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 Author: Michael (UK)

They issued me the last ticket to see the great buddha.

Then they collected the stubs and the visitor's book and bundled them into the sacks of documents to be buried. The remaining staff of the department for preservation of  historical monuments had orders to hide even some things as innocuous as the books that recorded the impressions of visitors from six continents about the monuments of Bamyan. A potato patch will be the resting place for the archives documenting 20 years of war.

I was pleased to have a chance to wander round the Buddhas again. The rock cut Buddhas of Bamyan are cultural sites of great significance, and were once the center of Afghanistan's mass tourist trade. In historical times, these Buddhas were targeted by Zealots. Their survival through the two decades of war is amazing.

Once again, there is fear that zealous conquerors might just try to prove their anti-idolatry credentials by further destroying them.

At night there was an air of the day of judgment in Bamyan, tried to guess how long it would be before the Taliban arrived. The sound of haunting nocturnal congregational prayers carried across the valley.

The faithful feared that the Taliban would wreak revenge for 20 years of defiance and for their share of casualties in previous Hazara Pashtoon fighting. This fighting had seen some of the civil war's bitterest encounters, and the local prayed for deliverance.

The threat to the Bamyan Buddhas is symbolic of the one hanging over much of the population central Afghanistan.

I emptied my camera reel and headed for the security of Islamabad. My host, the head of the department for preservation of historical monuments, was busy closing up his office, loading his gelims (the famous rough woven Afghani rugs) and a few personal belongings in to his jeep. He had done what he could to preserve central Afghanistan's share of the world's heritage. It was now time for Haji sahib to return to his wife to share the agonising worry at the disappearance of their son, a lecturer in journalism at the university of Balkh in Mazar-I-Sharif, which had been over run by the Taliban a week before. Haji sahib's agony is shared by thousands of families, who fear that relatives in Mazar-I-Sharif may face a slaughter.

As the Taliban close in the statelet of the Hazaras, built up In central Afghanistan over the past 20 years, totters on the brink of collapse.

                     TANG AMAD, DAR JANG AMAD

 Bamian town lies at the center of Afghanistan vast, mountainous Hazarajat region. It covers about 100,000 SQ KM and is home to the Hazara tribe, which claims anything between 1.5 and 4 million people.

The Hazaras were prominent in the northern alliance that has been battling the pashtoon dominated Taliban of the south. The alliance has been plagued by factional fighting and misrule and collapsed militarily in the face of string of Taliban victories in July and August. Iran has been supporting the northern alliance and considers itself a natural ally of the Shia Hazaras, but Iran has been reluctant to commit the scale of assistance that might alter the turn of events. The rapid development of the last few months left Hazarajat, with the pockets controlled by Ahmed shah Masood in the north east alone in resisting the drive of the Taliban to conquer all of Afghanistan. The region is already crippled by an economic blockade which has let the near-famine conditions.

The Taliban capture of Mazar-I-Sharif in August had meant that Hazarajat was surrounded. It put the Taliban in control of the last remaining supply routs to the mountains and in a  position to impose further hunger. The poorest of the area had survived by eating wild rhubarb, selling of their animals and entering in to debt. A continued blockade meant they could not buy food to tide them over the upcoming winter. The starvation could only get worse.

In the face of such overwhelming odds, the natural thing to do would have been to surrender. Personally, I had expected a rapid surrender once the fate of Mazar-I-Sharif was decided, and had hoped that this would at least serve to quickly bring down the price of grain. The Hazara's sense of desperation, however, is summed up in their proverb: tang amad dar jang amad (he who is cornered must fight).

What must have made Hazarajat contemplate such defiance?

If the Taliban achieve a military victory in central Afghanistan, and if the Hazara's main party, the Hizb-e-Wahdat, melts away in front of them (as afghan groups often do when confronted by certain defeat) then it will signal the end of a 20 year experiment in de facto regional autonomy. Whether the ultimate out come is restoration of order and national integration (the optimistic view at times communicated by the Taliban) or a new phase of civil strife (the catastrophic view espoused by the many of the Hazaras in Bamyan). The restoration of rule by Kabul in this part of Afghanistan will be a major historical significance.

