November 20, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
by pratap chatterjee
Afghanistan to Iraq
SITTING CROSS- legged on a small mat in the dusty street outside the Sultan Ghiasudin school in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, Agha Malang Kohistani, a tall bearded Tajik, tuned his sitar and struck up a song. Within minutes a crowd of children and men gathered around him.
"Where are you hiding, Osama bin Laden? In a mouse hole? And where have you hidden that Mullah Omar?" Kohistani sang, causing the crowd to roar with laughter and clap along.
Standing at the edge of the crowd in January 2002, just two months after the first Taliban stronghold fell to the Northern Alliance, backed by the United States and Britain, I marveled at the happiness among what appeared to be the ruins of war and grinding poverty.
Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal had just been kidnapped in Pakistan, and it seemed that rage against the United States must be reaching a boiling point or so we assumed as we set about our task of documenting the not-so smart bombs, the grief of the innocent civilian victims, and the naked grab for oil and regional power by the Bush administration.
We didn't find it. Musicians and playwrights were reveling in the defeat of the Taliban, and foreigners were treated as heroes. For a peace activist and writer, this was a little bit of a shock.
When we rallied at San Francisco's Dolores Park in September 2001, demanding no war against Afghanistan, I expected to find at least a few enraged Afghans. After a couple of weeks on the ground in Afghanistan, I realized that the situation was a bit more complex.
The people of that nation hated war but war had been a part of their lives for decades. Land mines from the Soviet invasion and civil war still booby-trap much of the population. The Taliban's orders to shut down schools and imprison women indoors brought equally painful memories.
A few intellectuals had a broader view of history. Sabah Sattar is a former professor of journalism at Kabul University and now a refugee in Karachi, Pakistan. "By defeating the Taliban they [the United States] should not think that peace will be established in Afghanistan," he told me. "They have to pay attention to the needs of the people of this country and rebuild it for them."
And in the Arzana refugee camp, just outside Mazar, where 6,000 people victims of the war and a severe drought were living off of leaves collected in the desert for the last six months, Kholbeula, a widow who walked 100 miles from Fariyab province to the camp, told us she too was skeptical. "We are very happy about what has happened," she said. "We are happy that the Taliban has lost control, but our lives haven't changed a great deal. We were hungry, and we are still hungry."
Chriss Orloff and Olga Shalygin, two documentary filmmakers who just returned from Afghanistan, discussed the current situation Nov. 15 on KQED's Forum. They explained that temporary refugee camps near major cities are becoming permanent shantytowns, as people who fled rural areas during the war refuse to return to their homes where, in many cases, there are no seeds for new crops and where warlords are looting livestock. The U.S. Army is walking away, international aid money is running out, and food is growing scarce. That's where the real impacts of war are being felt and where history, and the people of Afghanistan, will judge the United States.
Now we are on the verge of yet another major conflagration in Iraq, and we progressives are already out on the streets demanding that the war be stopped. Unfortunately my Iraqi friends, whose families are living in hardship under Saddam Hussein, have already told me they feel the same way as the people I met in Afghanistan: they will rejoice if Saddam is overthrown.
But what happens if the United States wins the war in Iraq? Will the Bush administration
walk away after the bombers destroy the roads and water systems, just
as it has done in Afghanistan? I, too, oppose smart bombs but
I am convinced we, the progressive left, still have a ways to go to
win the hearts and minds of the communities we want to save from United
States imperialism and provide an alternative future for those who will
be hardest hit by the stupidity of poverty, malnutrition, and disease.