Where the road ends in Afghanistan

A harrowing visit to Chavosh, a village so remote its people have never seen a Westerner, and so poor a farmer is forced to marry his 11-year-old daughter to a 55-year-old man.

Topics: Afghanistan,

When I tell an Afghan friend about my plans to travel to the Ghowr province, he laughs and says he’d once seen the provincial capital, Chaghcharan, from a plane. “There is nothing there,” he says with a smirk. “It is nowhere.”

For a province to be laughably remote to an Afghan says quite a bit, as the entire landlocked country, with its lack of paved roads or rail service, is nothing but isolated. It took an explanation of why I was going — to take a look at rural poverty and whether it had improved since the advent of the new American-backed regime — to wipe the incredulous look off his face. “You will see the poorest people who know nothing of the outside world there,” he says.

Four years after the American invasion and the fall of the Taliban, and one year after the presidential election of Hamid Karzai, the massive international effort in Afghanistan has done little to improve the lives of ordinary people. While estimates of foreign aid run from $12 billion to $15 billion, the U.S. government ties all money for Afghanistan into the larger “global war on terrorism,” which also covers operations in Iraq. What’s clear in Kabul is that a lot of the money has ended up with commandos who can be seen driving around in expensive SUVs and living inside walled luxury compounds. Initial results from last Sunday’s parliamentary election also suggest a disillusionment with reconstruction, as just over half of the country turned out to vote.

But cynicism toward international aid and relief efforts — a favorite Afghan posture — misses some major accomplishments. Many new schools, hospitals and clinics dot medium-size towns and cities. The security in large cities like Kabul and Kandahar is stable enough to spur significant economic development, and anyone who wants to start a local paper or radio station has a slew of NGOs to ask for assistance.

Outside the cities, with their educated citizens, Afghanistan poses massive problems for rebuilding. The single biggest hurdle — well beyond the reach of the relief agencies — is the basic lack of infrastructure: electricity, roads and clean water. Throw in stagnant education, widespread war damage, and a huge population of refugees fleeing decades of fighting in Pakistan and Iran, and it’s clear reconstruction is beyond anyone’s capability to achieve quickly.



With the end of a seven-year drought, some improvement has been seen in the lives of the rural farmers and animal herders. But one year of water cannot come close to repairing the damage of war and drought, and refugees are returning with levels of drug addiction never before seen in the country. Simply put, huge segments of the Afghan population receive almost no aid and face impoverished living conditions with few signs of improvement.

Short of scamming a ride on a U.N., NGO or military flight, the options for getting to Chaghcharan are limited to a 30-hour ride over brutal roads from Kabul, or an hour flight to Herat, followed by a 14-hour drive by 4×4. I take the latter.

Road construction is the most important political debate in the new democracy of Afghanistan. Mullah Abdel Khader Emami is running for a parliamentary seat in Ghowr based on his demand for a $35 million road that runs from Kabul to Herat, a key hub for trade with Iran, through Ghowr. The new road would allow drivers to bypass the current “ring road” that circles from Kabul to Kandahar, a critical commerce town. But Emami insists his plan has been derailed by politics. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, he says, “is a Pashtun and his people are from Kandahar, so the government will not build a road through here because Kandahar controls all the trade in Afghanistan.”

For a political newcomer, Emami grasps that all politics are local and such a road might not transform Chaghcharan into a thriving metropolis but would bring a whiff of hope to an otherwise forlorn place. If 14 hours of driving over big rocks doesn’t make this point, drive another 50 miles outside Chaghcharan — four and half hours by car — to the heartbreakingly poor village of Chavosh.

The people of Chavosh live in such a faraway place that they laugh when I ask how often they see U.S. or NATO troops. “Never. We have never seen anyone,” says Abdullah, 35. He was originally from the village but now lives in Herat, where he is a solider in the new Afghan National Army (ANA). “Except for one truck that drove past and the men waved, I am the only ANA that this village has ever seen.”

