Unembedded in Afghanistan | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Unembedded in Afghanistan

October 7 marks the eighth anniversary of the US-led war on Afghanistan, but is the country any better off? Late last year, Coast contributor Matthieu Aikins headed alone into the Afghan mountains to try to find out what we are fighting for.

[Editor’s note: On May 29, 2010 this story won the Canadian Association of Journalists award as the country's best Print Feature, the second CAJ prize Matthieu Aikins has won in two years. This piece is also one of five Coast articles selected as finalists for the 2010 Atlantic Journalism Awards. All five stories are collected here.]

At the border, the Amu Darya flows wide and sluggish, betraying little of its origins on the glacial plateau of the High Pamirs in the northern Himalayas. Winding its way through the vast plains of Central Asia, it empties into the landlocked Aral Sea, to evaporate there----here, deep in the heart of the Asian continent, even the rivers have no access to the oceans.

The Amu Darya marks the line between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It's spanned by the Friendship Bridge, once the main invasion route for the Soviet army, now a conduit for international aid pouring south into Afghanistan, seven years after the fall of the Taliban.

With the situation worsening by the day, with the country spiraling downwards into violence and chaos, it had to be true, in a sense, that there would be no better time to visit than the present. So I found myself on the bridge contemplating the river, my backpack slung over my shoulder, dallying for a last instant on the threshold of what would be a month-long journey alone through the heart of Afghanistan.

A passing car slowed for me and I hopped in for the hour-long ride south to Mazar-e Sharif. Crossing into Afghanistan from Uzbekistan is a shock. The two border areas share a similar ethnic mix and, until the last century, nearly identical histories. But today the difference is stark. Uzbekistan, industrialized by the Soviets, is a largely secular Muslim society struggling to modernize under a brutal dictatorship, with nary a headscarf to be seen among its women. Afghanistan, with its appalling poverty and its decrepit streets awash with weaponry and wild-looking bearded men, feels like the frontier of civilization.

My ride dropped me at my hotel, the Aamo, near the shrine of Hazrati Ali. The shrine, a Central Asian-influenced composition of lush blue domes, inlaid mosaics and marble courtyards, is Afghanistan's holiest site: Afghans believe Imam Ali, son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad, is buried there. It marks the heart of the city, with the garbage and smog-filled streets of Mazar expanding outwards like clogged arteries, pulsing with gaudily-painted buses, donkey carts and shouting sidewalk vendors.

Despite its prime location, the Aamo was one of the cheapest dives in the city---$10 a night got you a room with three or four beds. The hallways seemed to be analogues of the open sewers outside, as guests spat and threw their cigarette butts and waste into them. Yet the hotel's insalubrity was more than made up for by the kindness of its staff. My arrival caused a stir---foreign travellers had just about stopped coming in the past year, due to the deteriorating security---and I soon found myself surrounded by group of young men around the same age as me as I sipped a welcoming cup of tea, the object of their curious stares.

"You are the first foreigner we have seen in a very long time," Abrahim, the hotel manager, explained.

The boys soon introduced me to the Afghan tradition of hospitality. They adopted me as one of their own, taking me shopping for Afghan clothes that would allow me to pass unnoticed in the streets (my half-Japanese face blended in remarkably with the population) and coaching along my fledgling Dari, the dialect of Persian spoken in northern Afghanistan. I'd wander the warren-like bazaars with them and in the evening we'd sometimes go out for hand-churned ice cream, strolling, in the manner common among men here, hand-in-hand through the glistening courtyards of the shrine.

Afterwards, I'd sit up chain-smoking by my window. At night the shrine is lit up like a Vegas casino, its domes outlined in neon lights, complete with flashing palm trees. I'd watch the flickering streets, empty save for the big dogs that prowled them, and wonder what exactly I was doing there.

The ostensible answer was that I had come to try to understand what it was that Canadians were fighting and dying for here. The past eight years in Afghanistan have been a case study in wasted opportunity. Despite the total rout of the Taliban in 2001, despite the arrival of countless nations and billions in aid, living conditions in the country remain among the worst in the world, with a life expectancy of 43 years. Worse, a full-blown insurgency has taken root, particularly in the south, causing violence and casualties to skyrocket. Confidence in the mission, both abroad and among Afghans, has nearly evaporated.

Yet depression here is often accompanied by an equal measure of inspiration, a disorienting mixture. At the university in Mazar, I met two young English teachers, Fawzia and Nabila, charming women who were among the first in their families to become literate. They invited me to the office of the local women's shelter, where they also worked.

