Villages near Osama bin Laden’s hiding place living in the 19th century

Living with a calf. PHOTO: Erik Prozes

Even Eduard Vilde would be hard-pressed to adequately describe the poverty of Pashtun villages near the Pakistani border. But the locals regard their newfound peace as more important than work.

A month after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, I was told by an Uzbekistani expert: “The Amu Darya [river] is not just a geographic boundary [between Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics], it is a temporal divide. Crossing it takes one right to the middle of the 19th century. /…/ They live like our great-grandfathers did.”

Initially thinking that he was referring to mental and cultural peculiarities on both sides of the Amu Darya, I soon realized the difference of almost two centuries was also starkly material.

One-third of the room’s dirt floor is covered by a piece of cloth long since devoid of its original colors. A similar rag hangs in front of the entrance. Four bed-like objects that look like they would collapse if one were to just sit on them have been pushed near the wall. Opposite the beds stands a cupboard one meter wide two of the six shelves on which display a few jars with the family’s scant fare: tea powder, a small wooden bowl with some beans and a little rice. An empty sack of flour lies in the corner like a dead animal.

Next to the shelves, a small window is the room’s only light source. The gap between the wall and the windowpane is wide enough for a rat or small bird to escape though. Glass in the window comes off as excess luxury by contrast. A tiny clay stove in the middle of the room, on which a cat couldn’t rub its back, is the only heat source. It only gives off enough heat to make the indoor temperature differ slightly from the outside. It looks like there will be snow.

The family’s less than clean children are used to running around the dirt floor barefoot. A small depression in the corner acts as a bath. Its raised clay edge displays a small piece of soap of undefinable color.

Living opposite a calf

The description is not from a book on ethnography from two centuries ago. It is the home and living room of 45-year-old Bagh Muhammad’s family of 12 (seven of whom are children).

And it is not the most wretched home in the village of Pakhel.

The uncle of 32-year-old Salamur served in the Afghan army and died fighting the Taliban. His widow lives in a 10-square-meter hut with four children and a skinny calf. The older child is eight, the youngest just two and half years old. The calf lives in the left-hand side corner and the family on the right from the door. The human half of the room holds two unsteady beds and two blankets of surprisingly beautiful patterns. A wooden box under one of the beds looks to be the extent of the family’s belongings. In the other corner, the calf shares its space with a large cauldron full of hay. The calf’s body heat replaces a stove. There is no room for them in Salamur’s slightly larger hut as he has a large family of his own.

Peace the only positive outcome

The village of Pakhel and its roughly 300 inhabitants are located near the Pakistani border in western Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. The Pashtun village in the Pekha Valley lies just a few dozen kilometers from the Tora Bora caves that used to serve as the hideout of Osama bin Laden. This is where the terror attacks on New York and Washington were planned and orchestrated 20 years ago!

Life in the village is governed by a council of elders eight of whom agree to meet with Postimees. All exude unmovable dignity. They agree that they do not remember the village ever living as wretchedly as it does now, four months after the Taliban took over. All signs point to the situation getting worse.

Younger men of the village used to serve in the army or police force of the previous administration and brought back enough money to keep the whole village going. They have no work today.

“None at all,” Elder Haji Dashkat says when asked whether the Taliban are of any help. “They don’t have any money themselves.” The only good thing about Taliban rule is that life is peaceful in the village. Pakhel used to suffer from frequent attacks by ISIS fighters that were followed by U.S. drone strikes. This cost the lives of 16 villagers in 2017 and 2018.

Dashkat lost two sons to drone strikes. Collateral damage. Another elder’s eldest son died when an IED planted by ISIS fighters exploded.

There used to be attacks, but there was also work. While it is peaceful now, work has disappeared. “We prefer the current situation,” Elder Walayat Khan said. Another member of the council later walked up to our translator and said that he preferred the way things were, that at least people had jobs then, even though they were forced to live in fear.

When will Afghanistan be both peaceful and sport an economy able to provide people with enough work seems to be the million dollar question. People in the Pekha Valley, Kabul and Jalalabad who have talked to Postimees over the past week believe it will not be any time soon.

Food prices double over four months

Massive unemployment and public sector salary arrears have been complemented by the afghani rapidly losing its value against the dollar. This has resulted in rapid staple goods price hike as Afghanistan completely depends on import goods. People already cannot afford to buy food, while it is getting more expensive every day. The price of a liter of gasoline had climbed to €0.85 by this week in what is a desperately poor country. Many food products have seen their prices double in the four months since the Taliban took over.

We saw families living on nothing but tea and rice in Pakhel. “We have families that can only afford to eat rice once a day,” Walayat Khan said. “They no longer bake bread because it is too expensive, while rice is less nutritious.”

Khan said that rice is cheaper than bread, with a kilogram costing 35 afghanis (€0.30) in Pakhel and feeding six or seven people. A kilogram of flour used to make bread costs 40 afghanis (€0.35) and is only enough to feed three or four.

Ahmad Saleem, head of the local branch of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan that runs a humanitarian aid project in Nangarhar Province, said the entire Afghan economy and especially its financial system needs to be restarted to escape the chaos. Saleem suggested that lifting international sanctions against Afghanistan and unfreezing its foreign accounts is the first prerequisite. The UN imposed sanctions when the Taliban seized power.

“The Taliban is interested in saving the economy but cannot do anything as it does not know how,” Saleem said. “The sanctions are not working. The Taliban collects the money it needs to feed its fighters in taxes. The people are the ones suffering. The Taliban does not take care of them. On the contrary, it is forcing locals to feed its fighters in some provinces, while it tells the people to pray to Allah for food.”

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