The villagers have literally never seen a Western foreigner before, and every man in the village, it seems, gathers around me as Abdullah explains just how remote the town is. “When the Taliban came to Ghowr, we fought them in Chaghcharan, not here,” he recalls. “After they won, they only sent a Talib on a motorbike to tell the village that it was now controlled by the Taliban. Then he left and we never saw any Talib again.”

The village farms wheat and raises sheep and cattle. Or it did before the drought forced farmers to sell the majority of their herds. Now they grow some wheat and occasionally kill a sheep for meat. Last winter saw significant snowfall for the first time in seven years, so there’s currently water for crops and animals. But the only well dried up five years ago, and that leaves the runoff water as the only drinking supply. And this runoff is killing the village.

Mullah Nassir al-Afghani is the village elder, religious leader, schoolteacher and medical healer. He earned the latter title because he prays if you are sick, which is the only treatment you can receive short of a six-hour donkey ride to a neighboring village. In that lucky hamlet, you can find a mobile clinic staffed by an Afghan, who qualified for the job after a four-week course. And, being mobile, he’s often not there. Without phones or electricity in the village, it’s hard to check and make sure the clinic is there.

Mullah Nassir says that every year, in a village of 1,500 people, 50 children die from dysentery after drinking runoff water during the summer, or from respiratory illness in the winter. Pregnant? Complications of any kind? It’s a 15-hour donkey ride to see a doctor in a hospital in the provincial capital. Unless you’re due during the five months the mountain passes are filled with snow. In that case, the mullah prays for you. About 30 women a year die in childbirth.

Between the women and children alone, about 5 percent of the village dies each year. People have starved to death during severe droughts, but these days that’s rare, although everyone in the village is supernaturally thin.

The men and I walk to the fields so they can show me how they harvest wheat. We pass a pile of bricks that have a blanket strung over the side of one clump. It doesn’t quite make it to wall status.

One of the older men, who looks 80 but tentatively estimates his age at 50, points at the rubble. “This is my home,” Said Mohammed tells me. “This is where I live in a very bad situation.”

Unthinkable as that situation might be, it gets worse as family and friends gather outside the home of Abdul Qasem, 60, who has two wives and 10 children. They are celebrating the engagement of Abdul Qasem’s daughter, Roshan, who he claims is 11 years old, to another Said Mohammed, 55, from a neighboring village. Roshan, who looks 8 years old, has to be called away from playing tag with other girls to attend her engagement to a 55-year-old man. When married, she’ll join his other wife, three sons and a daughter about her age.

After Mullah Nassir leads 10 or so men in a five-minute prayer, Abdul Qasem drags a terrified lamb to the ground and cuts its throat with a small knife. Blood pools in front of his brick-and-manure home. He declares that this is a tradition to celebrate the engagement, as the lamb gurgles its final breath. I have seen such ritual slaughter throughout the Muslim world, but traditionally the meat of the sheep is donated to the poor. Today, the village will eat lamb.

“I am very poor and have many problems,” Abdul Qasem tells me later, as we walk past his small patch of recently harvested poppy crops. “I need money and I have three other daughters,” he says of the marriage. “Do you think I want to marry my daughter so young?”

Everyone in the village insists that it will be years before Mohammed can pay off the dowry, which Abdul Qasem claims is 100 sheep and 10 cows. Women in the village later admit that Said Mohammed will claim his bride within a year and pay far less than what I am told. As it stands, he is allowed to sleep in the same room and have relations that stop just short of intercourse.

When the subject of help from the international community comes up, the men of Chavosh laugh. They know of the World Food Program, which helps feed rural Afghans, but they’ve never seen an aid worker here. “They give the province food aid, this we know,” one man tells me. “But it is kept by the warlord in another village. He has no relatives in this village. So he does not send us aid to live.”

It is well known throughout the provinces that local warlords hoard and deny aid to villages. In general, the country’s warlords are esteemed commanders from the anti-Soviet jihad who kept their foreign contacts, men and weapons. They wield enormous influence through tribal bonds, money and violence.

NGO and diplomatic sources refuse to discuss the subject of warlords. But several knowledgeable sources inside the international community agree that dealing with warlords is simply part of doing business in rural Afghanistan. They admit, too, that the majority of attacks on Western aid workers, contractors and journalists, blamed on the Taliban, actually arise from the warlords.