The office was in an old part of town, and our taxi struggled to reach it, crawling over the bulging, unpaved road at a slower pace than the donkey carts passing us by. When we arrived in the courtyard of the office, there was an older man in traditional garb arguing with the guard. "He is one of the conflict parties," Fawzia whispered to me. "His daughter is in the safe house."

The small, hidden safe house is the only women's shelter in the province. It hosts a dozen or so women and their young children, who come seeking refuge from domestic violence and forced marriages. Sometimes, they are referred there by the authorities at the shrine when, in their desperation, the women throw themselves upon the holy place for sanctuary.

"A woman cannot live alone in Afghanistan," Huzia, the shelter's project manager, explained. "She either gets a divorce and goes back to her parents' house, or she must be married----perhaps to a different man. They have no third option."

Huzia estimated that their small project reaches only a fraction of women at risk. Afghanistan has one of the world's most repressive cultures towards women, and yet, when I joined the women who ran the shelter for lunch, and saw them laughing over their soup bowls, their scarves pushed back loosely on their heads, I couldn't help but feel that there was potential for change.

That night, Abrahim, the hotel manager, came to my room with a confession. "I have met a merchant who brings people on ships to countries. You don't need a visa or papers," he said.

If the health of a country can be measured by the desire of its citizens to stay and build a future there, then Afghanistan is very sick indeed. Nearly everyone I spoke to expressed some hope that they might leave the country. Canada figured large in these dreams of escape---often the first question Afghans asked me, upon learning my nationality, was "How can I go?" They knew about our health care and multiculturalism, and our supposedly lax refugee system was legendary---we were an El Dorado.

The boys at the hotel---who earned around $50 a month---were filled with fantasies of escaping abroad. But Abrahim was the most serious among them. A melancholy young man with a wife and child, he was restlessly bent on self-improvement, periodically asking questions about English vocabulary or, in this case, illegal immigration. His plan was to get seaman's papers and travel to a Canadian port before slipping into the country, declaring himself as a refugee or just passing into the underground economy. The journey would cost him $10,000.

"Is that too much?" he asked. I didn't know, but said that kind of money could support a poor family for a decade in Afghanistan. "I have no future in this country," he replied, his grey eyes locking on mine.


I woke before dawn and took a taxi to the outskirts of town, where in the darkness a semicircle of buses sat huddled inwards like a witches' coven, their headlights illuminating a mass of touts, passengers and luggage. After an hour of confusion, the buses left in convoy along the highway south, and by the end of the day we were arriving at the first of the heavily armed police checkpoints that control access to Kabul.

I was picked up at the bus stop by AJ, a native of Kabul who would become my friend and guide in the city. Whipping nimbly through the anarchic traffic, his free hand swapping a diet pop and cigarette, AJ told me how the international presence had come to define the city's economy.

"That's where all the money is being made," he said. "Off the internationals."

AJ knew from experience: with his fluent English and German, and his knowledge of the two colliding cultures, he was making good cash off the internationals' inefficiency in the time-honoured role of a middleman. He explained that local shopkeepers couldn't deal with the German bureaucracy, so the Germans would buy computers through him at a 20 percent commission.

AJ was part of a nouveau riche of Afghans whose livelihoods were based on access: access to the internationals, to their contracts, to their foreigners-only bars. He was also the first Afghan I met who wasn't keen on leaving the country. His parents had emigrated to Ontario and wanted him to join them.

"They want me to come to Canada and marry an Afghan girl and settle down." He laughed and flicked his cigarette out the window. "But I can't leave. The money's too good."

I checked into a cheap hotel in the centre of town, near the main drag known as Chicken Street. I was the only foreign guest, a reminder the security situation in Kabul had worsened steadily since the fall of the Taliban. Half behind barricades, the city was shuddering under a procession of suicide bombings and assassinations, as militants extended their reach throughout the capital.

As a result, foreigners were insulating themselves in ever thickening layers of security precautions. They lived and worked mainly in fortified compounds, shuttling back and forth in the late-model Land Cruisers that stood out so clearly from the battered vehicles driven by ordinary Afghans. Few of the internationals I spoke to had ever been to the home of an Afghan---many were forbidden by their organizations even to venture out on foot to the nearest corner store.

One day, I went out with Masoud, a friend of AJ's who worked as a veterinarian with demining dogs. We drove on his motorcycle out to some of the poorer slums of Kabul, the ones crammed up on the hillsides without electricity or running water.

