In Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley, peace and a woman rule
Genghis Khan and the Taliban notwithstanding, serenity survives where peacekeepers haven't had to fire a shot since 2003.
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My sigh is of relief. Here, there is no Taliban, which means that when journalists and aid workers enter the valley, their mind can shut off – freed from the constant vigilance that is Afghan life.Skip to next paragraph
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"Aid workers love coming here," says Jennifer Brick, a Kabul-based researcher for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, as she munches on bread and rice in a restaurant while here to study a key government program.
Most of the New Zealander soldiers sent here to maintain peace can't believe their good fortune. Col. Roger McElwaine, commander of the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team, says it is so safe that his troops can go out on weeks-long patrols, driving to the remotest corners of the remote province to make their rounds.
When he mentions this to colleagues in other parts of the country, they're dumbfounded. In the south, for example, patrols leave the safety of their base for no more than a few hours at a time.
Curiously, the creator of this unusual eddy of Afghan peace is none other than Genghis Khan. The people of Bamiyan clearly look different from most Afghans: Their features suggest a Mongol origin, giving rise to the belief that they are the descendants of Genghis Khan's horde.
The Taliban certainly believe it, which is one reason they want to exterminate the people of Bamiyan and central Afghanistan, known as Hazaras, who are Shiites in an overwhelmingly Sunni country and are seen as outsiders.
By virtue of its staunch opposition and remote location, Bamiyan held out against the Taliban five years longer than Kabul, falling in 2001 – only months before it was freed by US-backed Northern Alliance forces.
Bamiyan's ethnic heritage also means that its uniqueness is not confined to its landscapes. Long derided as brutal and beastly by the bigoted among Afghans, Hazaras are, in fact, among the most progressive groups in Afghan society.
At the office of a leading Bamiyan cleric sits his head of financial affairs, Latifah Naseri, bashful but not in a burqa. In two weeks in Afghanistan, I can recall sitting in a room with only one other woman – the wife of a Westernized Afghan who lives half the year in Germany.
Outside Kabul and perhaps one or two other cities, women are not to be seen or heard by male guests. Lavish dinners are cooked by women, and then served by their sons and brothers, so that the women may do their duties in anonymity. In another part of the country, I told a dinner host to pass my compliments to the women who'd made the food. He looked perplexed, as if I was asking him to recite the quadratic equation. It simply didn't compute culturally.
But here, in the office of a senior cleric of the province, was a woman, doing a job – openly.
"I feel so comfortable when I go to any part of Bamiyan," said Ms. Naseri, who looked rather uncomfortable answering a Westerner's questions. "But I have been to Baglan and Kabul, and even in Kabul I feel threatened."
It is why President Hamid Karzai appointed a woman as governor. People see her sex as irrelevant. The farmers and traders of this valley care about electricity and roads, and their concerns are understandable. Bamiyan, in some respects, has been the Land the World Forgot. There are no paved roads and no connection to the meager Afghan electricity grid – when the local diesel-powered plant shuts off in the afternoon, there's no power, save personal generators.
Yet there is an allure to that – as if the whole valley is hushed in one sustained exhale. At daybreak, a haze of smoke settles in the valley as wood stoves kindle homes into the day's activity. And again at midnight, when there is only moonlight to illumine the valley walls, and the distant barking of dogs alone breaks the stillness, Bamiyan seems a world best left alone.