Wednesday, March 26, 2014

'Even hearing their name is enough to frighten us' - the caves haunted by the Taliban

Bamyan may be one of Afghanistan’s safest, if neglected, regions right now – yet its mountain cave-dwellers remain in fear of a Taliban return, symbolised by two huge scars of sentimental and historic significance.

A fundamentalist reign of terror ten years ago brought torture and mass killings to this spectacular setting 80 miles north-west of the capital Kabul.
Speaking to Metro from the lofty mountain cranny from which she was temporarily driven, 32-year-old mother-of-six Zahra Nazari recalled cradling her stricken father in her arms as he died from gunshot wounds.
Even the merest mention of the fearful T-word can trigger upset and panic in many people here, while a recent volley of bullets into the sky during a celebratory festival convinced some the Taliban were invading again.
This is one of the rare provinces in Afghanistan where, despite their previous occupancy, Taliban sympathisers are now said to be scarce.
Yet two stark reminders of that earlier gory rule remain in Bamyan: the towering, keyhole-shaped chasms in the mountains where two sixth-century Buddhas proudly stood until being blown by the Taliban for being ‘un-Islamic’ in 2001.

Many families still remain, whether in basic homes constructed in earthbound villages or in even more ramshackle nooks along snow-streaked mountain resembling huge slabs of Viennetta.
Islamic Relief’s Martin Cottingham said: ‘This place shows the potential of what the rest of Afghanistan could ideally be like – but also the risks there are of returning to the bad old days.’

Zahra Nazari’s family have lived in the peaks for years, their residence only interrupted by the Taliban reign when they sought shelter in nearby Behrud – though not before falling victim to the religious insurgents.
Her brother, a mujahedeen fighter, was shot dead in the northern region of Mazar-e-Sharif, while her father Jomakhan Hussain was gunned down while still here in Bamyan.
Zahra recalled: ‘He was shot at here in the mountains and died right in front of me – in my arms.
‘I can’t really remember anything more from that time except how I cried for more than 40 days and nights – more than that, probably. I just couldn’t stop.’

Yet she and her surviving relatives did ultimately manage to make their way, gradually, to safe refuge in Iran – only returning to Bamyan once they felt sure Nato forces had driven their tormentors away within a year.
Her husband Mohammad, 40 – who served a Taliban-imposed prison sentence before eventually being freed – now works as a police officer, a role that still brings its own specific dangers.
He was caught in a landmine explosion four years ago, leaving him with lingering leg injuries,
Harrowing ordeals live long in the mind, prompting Zahra to admit: ‘Even hearing the Taliban name is enough to frighten me. We hope they never come back again but who can say for sure?
‘I don’t understand much about Nato’s role here but I do worry enough about what might happen when they leave.
‘At least, I do hope my children can get to live somewhere else when they grow up.’

Between 400,000 and 600,000 people are believed to live in Bamyan province, some on the ground – some
in an estimated 200 mountain caves, two-thirds of which are occupied by internally-displaced refugees.
The main town of the same name, some 80 miles north-west of the capital Kabul, rises as high as 800m in altitude.
Among the success stories of the 36,000-population town – and London-based charity Islamic Relief’s education programmes there – is 32-year-old Uzra Lali.
She was taught to read and write by Islamic Relief’s inaugural literacy classes introduced in 2011 and now employs another 48 women helping her to embroider bags, rugs and other furnishings.

Uzra and her family originally lived in neighbouring Wardak province, running a grocery store and guesthouse until their village was attacked by the Taliban in 1998 and they were forced to flee.
Her husband Abdul Hamid was jailed for alleged offences against Islam, while Uzra escaped to Pakistan for three years before finally the couple could be reunited and settled with their five children in newly-liberated Bamyan.
Yet many problems afflicting Bamyan remain: the remote setting can deter investors, while a private clinic that recently opened its doors shut them again after mere months due to poorly-paid locals’ inability to afford the fees.
The widespread presence of Afghans from a Hazara heritage is also felt to contribute to the region’s neglect by Afghanistan’s predominantly-Pashtun political elite.

Transport links are largely restricted to sporadic United Nations aircraft and treacherous highways, while the province’s first electricity supplies were only introduced three months ago – and even then, only patchily.
Local health worker Khalil Rahman Anwari admitted: ‘Central government’s attention isn’t equal or just – there are no serious plans nor follow-ups.’
For the tentatively-hopeful locals, whether down on the ground or shivering above, the region does at least feel comparatively peaceful and secure enough. For now, anyway.

The Taliban has resumed control of large parts of Afghanistan and their power is only likely to expand as disputed presidential elections loom, security experts fear.
The Islamist fundamentalists dominate large swatches of southern and eastern Afghanistan and are merely ‘biding their time’ for Western troops to withdraw later this year, it was warned.
Vote-tampering claims and disputes over the outcome of the April 5 polls are widely expected, following similar rancour when Hamid Karzai was elected president four years ago.
Recent terrorism outbreaks in the capital Kabul - including last week’s assassination of an AFP reporter and his family - are also undermining faith in peace-keeping efforts.
Some nine people were killed when insurgents bypassed security checks at the upmarket Serena hotel in Kabul last Thursday, shooting dead nine people including four children.
The Taliban also claimed responsibility for a double suicide bomb attack outside the offices of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission on Tuesday morning.
Four insurgents then stormed the building, close to the home of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, in the latest fulfilment of Taliban promises to disrupt the election campaign.
The latest attacks follow the bombing of a Lebanese restaurant in the capital in January, killing 13 foreigners and eight Afghans.
Polls suggest the candidate most likely to emerge victorious next month will be either Zalmai Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani - though none is the clear favourite.
Omar Hamid, Asia head for London-based analysis consultancy IHS Country Risk, expects three-way tussles for power between Taliban forces, re-emerging ‘old warlords’ belonging to the likes of the Northern Alliance and ‘weak central government’.
Mr Hamid said: ‘We are already in a situation where there is a very weak central government while the Taliban is in the ascendant while waiting for the international forces’ withdrawal.
‘The Taliban are already powerful in southern and eastern parts of the country, while the security situation is worsening - including in Kabul.
‘Many people will feel if the government can’t guarantee security in the capital, then they’re hardly likely to do so elsewhere.’
Warlords such as Dostum, Khan, and Atta Muhammad Nur are increasingly intervening in trade agreements relating to ‘potentially lucrative ventues such as mining or energy,’ he added.

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