There we visited the derelict hulk of the old Soviet Cultural Centre. The place is a reminder of how Kabul looked at the end of the last war. The structures are crumbling, their walls pitted with machine-gun fire and torn away by explosives. On a Socialist Realist mural at the entrance to the main hall, Lenin's face has been chipped away, but in the corner you can still see peasant women raising Kalashnikovs in victory salutes.

The large, walled compound has become Kabul's drug district, where about 700 addicts and dealers conduct their business unmolested by police. Not all the opiates produced in Afghanistan are exported: The rapid rise in addiction rates is partially a result of returning refugees who picked up the habit abroad. The UN estimates that Afghanistan is second in the region, after Iran, in terms of per capita opiate consumption.

It didn't take long for our presence there to be detected, not only by the skinny, skulking inhabitants, but by an overweight, mustachioed cop who angrily berated us for photographing in what he falsely claimed was a restricted area. He was fishing for a bribe, and when Masoud refused to pay he declared us under arrest and bundled us in van off to the station. When we got there, I pulled out my cellphone and insisted that I call my embassy. Seeing me arguing with the guards, the gate corporal ran over and began striking me in the face, until his comrades restrained him with horrified shouts of "No! He's Canadian!"

We were hauled into the station to face the district's police chief, Karinail Samsoor. My beating had shifted the power dynamic: now they were apologetic, and a little scared. "I am very sorry about that," Samsoor told me. "He thought that you were an Afghan." I tried to protest that he was missing the point, but Masoud just shook his head and accepted the apology on my behalf. "It is common among Afghans," he explained later, with a shrug. In an entire country suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, physical violence was an everyday thing.

At a wedding in Kabul, I chanced to meet Mohammad Shohab Hakimi, director of the Mine Detection Centre. A wealthy and respected Afghan who had worked in humanitarian demining since the '80s, Hakimi knew the backstory of all the big players and was full of opinions on the current situation. We chatted as the younger boys danced for the entertainment of the men (the women were in their own section of the wedding hall), and afterwards Hakimi invited me to visit him at the centre.

The next day, I sat down in his big, well-furnished office, though not before admiring, at his prompting, the photos of him with Gerhard Schroeder and Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. After partaking in the obligatory cup of tea, we got down to business.

"We had two years of peace," Hakimi said, a note of mourning creeping into his affable tone. He shook his head at what he perceived to be the failures of the US and its allies in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban's downfall. "And it was wasted. You see how much they have lost, all their political prestige, and they have given Russia and China the courage to start coming."

The international community had put wrong men in charge, Hakimi continued, former warlords and cynical Afghan emigres who were allowed to run loose. The result was rampant corruption and a government that had almost totally lost its credibility both inside the country and abroad, a process that would later culminate in the elections, now widely seen as fraudulent.

There had been a recent study by the coordinating body for NGO groups in Afghanistan, which had reported that 40 percent of the aid money spent had been repatriated in consultants' salaries and company profits. "The money comes here, and then it goes back," Hakimi said. Yet the aid business was vital to Afghanistan. "Without the international community, we can't survive."

We walked into the centre's sprawling compound. "Through all the bad times, I never contemplated leaving Afghanistan. But now, with my children getting older..." Hakimi sighed. "My daughter told me the other day 'Baba, we waste our time here.'"


My plan had been to leave Afghanistan via Herat, a major city in the west near the border with Iran. There were regular flights there from Kabul, but that seemed like cheating. Yet everyone I spoke to told me not to go west overland, not alone, not as a foreigner. Even my travelling alone through the cities was regarded, by most of the internationals I spoke to, as somewhat insane. To cross the mountains of central Afghanistan by van and truck was a voyage not even my friends in Kabul would consider.

There are two main routes overland to Herat. The fast way is the long loop south over paved highway through Kandahar and Helmand. It's extremely dangerous for foreigners, with armed Taliban checkpoints a regular occurrence. Even ordinary Afghans risk their lives by travelling that road: while I was in Kabul, 23 civilians were pulled off a bus and executed by the Taliban, on suspicion of working for the government.

The slow way is a straight shot west through the rugged mountain ranges of central Afghanistan, a four-to-six day journey over serpentine dirt trails. Grueling as it is, it passes through what has until recently been considered safer, if desolate, territory. But with the security situation in the country deteriorating, the route had become exposed to bandits and militants.

I took the slow way, which passed up into the town of Bamiyan. In some alternate universe, Bamiyan would make for a first-class tourist destination. Nestled in a fertile valley at 2,800 metres, its gorgeous mountain scenery hosts a wealth of early Buddhist shrines and caves, as well as two very large, conspicuously empty alcoves carved into the cliffs---the places of the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

I met up with Yama Ferozi and Yaghya Ghaznawi, two Afghans working for a Japanese-funded literacy program, and drove down the valley with them out to the little villages the program served, small clusters of mud and brick houses with piles of dry sheep dung stacked in front of them as fuel for the coming, bitter winter.