Often the long period of civil war in Afghanistan has been depicted a period of anarchy. This has hardly been the case in central Afghanistan. There have been three phases to the conflict here. In the 1978-1983 period (immediately after the communist coup in Kabul and the subsequent Soviet intervention), popular local uprisings rapidly forced the communist Government to abandon all District headquarters and retreat to the regional headquarters in Bamyan. Meanwhile a new Hazara political movement, Shura Ittifaq, emerged in the wake of the uprisings. It was headed by agha-e Behishti of Waras and backed by the traditional religious leader ship of the area.

The shura was remarkably successful in quickly establishing a presence through  Hazarajat and putting itself forward as the new regional government. However, during the 1983-1989 period as the US and Pakistan, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other, poured money into the anti Soviet jehad , there was a proliferation of armed groups operating in Hazarajat. They challenged the Shura ittifaq's hegemony and a bitter civil war ensued that is still remembered in Bamyan as the bloodiest phase of the conflict. The third phase (1989-1998) came as Iran put its authority behind a merger of the Hazara military and political groups under the banner of Hizb-e-Wahdat (party of unity). Wahdat was able to take over the autonomy project that shura had started.

After securing military and political allegiance of the numerous groups operating in the vast territory, Wahdat set about developing its regional government. It established district and regional level council, with specialist departments for justice, security, communications, commerce, women affairs, social welfare, health and education. When a coalition of mujahideen  groups finally pushed the central forces of Najibullh out of Bamyan, Wahdat built the headquarters for its regional government here fast by the standing Buddahs.

Although the early popular risings had often targeted primary schools for their association with the communists, the expansion to access education was an important part of the policy. 

Official education departments were established at the district level and they began to reactivate olds schools and open new ones, depending on the resources raised, primarily from local taxtation. The Hazaras had a strong sense that lack of access to education was what had previously left them politically marginalised and fit only to be porters in the Kabul markets. Education was part of the national revive that was planned.

In contrast to the Taliban areas, there was a significant expansion of female education under the Wahdat, helped in part by the recruitment of teachers from the refugees returning Iran and from the educated Hazaras displaced from Kabul. Although the main focus was primary education, Wahdat also setup a university in Bamyan. Until September, a team of lecturers from Balkh university was working on secondment  at Bamyan's fledgling university.

Another practical task for the regional administration was to service the region's infrastructure, conscripting thousands of men every spring to reopen the roads after the snow melt.

New routes were developed, in particular the road to Mazar-I-Sharif which traverses through one of the world's highest altitudes and most inhospitable terrains.

The regional government was also busy developing landing strips, and levelling a mountain top plateau as an international airport.

The Department for Preservation of Historical Monuments was part of this forward looking agenda of the Bamyan government, a recognition that Hazarajat had numerous heritage sites of international significance.

Alongside the building up of regional civilian institutions, Wahdat also began developing its war machine. Initially, it was composed of a patchwork of local commanders who had emerged over the years fighting other communities of Afghanistan and the communists. Since the fall of Najibullah government, Wahdat gradually tried to fashion a conventional army, with commanders receiving commissions from the movement's leadership and conscripts from the districts. However, the army remained poor in resources, weak in command and control, and lacking in professional officers of  proven quality. It would be safe to say that what victories it achieved were probably due more to desperation than military effectiveness or discipline. 


                       HAZARAS VS KOCHI

Under lining the Hazaras regional autonomy project was a long history of conflict in the areas. Hazaras, thrown in to a state of urgent activity by the news of Taliban advances northwards, were mindful not just of the track record of the Taliban movement itself but also of the (ethnic Pashtoon) conquerors that had come long before. Hazarajat was only fully assimilated into Afghanistan in the 1890s by Kabul's Amir Abdur Rehman in a series of military campaigns. Hazara resistance to this integration was ruthlessly crushed, and folklore abounds with tales of towers of skulls erected by the victorious Amir. After the fighting was over, hundreds of members of the Hazara ruling castes, the mirs and the syeds were picked up by the Kabul forces and disappeared.

Following the annexation much of the fertile valley land at the base of the mountainous region was confiscated in favour of the pashtoon tribes.

Most significantly, in 1894, Amir Abdur Rahman issued an edict (a decree) granting rights over the pasture lands in the region to the pashtoon nomad tribe, the kochis, who had helped the Amir to conquer the area. For 90 years the kochis exercised these rights in their annual migration.

If there is sectarian bitterness in Hazarjat, it is largely directed at the kochis. In a classic case of agricultural pastoralist rivalry, the kochis are remembered for Terrorising the peasants (backed by the pashtoon administration) ,for strong arm tactics in petty trade and money lending, and for forcibly acquiring land.

