It’s dusk. Outside the temperature has dropped well below freezing, though a few hours ago the sun’s feeble rays were still giving off a little warmth. For the past hour I have been watching the most spectacular display of colours. Familiar mountains, that at times I have both loved and hated, have turned from pale brown to crimson to purple, and finally ash.
Inside, my young colleague stands in front of me on a prayer mat, facing east. Head bowed and eyes lowered, his lips move, reciting segments of the Koran in reverent whispers. Subhaana ala humma wa bihamdika wa tabaara kasmuka wa ta'aalaa jadduka wa laa ilaaha ghairuk…A'uudhu billaahi minash shaitaan ar-Rajeem … I am lulled into a trance as his words fill the room. Meanwhile the bukhari hisses and crackles quietly to itself, filling the air with warm sweet pine.
A few days ago I set off early from Kabul, bracing myself for another journey through Logar where recently, before 8.00 am and before sunset, the Taliban have apparently been stopping and checking vehicles, looking for government and NGO workers. I was assured that they kept to trees’ shadows at all other times, and that we would be fine. Last month, my colleague’s friend was stopped by a group of armed men as he made his way back from Kabul to the Southeast; they rifled through his car, finding only various items bought in preparation for his daughter’s wedding.
Later that day, as a weak sun hauled itself across Gardez’s blue sky, my friend and I discussed my trip up to Paktia’s North. He is from the area and knows this is an unnecessary risk. A recent military campaign in Waziristan has forced Haqqani’s insurgent network up into the Kurram Agency, which borders the district I’ll be staying in.
For some time now, Haqqani and Taliban groups have been trying to force out the Shia Turi tribe from the area. In the past two years, hundreds of people, both Sunni and Shia, have been killed. Some days ago my friend learnt that Paktia and Khost’s Mangal tribe has been asked (reportedly by Pakistan’s not-so-secret-anymore intelligence services) to lead an aggressive anti-Shia surge in exchange for land in the upper Kurram, as well as a monopoly on trade in Parachinar, a bustling market town and Shia stronghold. Driving out the Shias will ensure safe passage for Haqqani’s men through to Kabul.
For the first time I began to get cold feet and felt ashamed for wanting to go on this research trip, for potentially endangering my colleagues, as well as myself. My friend pointed out various areas in the road that are unsafe, and I promised to be careful.
As I write I am being watched. A pair of emerald-green eyes peers out at me from under a faded pink shawl, and as I look up from my notebook, I am dazzled by dimples and a broad smile; then mouth and nose are hastily covered.
From the shadows of this bedroom that I share with five other women, two more young girls are eyeing my every move. Beside me, a grubby-cheeked boy of around three, whose mother repeatedly tells me is “shukh” (naughty), peers over my shoulder. His hair looks like red straw, it has been dyed with henna. I look round at him and give his shirt a tug. He squeals and runs to his sister, hiding his face in her dress.
I have only been here for a few days now, but am overwhelmed by the generosity of these people to a complete stranger, and a foreign one at that. They think I am American, people that many Afghans, particularly in this part of the country, are deeply wary of at best.
You have been told so many times that Afghan hospitality is unrivaled, it has almost become a cliché. Yet here are people with the capacity to welcome into their home -- the most private and sacred of places -- a person they believe is from an enemy-country, and then treat her like a queen.
I am staying in a small village in the foothills of mountains framed by a sweeping clean cold autumn sky. Beside my host’s house, a row of trees swathed in gold and red leaves line a jade river, which gurgles and winds through the fields that surround these traditional mud-brick homes. The beauty of this place is magnified by the silence of the mountains that surround it. It is so peaceful, it’s difficult to imagine fear or war ever reaching these parts.
But we’re only a 20-minute drive from the Pakistani border and even closer to Jani Khel, a no-go area on this side of the tribal frontier, a line hastily drawn by a British officer one day. It is a demarcation that is at the heart of all of Afghanistan’s problems, a number of elders tell me repeatedly over the next few days.
I have been told the village I am staying in is safe. It is also invisible from the district centre’s bustling bazaar, a 10-minute drive away, a place where most of the women in this house have never been, and will never set foot.
For the past two mornings, I have awoken at 5.30 to join the women in their morning task of baking bread.
The bedroom-turned-bakery is small. Toshaks line the walls and there is a narrow bed on the far side covered in a cheap brightly covered Pakistani-made synthetic blanket. A large iron wood-stove takes up most of the space in this room, beside which a young girl crouches.
