- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 29, 2002

SAFFEH-CHIR, Afghanistan They play homemade instruments and use old buckets of yogurt for drums. They sing terribly and can't keep a beat.
"The neighbors don't like our music," said Aziz Khan, an 18-year-old would-be flute player. "We play loud anyway."
Call them the punks of the Panjshir Valley.
After a seven-hour drive along the dusty, bumpy unpaved road from Kabul, the music these youngsters make is grating on the ears. But the tunes are important for the future of Afghanistan. The traditional folk music they play so badly had been fading from the Panjshir Valley until recently. Most of the country's capable musicians have long since fled abroad.
"We've known nothing but war," said Saifudin, 21, who plays a homemade tambura a traditional string instrument somewhat like a guitar. "To the north of us, there's been war. To the south of us, there's been war."
Before its troubles began in the late 1970s, Afghanistan was an impoverished, politically unstable Third World country. But ordinary Afghans had their own lives, traditional culture and language. The past 23 years of war have so devastated this country that even the millennia-old music has to be rebuilt from scratch if it is to survive.
Trips to western and eastern Afghanistan over the last two months revealed a nation of shards, rubble and broken-off pieces shattered lives, amputated limbs, dilapidated roads, abandoned villages and ravaged city neighborhoods. After this month's loya jirga or grand council to choose a new government, rebuilding the country's political structure may be the easy part. The real challenge for Afghanistan is the massive social, economic and cultural reconstruction project at hand.
The roads must be rebuilt. A 60-mile trip on Afghanistan's roads can take five hours. The schools must be resupplied. Though Afghans who fled to the West are among the most educated of immigrants, 90 percent of those who stayed are illiterate.
Communications networks must be restored. There are no telephone land lines between cities. Basic municipal services need to be restarted. Kabul residents currently toss their trash into the streets.
Most important, relations between Afghanistan's four major ethnic groups Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks have to be patched up. The Pakistan-supported Taliban, overthrown with the help of a U.S.-led bombing campaign late last year, were Pashtuns. Their hated oppression of other ethnic groups has led to a backlash against Pashtuns. Mistrust and hatred abound. A Tajik friend in Herat called all Pashtuns Taliban. A Hazara friend in Kabul insisted on referring to all Pashtuns as al Qaeda, the mostly Arab and Pakistani terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden.
The wounds run deep. Successive waves of violence and calamity have scarred the country since the monarchy was overthrown in a 1973 military coup, followed five years later with a takeover by pro-Soviet officers.
Then came the Russians, rushing in to help their modernizing disciples and stabilize the neighboring country only to be met by an Islam-fueled and CIA-funded war of resistance. They responded with aerial bombardments of the Panjshir Valley and other strongholds of mujahideen, or "holy warriors."
Along the roads from Kabul north through the Panjshir Valley or east from the Iranian border to Herat are the remains of villages long since depopulated. After decades of bombing, sabotage and lack of maintenance, paved roads have turned to rubble in the Afghan countryside, making intercity travel dangerous and difficult.
The Russians left in early 1989, installing the government of Gen. Najibullah as they departed. Soon came the mujahideen wars for parts of eastern Afghanistan, perhaps the most devastating chapter in the nation's modern history. The same warlords who had finished off the Russians finished off Gen. Najibullah and then began finishing off each other.
At one point, Kabul was hit by 1,000 rockets in one day. More than 60 percent of the city still lies in ruin.
"After all is said and done, maybe we should have just accepted Najibullah," said Hamed, a former mujahideen who laid down his arms after the fall of the Taliban.
The political instability and constant civil war under the mujahideen warlords prepared the ground for the ultrafundamentalist Taliban militia. In their zeal to Islamicize the country, they destroyed the giant Buddha statues up to 1,500 years old carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan that were once Afghanistan's greatest tourist attraction. The Muslim mullahs considered them objects of idolatry.
Extending their rage against the statues to the residents of the region, the Taliban drove nearly all the Hazaras of Bamiyan province from their homes and villages into exile, refugee camps and the mountains. Only recently have they begun returning to their ruined towns.
The Soviet-educated officers and later Gen. Najibullah had sought to modernize Afghanistan through education, sending even girls to school to the fury of traditionalists. After the ascendancy of the Taliban, women and girls were harshly put in their traditional subordination.
The Taliban are gone now, but most women even educated women clothe themselves from head to foot in the traditional burka when in the streets or the bazaar. Many of them say it's out of fear.
"We've suffered unimaginable cruelty and humiliation under the Taliban," said Shafiqa Moaber, director of the Ariana Women's Vocational Center, which teaches women job skills. "It'll be a long time before we can feel normal again."
The final years of Taliban rule coincided with a severe drought in much of Central Asia that caused thousands of villagers to starve or flee to refugee camps like Maslakh near Herat at its peak population of 135,000 one of the largest in the world.
The migrants have begun heading home. But aid officials say they've gotten used to handouts from aid agencies. The drought has ended, but many farmers in western Afghanistan didn't plant seeds this year, waiting instead for free bags of grain and cans of food.
"This culture of dependence is the biggest obstacle to rebuilding the countryside," said Robert Robillard, Herat director of the International Organization for Migrants, which administers Maslakh and other camps.
Finally came the U.S. led-bombing campaign, which for all its successes still destroyed much of the country's remaining infrastructure, such as the radio and television transmitters. It also damaged an unknown number of lives. In a tiny hamlet just outside Herat, a woman described the day a U.S. cluster bomb exploded in her town.
"This village gave up three martyrs so that the rest of us could be free of the Taliban," said Olafzala, in her 70s.


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