At home with Afghanistan’s ‘King of the North’
Governor of Balkh province Atta Mohammad Noor has cut violence and corruption but fears for future remain
A man gathers shoes at the entrance to the Blue Mosque in Mazar-e Sharif. Photographs: John D McHugh
A woman walks past the Blue Mosque in Mazar-e Sharifin the early moring light.
Atta Mohammad Noor (right), the governor of Balkh province, handing out gifts in Mazar-e Sharif. Known as the King in the North, some say he is a warlord, with blood on his hands and dirty money in his vault, while others say he is a protector of his people and a champion of business and enterprise.
Carpet sellers examining their wares in mazar-e Sharif.
The Blue Mosque in Mazar-e Sharif.
A recovering drug addict and her four-month old baby, also addicted to opium, are seen in a drug treatment clinic in Mazar-e Sharif. A recovering drug addict and her four-month-old baby, also addicted to opium, in a drug treatment clinic in Mazar-e Sharif. The woman had suffered heavy bleeding after giving birth and her mother-in-law insisted she take heroin to manage the pain and treat the problem. As her baby was crying a lot, the mother was told to give it opium too.
Men walk past graffitti that represents ‘the suffering of women in Afghanistan’.
A woman weaves a carpet on a loom in her home in Mazar-e Sharif.
A recovering drug addict is seen in a drug treatment clinic in Mazar-e Sharif, 26 September 2013. There has been a huge explosion in the number of drug users in Afghanistan, with recent figures suggesting that of the 35 million populations, 1 million are addicts. (John D McHugh)
Arriving in Mazar-e Sharif, it would be easy to think the pilot got lost, accidently left Afghanistan, and then landed in a different country altogether. The airport is brand new, as are the roads leading into the city. There are traffic lights. That work. And drivers obey them. It really is astonishing.
Mazar-e Sharif is the capital of Balkh province in the north of Afghanistan, and is the old capital of the Northern Alliance, the various groups of mujahideen who combined to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, and subsequently the Taliban in the 1990s. In all likelihood, the city will become the de facto capital of a semi-autonomous region if/when civil war erupts again, as is expected after the US-led coalition leaves.
The city is ruled by Atta Mohammad Noor, known as “The King in the North”. To some he is a dictatorial, mass-murdering warlord, while others hail him as a defender of his people and a champion of development and free enterprise. Whatever the truth, it is widely accepted that his authoritarian approach to governing dramatically reduced violence and corruption, thus creating the conditions for vast reconstruction projects and a considerable growth in business and trade.
Unity in soccer
In September 2013 the Afghan soccer team won the South Asian Football Federation Cup, bringing a rare moment of unity to Afghanistan. Spontaneous celebrations broke out across the whole country, and the nation celebrated together, briefly oblivious to ethnic divisions.
Now the team had arrived in Mazar, and young men in football shirts thronged the tent in anticipation. But the real star of the show was Atta, and he knew it. He worked the crowd into a frenzy, and quickly turned his praise of the unified soccer team into a call for unity amongst the people of Afghanistan, especially the youth.
“We should forget about the gun and put all talk of weapons and ammunition behind us,” Atta proclaimed to the ecstatic crowd, as struggling air-conditioners blew hot air into the sweltering marquee. “Dear friends, dear youngsters, you are the future leaders of this country. Strive in every aspect of your lives to unite our society,” he said. “Those who are focused on the ethnic divisions, those who see only our differences, they achieve nothing. Amongst you, nobody mentioned Tajik, Pashtun, Arab, Nurastani or Pashai. In one voice, you all said, ‘Long live Afghanistan’.”
Later in the day he held court for privileged guests at the governor’s building. Sitting in his opulent office, surrounded by bodyguards and bomb-sniffing dogs, in a structure that looked more like a medieval castle than a modern workplace, Atta cut a dapper figure, with a finely tailored suit and matching silk tie and pocket square.