For those who find it hard to understand or accept what’s happening in Afghanistan, for those who’s ideas of this country extend only to Ross Kemp’s footage from Helmand, I would have you all spend some time in the Northern provinces.
I’ve spent the last two weeks in Balkh and Badakshan province. The countryside is probably the very opposite of the dry, dusty desert terrain of Kabul. Lush, verdant mountains in a green patchwork peppered with wild poppies (not opium poppies, though the region has had its share of drug trafficking) that, if you dropped me there and told me I’d landed in Wales, I would believe you. But it’s a Wales bubbled up in geographical size and number with the hills looking like the mossy vertebrae of some buried monster’s backbone.
The people are mainly Tajik and Uzbek with generally oriental looking features, but that’s a huge generalisation as there’s a massive ethnic diversity from dark, romantic-faced Italian-looking boys with long hair to little blonde kids (a legacy of the Russian occupation) running around.
They’re also very friendly and very interested in me and my camera. Even when we visited a village today near the launch site of rockets fired at the camp, the feeling was anything but hostile. Cautious at first, but once the village elder connected in talks with the German CIMIC team, even the older men were smiling and they usually keep their distance.
Naturally, there’s still something not quite right, otherwise we wouldn’t have to get suited and booted with a protection team every time we left the camp. The elder said it ‘wasn’t possible’ to see the village beyond the front circle due to the flooding and a couple of cars passed by a few times too often. Of course, this may be completely innocent, but when you’re with a bunch of foreigners occupying a country, you do wonder.
Badakshan, the province where this village is located, was never taken by the Taleban, unlike Kunduz, and remains one of the most peaceful in Afghanistan. It’s a lot to do with the ethnicity of the people. In Kunduz, capital of Kunduz province, there are many more Pashtuns – the dominant ethnicity in Afghanistan and also in the Taleban. Due to the Pashtunwali code of hospitality, insurgents can much more easily live in amongst the people in Kunduz and it’s there the Germans, who oversee the Northern region, have come under the most intense attack. Firefights and IEDs become more common all the time, and just two weeks ago, a German soldier was killed in a very sophisticated attack that until now was only really seen in the Southern regions like Helmand and Kandahar
The people of Badakshan are also, by Afghanistan standards, relatively liberal. Basically this means, they let their girls go to school. The women are still in burqas on the street and in villages – well, you don’t see them at all. I visited a girls school in central Feyzabad: around 500 girls study outdoors as they can’t afford to build new classrooms. They have hardly any equipment: no books, no diagrams, no displays, no models. They get sick in the summer from the heat and if it’s raining, lessons are off. But of all the things that have given me hope in this country so far, it’s seeing a sixteen year old girl volunteer to stand in front of the camera and tell me why it’s so important for her to be educated and to have a proper library and laboratory so she can become a doctor and help people. So passionate, so eloquent, so full of confidence. Made me fair ashamed of my cynical bones.
Right now it’s pouring with rain yet again. The soil in this area is super sensitive to weather. Dry and its pretty much dust. Wet and it becomes quicksand that stymies even armoured Dingos. The flooding’s so bad a few people have died, hundreds of mud houses have been washed way and all the roads are closed. In fact, one of the main highways is now a river. I’m also stuck. I was going to fly to Mazar and then Kunduz, but due to a temporary runway I’m staying here. Between you and me, however, if the Germans got a pool table, I’d quite happily move here.
No-one can really answer me why the Taleban are becoming, if not stronger, more daring and more sophisticated in this region. Some blame the Afghan elections, some the German elections, some say Germans are easily targets due to their directive to only use lethal force if under attack or if an attack is imminent. But it’s clear if the North falls and becomes more like the South or the East then we might as well pack up and leave tomorrow – which is, of course, what the insurgency want.
Coming out of the base gate at a T-junction to a sharp left turn, I came up against a large Afghan truck, unloading breeze blocks. Not being able to see if I had room to turn around it in my wide, heavy, armoured Toyota Landcruiser V8, I gestured to the Belgians and Afghans at the gate questioningly. The Afghans beckoned me forward with gusto and, stupidly, I followed their instructions.
A few metres forward and it was obvious I couldn’t turn as there were breeze blocks all along the right hand side of the road. The Belgian in front told me to reverse and as I did the Belgian behind screamed to stop. “You nearly took out your tail light!”.
The Belgians then had an argument whether I could get round or not and about eight different blokes tried to guide me back and round - all giving different directions and arguing.
Finally I reversed far enough to get purchase on the turn and inched past the truck. As I did, one Belgian turned to an Afghan and said the immortal words: ‘woman driver….’.
"I heard that!", I shouted through the window as I drove off, hiding my giggles. I’m sure it won’t be the first time, around here, either.