Afghanistan: A tree with a bitter seed

The people of Afghanistan have suffered endless war and insecurity and there is no end in sight. When will the country come to its senses?

In Yasmina Khadra’s novel The Swallows of Kabul, the uncomplaining Nazeesh, whose sons were killed in Afghanistan’s war against the Russians, was found one morning “stalking along the avenues, wildly gesticulating, drooling, eyes bulging. The first diagnosis was that he was possessed; the exorcists, however, struggled with his demons in vain, and then he was sent away for several months to an asylum.”

Nazeesh makes endless plans to escape Kabul and one day he sets off up the nearest mountain from where he can see Afghanistan’s capital city sprawled out below. “Proud of his exploit, unthinkable for a man of his age, he shakes his fist in the air and casts vengeful eyes over Kabul, the old sorceress, lying there at his feet in the grip of her torments, twisted, dishevelled, flat on her stomach, her jaw-bones cracked from eating dirt.”

He recalls the days of Kabul’s grandeur, when the city rivalled Samarkand and Baghdad, a history obscured by the Russian occupation and obliterated by the dreaded Taliban. “For Kabul has a horror of memory. She has put her history to death in the public square, sacrificed the names of her streets in horrific bonfires, dynamited her monuments into smithereens, and cancelled the oaths her founders signed in their enemies’ blood. Today, Kabul’s enemies are her own offspring.”

Afghanistan(1)Nazeesh and Kabul symbolise the destruction and desolation of an entire country. And just when it seemed that the Taliban had capitulated, a resurgence threatens to set the country back another few decades. A recent article in The Guardian by Sune Engel Rasmussen reports that the number of Afghans applying for asylum more than doubled in 2015 due to greater insecurity and deep disappointment with the national unity government of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani (“Afghan exodus grows as Taliban gains ground and hope for future diminishes”, 29 October 2015).

Apparently, every night some 60 buses leave Kabul for Nimruz, Afghanistan’s southern desert province bordering Iran and Pakistan. They carry poor Afghans intent upon quitting the country. The journey to Europe begins here, especially for those headed for Germany. The vast majority are young men. In the absence of jobs and following the Taliban capture of Kunduz in the north, they are following Nazeesh’s lead and trying to escape. One told The Guardian: “The Taliban went looking for families who cooperated with the government or international organisations. They killed their sons and kidnapped their daughters.”

Inevitably, people-traffickers are profiteering from the plight of the refugees. Trips from Afghanistan to Europe are priced according to the danger involved. An overland journey via Nimruz costs $6,000-7,000. Flying to Tehran and continuing overland is $9,000. A flight all the way to Istanbul adds a further $2,000 to the price.

Afghanistan(2)To watch the disintegration of a country is painful. The Swallows of Kabul laments the collapse of Afghanistan, but it also warns that such things can easily happen anywhere that religious zealotry gains traction. The fate of Afghanistan hangs in the balance, but in the words of the 10th century Persian poet, Abu-Shakur Balkhi – born in Balkh in what is now northern Afghanistan:

“A tree with a bitter seed
Fed with butter and sugar
Will still bear a bitter fruit.
From it, you will taste no sweetness.”

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