Selling SmokeThe Forgotten Child Victims of Taliban Rule
A cruel new era of Taliban rule is turning the clock back in Afghanistan. Angelo Calianno reports from Bamiyan, where more than the world-famous giant Buddhas were destroyed
The news last month that women between the ages of 12 and 19 in Afghanistan will no longer be allowed to go to school was a disastrous step back towards what the Taliban regime was 20 years ago and a far cry from the modern image the Taliban had previously wanted to show to the West.
However, for those who had never believed in the Taliban’s claims to have changed, the news was less surprising. Across the country, there are people who have never stopped being persecuted and who have been cut off from the new society that the Taliban have claimed to be building.
These are people who do not even have access to aid from the West, as it is filtered out by the regime. They are the Shiites, the Hazaras, the internally displaced people (IDPs), the rural poor and all those who have not had, and will never have, the means to escape or seek asylum in other countries. They are people who have been forced to live under an extreme regime, without even the faint hope of escape.
Bamiyan is the city with the highest concentration of Hazara people in Afghanistan. The Hazaras, Shiites, are one of the most historically peaceful ethnic groups in this area. Victims of a real genocide perpetrated since 1880 by the Sunnis, the Hazaras have always been the main target of the Taliban because they don’t belong to the Sunni current of Islam.
The events of March 2, 2001, when a group of Taliban arrived in Bamiyan and blew up the giant Buddhas, a UNESCO heritage site, linger long in the memory here.
On the same day, in front of those ruins, 20 Hazaras were executed as a warning to the rest of the city. Even after the fall of the Taliban regime, the attacks against the Hazaras have never stopped. Almost all the targets of terrorist attacks in these years have been against them and Shiite schools, mosques, hospitals and markets.
So now that the Taliban are in power, what can these people expect?
In Dasht-e-Barchi, the Shia neighbourhood of Kabul, I met with Faiz (not his real name). Faiz previously had a business in Bamiyan, which the Taliban had shut down. He told me his story:
They closed my shop because, on the sign outside, I had a word written in English. Of course, it was just an excuse. Any excuse is good to persecute Hazaras. As soon as the Taliban came back, in August, with all that they have done to us over the years, we were terrified. The neighbourhood completely shut down. For weeks we didn’t open shops or markets, we didn’t go out of our homes for fear of being exterminated.
Now, especially in the evening and at night, the Taliban patrol around our neighbourhood, looking for dissidents, they say. I was also arrested for three days; I was filming one of the queues outside the banks. Not even aid from the West can get in here. Most of what is sent by the NGOs has to be processed by the Taliban and according to them; we should disappear from the face of the earth. Killing us all has been their intention for centuries, they were slaughtering us up until last August, I don’t know how this could change now.
It is not only the Hazaras who have been forgotten here in Afghanistan. About 600,000 are IDPs – people who have lost their homes because they were destroyed by the Taliban, or because they were in the middle of the battlefields of the drug wars.
They have built makeshift, self-managed villages on the outskirts of large cities. These villages don’t even have names, only numbers.
In village number 52 I talked to Sayed, who is a teacher. He told me:
Education is the only thing they cannot steal from you. As you can see here, we have nothing; these kids have nothing but the desire to learn. That is why I teach everyone, anyone who wants to learn at any age. The families, until recently, gave me what they could, often food. Now, in the village, almost no one works anymore, and even the aid doesn’t arrive here. Not even the Taliban have ever been seen around here
There is still no real economic and social plan for Afghanistan. The Taliban is focusing on reopening the mines, especially copper mines. However, for all those people who no longer have a job and cannot leave, there is no plan. In the last six months, the number of children suffering from malnutrition has risen to 3.3 million. 98% don’t have enough to eat. Hundreds of people stand in line every day for a sack of flour.
Most of the people living in rural areas feed themselves on farinaceous food, the only thing they can get through aid. The diets of almost everyone are completely lacking in proteins and vitamins. The hospitals, especially pediatric ones, are so crowded that the children are forced to share a bed.
On the streets, more and more people are begging, especially children. Often one sees many of them with a smoking jar in their hand, containing dried seeds of Syrian rue. They are the Esfandi.
These children go around the streets of Kabul blowing smoke on people, smoke that, traditionally, would help protect them from evil. They do this for pennies, almost always living on the street.
These, like millions of others, are the forgotten children of Afghanistan.