September 26th, 2021
By Farzana Ali
This was my third trip to Kabul.
I had been there before – in 2011 and 2014 – but what I saw then had been completely different to what I was seeing now. The Kabul back then, whose Shehr-e-Nau locality was full of life, could now be seen fearful and suffocated – barely breathing.
Even inside a hotel considered safe, we were advised to be very careful. When we went outside to have dinner, I searched for the Kabul I had seen in 2014, when we had to wait a long time to find a seat inside a restaurant. Now, restaurants stand vacant, patiently waiting for customers to come.
There was a strange and eerie silence, pregnant with questions, whose answers I had to look for. And it is for these answers that I left my bed, as soon as the white light of dawn broke across the sky. Standing on my terrace, I could see question marks on the faces of the few passersby, as well as those who dwelt in their houses in the hills beyond. After breakfast, armed with my cell phone, I journeyed towards Shehr-e-Nau Park. Having covered issues of the displaced people in the regions of Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber and Swat districts, I was very close to understanding their grief, therefore my foremost desire was to meet them and listen to their stories. They had become question marks unto themselves, living here in Kabul.
On my way to the park, I was told by my companions that Pakistani media was actively disliked here, and that I must be careful. On each side of the park, people belonging from Kunduz, Tukhar, and Balkh had taken up residence – each of them opposite the other. If women journalists face several challenges on field, they also have an edge over male journalists, by having access to local women and getting information from them, which male journalists would have overlooked. The same thing happened with me.
I sat down with the women, and found out the information about what was making the IDPs have such a suspicious presence in Kabul. I asked a woman from Kunduz why she had left her home, and she told me, that fighting had begun in her village following some incidents that had made them very fearful and they had to leave their homes and move here.
What kind of incidents? Upon my pushing her, she revealed to me that during the fights, some men had barged into homes and had ‘dishonoured’ the women who lived there, or had even abducted them; this had instilled so much fear among them that they packed all their things and moved away overnight.
“Who were these people who were behaving in such a way?” There was a beat of silence following my question. Then she said, “I don’t know.”
I understood that this meant she did not want to talk on the topic anymore.
One widow told me, that one of her sons was killed in the war, another was missing and she, along with four children, had been seeking shelter since a month.
“Why did you leave your house?”
“Because when the Taliban and the government were fighting with each other, the rockets would fall over our homes – including my own house, after which were left very scared,” was the answer I received. “What else can a widow do? I left with the people from my community and came here, but now, we are dying with hunger. There is no water; to use the washroom we have to pay Rs5 – if some kind hearted person comes along, they give us something to get by with.”
“Why don’t you go back to your home? There is peace now?”
“Really? Is there peace?”
“You don’t think so?”
“What do I say to you now? You just do one thing – tell them of our issues and tell them to help us out.”
I thanked her and turned around to leave, when she called to me, “You will help us won’t you?”
I comforted her saying that I could send her message across to the relevant institutions, and this I would do. More than 500 eyes just stared at me. Someone began scribbling their phone number on a scrap of paper and gave it to me; another wanted to be reassured of whether they would actually get help or not. These people, who have nothing to their names except sheets of all sizes patched together in colourful bands, making up the roofs and walls of their tents – have remained migrants since the last 40 years. Every decade, they find themselves moving from here to there, sometimes within the country, sometimes across the border.
After our work was done, we went back to the hotel. Because it was nearby, we decided to walk. This way we could also film some shots on the way. But again and again, a tiny hand would pull at my abaya and make me stop. I would turn around and see a small child holding a piece of paper in his or her hand, and would tell me to take it. That they too wanted help. As I reached the gate of my hotel, my hands were full of small chits of paper that they had given me – they were chits of paper for you and me, but for them they were lifelines for medicines, shelter and food.
Another story that we worked on in 2014 was on a women’s park in Kabul with a restaurant for women, staffed only by women; gyms, business centers and shops where there were only women working. Today the gate was shut and a Talib was sitting outside like a sentinel, gun in hand.
Next we had to speak to the general public in bazaars, who seemed to believe that even though the situation had became more peaceful after he Taliban came to power, the economy and their businesses were badly affected, as there was so much uncertainty that wealthier people had stopped buying and the ordinary person did not have enough purchasing power to buy much. Everyone was only busy in spending on food and other daily necessities to bother about anything else. This seemed to be correct because we saw all the malls and the larger shops closed.
My colleagues were doing their ‘as live’ at the local bazaar when I saw a few people standing next to a car talking about the Taliban government and their policies.
I told the driver to ask them if they would give me an interview on camera; two of them refused, but one agreed. This was a university student of political science and appeared to be very worried.
“What are you really worried about?”
“Whether I will find my destination in this country or not. Whether there will ever be any space for educated and progressive people like us, considering the kind of situation there is today. These are the thoughts that are worrying me.”
It was the same with other young people, who were not part of the vision of those who were now running the country. These thoughts by the youth was understandable; because for those who have a rigid outlook can never accept the opinions of those who are outside their own specific circle. And even if they do accept that person inside their tight circle, their minds will never meet which will always make the differences apparent.