Herat trying to forget the days the music died


AFGHANISTAN: Herat, once the liberal heart of modern Afghanistan, is beginning to flicker back to life, writes Elaine Lafferty

It is a scant 80km from the Iranian border, a 3,000-year- old city on Afghanistan's western front which was once the capital of the Islamic world. Herat's reputation was also that it was the liberal heart of modern Afghanistan, a place where women could stroll unveiled, where the edicts of fundamentalists were ignored or defied.

That era ended in 1996 when Heart fell to the Taliban, one of the last cities to do so. The music ceased. The sound of lutes and tambors which carried through the doors of the chaikurs or tea houses into the nights here were silenced.

Today a little boy on a bicycle stops a Westerner walking through the busy streets.

"Hello! How are you? Thank you!" he says, repeating the three English phrases that seem to be on the lips of everyone.

But this boy's English is a bit more advanced and we chat about his sisters and family until we reach a store which catches my eye, a dusty, cluttered window across from the Great Mosque. "This is a museum shop," he offers.

Sultan Hamidy, tall and turbaned with a long, white beard, sits barefoot outside his shop drinking tea with his friends. The prospect of a customer is nearly alarming, at the very least shocking. "Come in!" he says, startled. "Let me turn on lights."

It is dusk and the turning on of lights is no small matter. Herat only has electricity, in theory, from 5p.m. to 11p.m. Even that is iffy, so generators are everywhere and always at the ready. The dim yellow bulbs in Sultan Hamidy's shop flicker to life, bringing into view dusty glass cases of silver and brass jewellery, blue Herat glass piled knee-high, old British ivory-inlaid guns and muskets, swords and daggers.

On another counter are shards of broken pottery, tools, coinsI remember the stories I have heard in the past month of all the treasures lifted and looted over the last century from every archeological site in Afghanistan, from the Buddhist complex at Bamiyan to the Darra-I-Kur site. Museum shop indeed.

Sultan Hamidy has owned this place since 1956.

"Twenty-five years ago, three busloads of tourists every day used to come," he said. The visitors ended with the Soviet invasion in 1979, and Sultan Hamidy's shop has been attended to only by the occasional aid organizations workers.

"For us this is not even a business," says his son, Hamid, a lively young man who wants to talk about Arnold Schwartzenegger videos. "We are justhere."

But Sultan Hamidy is, like most here, wildly hopeful about the future.

How can he not be? For the first time since 1996, he is again inviting friends to his home above the shop, a place where "90 people used to dance to music. We will have music and dance again! Will you come tomorrow?"

I have realized by now that one can spend a great deal of time dancing and listening to music in this recovering yet joyous ruin of a country, and even more time drinking tea and entertaining proposals to become part of the family. I leave with a few items that wiser eyes than mine say are from the Bactria and Alexander the Great (330 BC) eras and with a promise to return.

This is a beautiful city, with wide boulevards lined with tall pines. Daytimes are warm and sunny. Horses adorned with flowers and bells jingle through the streets. The baked mud buildings give off a spectacular monochrome glow in the full moonlight. At this moment, it is hard to picture suffering here.

But the next day we go to Mazlak 3, one of six teeming refugee camps some 15km outside of town. Word in Kabul was that the refugee crisis here had reached epic proportions, that people were starving and dying, some 10 to 20 a day. A combination of the four- year drought which combined with the brutality of the Taliban to destroy this place resulted in desperate people leaving their villages to seek help in the nearest city. Word was that 300,000 people were here.

This is not a pleasant place. Sanitation is dire and registration of refugees has been disorganized for months. It is this oversight by a local organisation which means hundreds of desperate people, mostly women, charge our car, crying and screaming and flinging bits of paper with their names on it through the windows. Unless they are registered they will not get food or blankets.

"Fakers. Cheaters," sniffs Dan Gill, chief of IOM, which has recently taken over responsibility for the camps. "These are local people from the villages trying to get more than their share."

The IOM will complete registration by the end of January. In the meantime, every group imaginable - the World Food Programme, Medicins Sans Frontieres. UNICEF, the World Health Organization - is involved with supplying goods and services. Spokesmen for all of them agree that the real population is only about 120,000, which still makes these camps the largest concentration of refugee camps in the world right now.

No one is dying, or I should say that the mortality rate here is no worse than elsewhere in this region. In other words, the level of the crisis has been exaggerated in the West, probably in an effort to loosen donors pockets.

And yet it is hard to feel "cheated" even by the cheaters. After all, what are the fakers attempting to do? They are not out buying drink with their extra food rations or blankets. They are simply trying to get a little something extra for their families by the only means available.

Even the hardened Mr Gill, a veteran humanitarian worker who has seen it all in Africa and elsewhere, concedes the point, but he says the conditions of the camps are the world's responsibility. "Afghanistan was a lost cause. Aid organisations rely on funding from international governments and nobody was interested in Afghanistan."

Perhaps it is the utter truth of that statement which makes the hopes and optimism of these people disconcerting.

We are Westerners. We know what our attention span to world suffering is, don't we? Don't they even have a name for it, "donor fatigue?"

A woman in a blue burqa stops me on the street. "Hello! What is your name? My name is Zainab. Please come to my house!"

I accept, perhaps because I am so curious about this woman's English and her courage. What is behind these burqas that are still everywhere?

A few hours are spent with her and her sons and granddaughter in a lovely, well-appointed home near the UN compound. Her story is not unfamiliar; her husband was killed in this home, in front of her, by robbers.

Zainab wants to shed her burqa, but is still concerned with the conservative elements in Herat, still governed by the fundamentalist warlord Ismail Khan. Her dream? "I would like to learn to drive," she said.

Back in Kabul those political factions opposed to the UN peacekeepers are raising their voice more stridently. It is easy to worry that the concerns and hopes of Afghanistan's people are again being ignored by those whose vision is more informed by the past than the future.