This is one of the poorest and least-developed places in the world. Afghanistan ranks at or near the bottom of nearly every UN social and economic indicator. Less than a third of the population is literate, less than a quarter has access to safe drinking water.

At the village of Sorkh Dar, we pulled up in front of a group of nine men who were squatting by the main road, watching the sparse traffic. Ferozi and Ghaznawi started unloading notebooks and pencils for the village's literacy program; I asked the group how many of them could read. They pointed at one of the younger men, who shuffled his feet sheepishly. "He can," an elder said.

I asked if they had any jobs now that the harvest had been brought in. "Do you think we would be standing here if we did?" the elder replied. A group of children gathered to stare. I looked at their thin, ragged clothing and wondered how they managed to survive winters at this altitude. "The boredom is worse than the cold," another of the men offered. Access to these villages would be nearly cut once the snow started falling.

On the way back, Ferozi spoke enthusiastically of how programs like this provided a key first step in breaking the cycle of poverty, though he wondered what opportunities would exist for the students in the absence of further development. The day also came with disappointments: he discovered several of the teachers and their supervisors had not been showing up to class. "They don't even want to help themselves," he sighed.

From Bamiyan, my trip into the wilderness began in earnest. I was leaving the relative safety of the Hazarajat, and I now had to shed my identity as a Canadian, something associated both with extreme wealth and the troops fighting in Kandahar. I had traded my knapsack for a cheap shoulder bag, and with my beard, knee-length gown, baggy trousers and turban, I looked like just another poor Afghan traveller. Still, my limited Dari meant that anyone who had a proper conversation with me would realize that I was a foreigner---and so I became Abdul Aziz, a migrant labourer from Kazakhstan heading to Iran for work.

I caught another van west to the town of Yowkowlang, where I learned that there was no onward transport until the next morning, when the "Kontenor" truck passed through. So it was time to face my first night in a chaikhana. The chaikhana, which means "teahouse" in Dari, is a staple of rural travel in Afghanistan. They generally consist of a single, open room, where for the price of a meal---about a dollar or two---you get to sleep on the floor, sharing the carpet with anywhere between a dozen and 30 other rough-looking travellers.

Evenings in the chaikhana follow a well-worn ritual. As the sun goes down, everyone washes and prays west towards Mecca. Then a generator sputters on outside, and someone flicks on the TV---usually Afghan news, or a dubbed Turkish soap opera. Long plastic mats were spread on the floor, and we settled into a dish of mutton and rice, eating with our hands. Afterwards, the travellers would lounge in small groups and talk amongst themselves, sipping tea and spitting noss, a vile-tasting, greenish tobacco.

When I told them I was going all the way to Herat, they'd cluck and shake their heads at the danger. "Two men from Kabul were killed on that road last week," a truck driver told me that first night in Yowkowlang. We'd all nod silently at each other---somehow, sharing the danger that was their reality made me feel closer to them.

The next morning, I woke in the frigid hours before sunrise and found the "Kontenor" truck---an ancient, Soviet-built Komoz with a shipping container on its flatbed. I negotiated a seat in the cab with the driver and we headed west. Dawn was breaking, and the rising sun illuminated a line of jagged mountains ahead in the distance.

The rugged dirt road that we travelled would take us up over them, crawling up breathtaking passes and skirting through agonizingly narrow gorges. Once, we had to clear a small avalanche from the road by hand. There were hardly any other vehicles on the road, just laden donkeys and flocks of fat-tailed sheep and their shepherds. It seemed like a land lost to time, until you remembered how the ravages of geopolitics had swept across it, again and again.

After three days of travelling, we arrived in the little alpine town of Chaghcharan, capital of Ghor province. This was as far as my ride was going, and I hunkered down in a chaikhana to plot my next move.

I didn't remain unmolested for long. As a young Kazakhstani travelling alone with a big blue shoulder bag, I fit the profile of a foreign jihadist pretty well. My first night in Chaghcharan, an older man followed by a Kalashnikov-toting youth came in and demanded to see my documents. He held my Canadian passport upside down for a bit and seemed satisfied. My friend the truck driver was seething. "He has no right to do that," he said. "He's just traffic police."