Ultimately some of them set themselves up as landlord and their pashtoon style mud fortresses, now in ruins, still dot the Hazarajat countryside.

The reality of the civil war in Hazarajat is that it was directed against communism only momentarily. The Hazaras first and most significant acts in their autonomy project were to bar entry to the nomads, restore the arable land that they had bought or grabbed, and repeal the edicts of Abdur Rahman and Sardar Mohammed Daoud (president of Afghanistan 1973-78) granting the kochis control of the rangelands. For 20 years therefore, the Hazaras have controlled these natural resources. The panic In Hazarajat now is the fear that history will repeat itself and that the Taliban advance means nothing more than a Pashtoon reconquest.

The Hazaras fully expect their region to be pillaged in the days ahead, as during the conquest by abdur rehman.

The mood was summed up by one of the hoteliers I met in Bamyan (yes hazarajat has its share of roadside chai khana  managed by enterprising women returned from Iran and Kabul).

She roars defiance, claim to have to killed eight looters in the war for west of Kabul, and promises to again shoulder her Kalashinkov  if the old rulers try to return.

Elsewhere, people were immersed in deep depression at the prospect of becoming serf again. In pushte ghorgurey, former tenants now graze their animals on pastures once reserved for the Kochis, and they are now able to plane rainfed wheat and barley on the hillside. They point to a single decaying wall, all that is left of their old lord's fort, and tremble at the thought of how they will be punished for their audacity.

In Waras, despairing tenants of one of the big Pashtoon landlords contemplate what their returning master would demand in lieu of 20 years' of back rent.

In Panjao, I met Sohaila a women educated in Kabul who as a literacy instructor, is the only earning member of two families.

Her work at an NGO winter school last year saved her relatives from starvation. She is terrified that the United nations will be forced to abandon the education project  she now works. But most impressive is Haji Sahib himself. He discreetly lets it be known that he has little hope of surviving a Taliban purge.

But the repeatedly quotes Arnold Toynbee (He was a famous Historian in the History and Histography) laments that the coming changes defy "the spirit of people" he warns that peace can not be achieved in this way. Military pacification, which does not address the old enmities under laying the struggle for the resources of the mountain, can not be the way to enduring peace. It is striking that the international assistance group, which in July decided to make Hazrajat a show piece for the united nations' new " common programming" approach, could do nothing to allay the civilian populations fear of an impending massacre. All international staff from the UN and most of the NGO's plus most of the national  staff, were pulled out of the area at the first sign of the Taliban advance. The Bin Ladin affairs has made them even more cautious about returning. The agencies concern to take no risk with their own staff security means that they are unable to play the kind of witness role that many in the civilian population expected them to. The international aid agencies are confined to a peripheral role while the hazaras take their chances with their new rulers.


                              HAZARAJAT UP DATE:

                                    21 SEPTEMBER.


On 13 September 1998, just over a month after the capture of Mazar-I-Sharif and the UN "last flight" out of Bamyan town, the Taliban announced that they had captured Hazarajat regional headquarters, advancing from the north. While the Hizb-e-Wahdat forces retreated into the mountains, the Taliban continued their push through the region, establishing themselves along main routs and linking up with their forces on the eastern borders of Hazarjat in order to rule out any contact between Wahdat and remnants of the opposition near Kabul. The Taliban set about establishing a new administration in Bamyan and the other conquered districts.

Wahdat was left dreaming of the deus ex machina of an Iranian invasion, and wondering whether it has the stomach for guerilla war. The 20 years of autonomy was at an end.

In Hazarajat, the population has little option but  to bow their heads and accommodate to the new administration.

History and recent experience give them every reason to be terrified. The last  time a pashtoon dominated army subdued Hazarajat a hundred years ago, the victory was followed by dreadful reprisals and a campaign of subjugation.

This time round, both Amnesty International and the United Nation high commissioner for refugees have released report saying that they have collected extensive evidence of the killing of thousands of civilians after the battle for Mazar-I-Sharif.

It is entirely likely that the Mazar-iSharif massacre could be repeated in Bamyan and the surrounding region, or even quieter, more discriminating, disapprearances of people associated with toppled local regime may take place. Once again, the international agencies, unwilling to be present on the ground in Hazarajat during the perilous transition (despite the Taliban Public invitations), have marginalised themselves by removing themselves. Would a Bosnian population have been abandoned in the same way?  







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