As Sunday’s parliamentary votes are being tallied, many Afghan people remain deeply concerned that warlords’ influence will only get stronger. Afghan human rights groups have identified at least 150 candidates that could be called warlords or jihadi commanders. In fact, regardless of the final vote, observers say that many of the powerful commanders will become members of the new Parliament.

While new construction is visible in Kabul, the city itself is pocketed with destitution. At a small clinic supported by Japanese and German NGOs, healthcare workers are fighting to help a wide population of desperately poor refugees from Pakistan and Iran who have been forced to return, some after more than a decade.

Despite its famous role as a worldwide supplier of opium and heroin, Afghanistan has lacked a domestic drug abuse problem, outside of hashish use by a Muslim population denied alcohol. But after millions of Afghans fled in the 1980s for the safety of neighboring countries, they came in contact with cultures more prone to drug use.

Dr. Tariq Suliman founded the Nejat Center, Afghanistan’s only private drug rehabilitation center, in 1991 in Peshawar, Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban, he was able to expand operations into Afghanistan with the help of the international community. He says almost all of his patients — about 100 at a time — are returning refugees who cultivated their opium or heroin addictions abroad. Suliman estimates there are 50,000 addicts in Kabul alone, and tens of thousands more returning each year from Iran and Pakistan.

He explains that Afghanistan’s drug abuse problem stems from drug dealers in Pakistan trying to find a new market for heroin. “But it is also a variety of factors, including depression over 30 years of war,” he says. “Some people were wounded in fighting. Others worked in carpet factories and were given opium. Others gave it to their children to keep them quiet while they worked. In Iran, many people are high-quality-opium users. As more Afghans became employed in domestic labor, the owners would slowly addict them to opium to make them more manageable. Employees would then ask for less money and more opium to work.”

Thanks to Suliman, the Nejat Center has successfully adapted techniques from Western recovery programs, such as counseling and detox programs, to Afghan culture. The waiting list is 1,600 people. On this day, one of the lucky ones is Zamaad, 32, who started using heroin in Pakistan, where “it is everywhere and very easy to find.” He is sitting on a carpet, watching hygiene videos with six other men. He’s proud of his success in reducing his habit from about $8 a day to $2 a day. Considering that 80 percent of the world’s heroin is grown and produced nearby, $8 a day buys a lot of nearly pure heroin.

“I have made a strong decision to stop destroying my body,” he says. “When I talk to relatives and friends, none of them trust me because they know I am an addict. Everyone in my family is always looking at me with shame because I am an addict.”

Zamaad wants to get married, but his parents won’t give him their permission until he quits his eight-year habit. “They say, how can I be engaged when I spend all my money on drugs? They say when I quit and they trust me again, they will engage me to be married,” he says.

Zamaad faces another harsh reality. The Taliban killed one of his brothers and other one died of cancer. His parents are getting older and he needs to take care of them. “I am now the only one to take care of my family,” he says. “I have to leave those friends that turned me this way. I have decided on a new change and a fresh new life.”

Change doesn’t sound as good to Zainallah, 44, who came to the center from the eastern city of Jalalabad after a 24-year love affair with heroin, which he started using in Pakistan. He is angry about having to quit: He used two to three grams of pure heroin a day, costing about $14. He’s down to a daily $3 habit, but seems to miss it.

“It is such a difficult life to use heroin and sell sheep,” he says, referring to the fact that he can’t afford heroin. “This drug is for rich people to play and have a good time. I have no money. My economic problems are too big to use heroin anymore.”

Across town at the Kabul Weekly, an English-language paper, editor in chief Faheem Dashty acknowledges the litany of problems facing Afghanistan. He laments the baleful influence of the warlords on the country’s burgeoning government. “People who suffered at the hands of the mujahedin don’t want to see them in Parliament,” he says. But those same people, he adds, “were strong in the fight against the Soviets, the Taliban and against al-Qaida. So considering all this country has gone through, the situation is not so bad. We’ve had a chance to elect representatives for the first time in our history.”

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>