The next day, men from the Directorate of National Security showed up and took me away to their base for questioning. Caught between my Canadian documents and my Kazakh cover story, I spun a complicated fable about my Kazakhstani mother and Canadian father, and was released, but a day later I was briefly arrested by local anti-terrorism police---an A for vigilance, I suppose, but an F for inter-agency coordination.

A greater worry was the final two-day stretch from Chaghcharan to Herat. The chaikhanas on the way over had been full of stories about how Mullah Mustafa, a former mujihadin commander-cum-warlord, had recently broken with the central government and set his men loose. Travellers coming in from the west had seen gunmen on the road, near the border of the two provinces. Paranoia began to set it, and I watched my fellow travellers uneasily---with ransoms for foreigners nearing a half-million dollars, an Afghan could feed his family for a lifetime with a phone call tipping off militants or bandits to a kidnapping opportunity.

In the midst of all this cloak-and-daggery, I sneaked out to the base of the local Provincial Reconstruction Team, making my way through a maze of concrete walls and machine-gun nests to the inner gate of the compound, where I was met by Lt. Ruta Gaizutyte, the team's young press officer.

The 200-strong, mainly Lithuanian PRT is responsible for assisting security and development in Ghor Province, and to that end they participate in medical programs and distribute aid through local Afghan institutions. Gaizutyte made us some tea, and gawped as I started cramming down Lithuanian cookies---I had been eating rice and mutton for a week. I asked her what she thought of the mission.

Her blue eyes lit up. "People back home ask what are we doing, why are we here, but when you go out to the villages and you are able to do something for these people who have nothing, well," she gushed.

Ghor has traditionally been a safe province, but lately things have worsened. With full-scale insurgencies in nearby Helmand, Farah and Badgis provinces, attacks here have been on the increase, including several rocket strikes on the base itself.

"This has been the most difficult rotation in the history of this PRT," Gaizutyte admitted. They'd recently had their first fatality: when the news that a US sniper in Iraq had used a Koran for target practice surfaced, there had been an angry demonstration here in front of the base. A hidden gunman had opened fire during the riot, and two civilians and a Lithuanian soldier were killed.

"Someone used the Koran incident for their own purpose here," she said, speculating that it might be Mullah Mustafa. Mustafa, with his ambiguous relationships to both the Taliban and to the central government, is a good illustration just how complex the situation is in Afghanistan. There's no simple division between Kabul and the Taliban, with the insurgency itself composed of a shifting and decentralized mix of tribal militants, Pakistan-based Talibs and foreign jihadists. Moreover, the old regional powers that had carved Afghanistan up after Soviets were getting their courage back---including warlords like Mustafa, who had supposedly been disarmed under a UN program in 2005.

"The NGOs are already leaving," Gaizutyte said. "If the situation gets worse, we won't be able to do a lot of the work we are doing now."

It was time to bite the bullet. I was crouched in my funk hole at the chaikhana in Chaghcharan, running impossible odds calculations through my head as I contemplated the journey west.

Jafari, a friend I made in the chaikhana, tried to reassure me. "Abdul Aziz, you are a good Muslim man," he told me one evening, seeing the stressed look on my face. "Allah is your keeper."

I left the next morning in a Toyota TownAce, packed in shoulder to shoulder with 19 other travellers. We followed the Sarjangal River through its narrow gorges all the way back down onto the plains, stopping for the night in the village of Obe, near the border of Herat and Ghor provinces.

We didn't see any gunmen, except at the scrubby little police checkpoints that were more like toll booths---a cop would lope out of the hut, cradling his Kalashnikov, and collect a few bills from the driver before waving us through. In all fairness, there were two serious stops where they made most of the men get out and answer questions. I hid in the van with a couple of elderly men who were making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Otherwise, I passed those two days in careful silence, looking out the window at the blur of lonely villages and desolate landscapes. These were lives being lived beyond the sphere of my own comprehension, according to patient, age-old rhythms barely interrupted by war or disaster. And yet, give these people a generation in the cities and their children would understand and yearn for all the trappings of modernity. If there was a universality in human nature that shone out from the wildly discordant juxtapositions I was experiencing, it was this, that yearnings two thousand years apart might merge as one in less than a lifetime.

Soon, I'd arrive in Herat, splurge on a decent hotel, and scrub the grime of two weeks in the mountains off under a scalding shower. I was leaving Afghanistan, I could leave Afghanistan, there was an entire safe, modern world out there that would fling open its gates for my passport. And it would become easy to forget, perhaps, what I felt so keenly now, in that hot fusion of bodies and dust rattling along a mountain trail: that we are all bound to this earth together, and she does not forget, in the end, to call us home.

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