown then liberally around Bagram village.

Dr Ata Mohammed, who gives first aid to war wounded, said: “About 15 out of every hundred people we treat have mine injuries.” In every street there are men on crutches with only one leg. In Afghanistan as a whole, 300 people are killed or wounded by mines every month.

We had gone to Bagram to seek further information about three people who had stepped on mines earlier in the week. We had been told that one had been killed and two friends had lost their legs when they had tried to rescue him.

It turned to be a little more complicated than that. Bagram is known for its good grapes. A 26-year-old man called Sayid Akbar had gone to pick some for himself late at night. He stepped on a mine which blew off his leg. Two of his relatives, Mohammed Yusuf, 50, and Nasser Khan, 60, braved the mines to drag him to safety and take him to hospital.

They succeeded but, possibly over-confident, they went back to look at the site of the explosion the next day. Mr Yusuf stepped on another mine and lost a leg while Mr Khan was killed.

‘It’s hard for us, but the villagers
live in medieval poverty’

Conditions here in a small village in Afghanistan’s Panjshir valley, at the foothills of the Hindu Kush about 40 miles north of Kabul, are atrocious. But after three weeks, we have settled in to an odd sort of routine.

I arrived as one of a small group, given lodgings in an official “guest house” run by the opposition Northern Alliance. But with 200 foreign correspondents now crammed into the village, the overcrowding is severe. We are billeted in the former home of the manager of a local cement factory.

Initially we had two lavatories between 15 people. Now we are down to one for 45. And the Afghan definition of a lavatory is not yours or mine: it is little more than a hole in the ground.

Four of us share a room; we sleep on the floor with a cushion and a blanket. I found a carpenter to make me a small table to work on.

But if conditions are testing for us, the villagers live in conditions of medieval poverty and hardship. The village, with a population of about 2,000, has only a few tiny shops, one selling second-hand women’s shoes from Europe and Pakistan.

There are so few things to be bought and so many hundred dollar bills in circulation, thanks to the international media influx, that the value of the dollar to the Afghani has halved locally in the past three weeks.

Donkey is the main form of transport and for taxis people rely on horses and carts.

We have electricity only between 3pm and 9pm and the generator is unreliable. Daylight ends at six and now, with winter not far off, it is getting cold. The dust storms are frequent and blinding and play havoc with our equipment.

At least I managed to buy two car batteries in the village to run my satellite phone for a few minutes every day so I can send my copy.

Dysentery is a constant hazard. You get it from the water or eating the vegetables. One of my colleagues was struck down the other day and I took him to the nearest hospital. Then I got the symptoms myself.

I get up at 6am to get to the washroom and lavatory before everyone else.

The only restaurant in the village also serves as a hotel. After the evening meal, people settle down on the low carpeted tables to sleep for the night. These days a lot of the customers are fighters carrying sub-machine-guns.

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