The room smells deliciously of warm smoky yeast. At this time of the morning it is still dark, but in the red glow of the stove I see beads of sweat on the girl’s face, as she deftly flips a piece of pancake-shaped bread in a pan with a flat stick shaped like a ruler. Then she places a large stone on top of it, so that it cooks faster, creating a hiss of hot air. Her headscarf is pushed back over her head, ready to drop into place at a moment’s notice if a male member of the household enters the room. She looks about fourteen. I learn that she is married and that her husband is in Saudi Arabia. He is one of many young men from the area who migrates there or to the Gulf, as countless families rely on remittances sent from abroad.
As dawn’s silvery light gradually fills the room, I notice how much older than her years she looks, as she leans over to grab another fistful of dough, which she then covers in flour and juggles skilfully from one hand to the other before rolling it out on a wooden board ready to flatten, ready to be flipped into the pan. She must make enough bread to feed an entire household, which in this case numbers around thirty people. I try to remember what I was doing at her age.
“Don’t unhappy with us”, the one boy who speaks any English tells me with a huge smile. He has long eyelashes, like a camel. He is narcoleptic (from what he describes), but he thinks he is being punished by God.
“Don’t unhappy with us", he says again. "We are poor, you see our poor life, but it is good life. We are so happy from you. We are in your service. If you are tired, the bed is in your service”.
My days are filled with green tea, and encounters I hope I will never forget.
I meet a blind mullah in one village, who is gently led by a young boy into the gaudily decorated room where I sit cross-legged on a toshak. The old man’s smile is infectious. He tells me how the Taliban are putting pressure on the local people. He’s unspecific, but says they’re worse than the Americans. As he talks, he eats a banana noisily.
I listen to a group of young boys of no more than twelve or thirteen years old, telling me about the problems in their village. Unemployment is rife, and young educated boys are desperate to find work. It is heartbreaking to listen to these little people carrying the weight of this burden from such a young age.
I meet the double-chinned director of the district hospital who says he performs hundreds of operations each month, as he is the only qualified surgeon in this area. He tells me that the most common cases he comes across, aside from the exorbitant number of women who die in childbirth, are pulmonary tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, and diarrhea. When I ask to be shown around, I wish I hadn’t. I see rooms of unspeakable filth, bed sheets grey with human grime; a glass cabinet in which yellowed kidney and gallbladder stones are displayed in small plastic bags.
I am taken to a stuffy sunlit room, where foul smells cling to the walls. In a bed by a window, a young man from Jani Khel who has been shot in the leg lies looking pale and miserable. The hospital director says he successfully removed the bullet. I am shown a blood bank, which is powered by solar panel. The machine is off. In it, a single bag of viscous scarlet-black is slowly festering.
I meet the director of the only girls’ high school, and the female members of Rabbani’s recently established district-level ‘peace shura’, whose thimble-sized office is in the back courtyard of this run-down place designated for women. As I walk through the school, around fifty girls all dressed in black sit, bent over notebooks. They’re taking an exam, and must sit outside in a grey-stone courtyard where their teacher can keep an eye on them, so that they can’t cheat. The tragic irony is that in the end they will be the ones cheated, confined to compounds, baking bread in spite of diplomas.
For now, they sit hunched and hopeful, immobile faceless figures, like sinister black stone statues in a ghastly rock garden.
I almost throw up when I see the school’s bathroom. Having endured untold fetid facilities throughout years of travel and field trips, I should be hardened to this; yet I can’t bring myself to use this one, and subsequently endure a long painful car journey.
In the evenings, after meals with turbaned elders, I am led by my host to the main house by torchlight to sit in a roomful of women who have been hidden from the world all day (heaven forbid they should be seen) and chat with the matriarch. She is twenty-eight but looks forty. We are able to communicate because she learnt Dari when she was in Kabul; the others speak only Pashtu.
I submit to the young girls’ pleas to henna my hands. As I wait for worm-like lines of dark brown to seep into my skin and stain the palm of my hand, another girl forces red glass bracelets onto my wrist, and presents me with rings and plastic pearl earrings.
A lot of giggling takes place under the oppressive yellow light of a single generator-powered bulb; flashes of smiles, mothers’ soothing voices to quiet their overtired young. An old woman with bright red hair and the face of a witch watches me, wordless. Her eyes are hollowed and devoid of expression, and I shudder.
I don’t wash for days and I don’t change my clothes. The closest I come to washing is when a young girl pours ice-cold water from a pewter pot over my hands in the courtyard each morning, and I wipe my face. I haven’t looked in a mirror since I left Kabul, which is refreshing.
I wonder how these women live in this forced communality. Like battery hens; hidden from the world, cooped up in poor lighting. I am silently outraged at their prison-like existence, and want to scream at their men for these lives unlived, faces unseen.
The women ask me not to leave and hug me tightly; the matriarch gives me an imploring look, and I kiss her cheeks. But when I look back to the courtyard from the large wooden door of the compound to wave goodbye before stepping out into the world, they have already vanished.