The potato seller and the wolf cage
by tiziano terzani
Kabul, 19 December 2001
The view is stunning, the most beautiful I could ever imagine. I wake up each morning, my sleeping bag stretched out on a floor made of concrete plus the occasional plastic tile, in an empty room on the uppermost storey of the tallest building in the city centre. My gaze is filled with all that any traveller headed here could dream of. The fabled crown of mountains which the emperor Babur, head of the Mogul dynasty, saw only once then hankered after till the day he died, even choosing to be buried here. The valley traversed by a river on whose banks Kabul itself was built, Kabul the city of which a poet once wrote, in a play on the two Persian syllables which make up its name: 'My home? here is my home: a drop of dew amid the petals of a rose'. The old bazaar of the Four Arcades, where they used to say you can find every object made by nature or human skill. The mosque of Puli-i-Khisti. The mausoleum of Timur Shah. The sanctuary of the King of Two Swords, built in honour of the first Muslim commander who according to the legend had his head cut off in battle in the seventh century A.D. but fought on regardless with a weapon in each hand, so determined was he to impose Islam, the new, aggressive religion recently founded in Arabia, on a population which for more than a thousand years had been happily Hindu or Buddhist. And high, dominating the crest of the range of hills immediately before my windows, is the fortress of Bala Hissar, in whose palace every victor in Afghan history has resided, and in whose dungeons every loser has languished or had his throat cut.
The view is superb, but it's given me no peace since I arrived here over a fortnight ago with a letter of introduction for an old intellectual in my pocket, a little library of companion guides in my bag and a great mixture of anger and hope in my heart. I can't enjoy it, because I've never felt the stupidity of the fate to which man has devoted himself as keenly as I do when I look out of these dusty windows, at times almost as though it were a physical pain I were experiencing. With one hand he builds up, with the other he destroys. He uses his imagination to create great wonders, then with equal passion and refinement turns everything around him into desert and massacres his fellow beings.
Sooner or later man will have to change course and renounce violence. The message is clear. Just look at Kabul, where all that remains of what the guidebooks describe is just that: remains. The fortress is a pile of rubble, the river a fetid stream of excrement and refuse, the bazaar an expanse of tents, huts and containers. The mausoleums, the domes and the temples have all been gutted, and all that's left of the old city with its rows of houses of mud and inlaid wood are pathetic, ochre-coloured stumps stretching for hundreds and hundreds of metres, like the spires of sandcastles which children build on the water's edge, only for the waves to come and wash them right away.
Many monuments have literally disappeared. The enigmatic Minari-i-Chakari or Column of Light, built in the first century A.D. on the old Jalalabad road outside Kabul possibly to commemorate the enlightenment of Buddha, failed to stand up to the artillery fire and in 1998 was reduced to a heap of ancient stones.
In no way can Kabul still be called a city. It's a teeming anthill of human misery, an immense dusty cemetery. Everything is dust, and more and more I get the feeling that this dust which constantly blackens my hands, fills my nose and enters my lungs is all that remains of the bones, the palaces, the houses, the parks, the flowers and the trees which made this valley a paradise. The boast of Kabul used to be its seven different types of grape, its thirty-three types of tulip and its seven great gardens thick with cedar trees. Now there's absolutely nothing. And not because of some divine curse, a volcano erupting, a river flooding or any other kind of natural disaster. No. This paradise was lost once, twice, then many times over for one single reason and that alone: war. The war waged centuries ago by the invaders. The war brought in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the British, who now somewhat tactlessly have decided to come back at the head of the "peace force". The war of the past twenty years, which we have all been involved in one way or another, even if only by selling weapons to one of the protagonists. And now the American war, a cold war of machines against men.
Maybe it's my age which has made me develop this hysterical sensitivity to violence, but everywhere I look I see bullet holes, shrapnel damage and scorch-marks from explosions. I feel like I myself have been pierced, mutilated and burnt. Maybe I've lost that objectivity which impartial observers are meant to have, if indeed I ever did have it. Or maybe it's just me recalling a verse which Gandhi used to recite in his daily prayers, where he asked to be able to "imagine the sufferings of others in order to understand the world". But I simply can't bring myself to be detached, as if what is going on didn't affect me.
From my windows up here I see a man walking slowly along, continually turning round to look at a young woman with only one leg who's limping along behind him. She might be his daughter. I too have a daughter, and only now, for the first time in my life, does it occur to me that she too might step on a mine. It's cold enough to chap the skin now, and I see a group of child beggars lighting bonfires out of bags and other bits of plastic they've found in the rubbish tips. I have a grandson their age, and I imagine him breathing in that stinking, carcinogenic air just to keep warm. After several days' search, I finally manage to find the elderly gentleman for whom I had the letter of introduction. He had been the curator of the museum of Kabul. I found him at the bazaar in Karte Ariana, where he was selling potatoes to support his family. This could have happened to me. It could still happen to any of us. All because of a war.
People tell me that during the worst years of the war between 1992 and 1996, when the factions of the Northern Alliance who now govern Kabul killed over 50,000 civilians and made this city its battleground and slaughterhouse, the great iron containers which had held the weapons and ammunition that travelled first by sea, then overland through Pakistan from America for the jihad against the USSR, had been turned by groups of mujahideen into prisons for their enemies. Sometimes as a form of reprisal the muhahideen just left the prisoners in them; sometimes they roasted them alive by setting fire to petrol cans placed round the outside. I don't know whether or not this story is true, but I do know that I can no longer look at one of these containers - and there are thousands of them everywhere, recycled to provide housing, shops and workshops - without thinking of it.
Every object, every wall, every face here seems to me to have been marked by the terrible violence which was, and still is even as I write, war.
Not even the dawn can raise the spirits here in Kabul, after a night of sleep broken by the noise of the B-52s flying high overhead. The sun looks like a fire behind the screen of mountains which for ages remain like scraps of dark paper against the horizon. Occasionally, while Kabul is still in shadow, a military B-52 is suddenly lit up with the first golden rays of the sun. It becomes like some mysterious, disquieting bird of prey intent on writing strange messages of death in the turquoise-black sky.
The B-52s are not here just to bomb the hideouts of Bin Laden's men or the convoys the Americans suspect might be hiding Mullah Omar. They are here to remind everyone that they are this country's new policemen, its new judges and puppet-masters. This was exactly the message sent by the American flag-raising ceremony which took place here last Monday, the same day as the great Muslim feast of Id at the end of Ramadan, with the marine band playing God bless America, the speeches, the guard of honour, and the slow, slow raising of the stars and stripes on the pole in the embassy garden. Various other embassies in Kabul have opened their doors again, and diplomats from Iran, Turkey, France, China, Britain and Italy have all dusted off their desks. But no-one else has made such a fuss over such a routine event.
The Americans have some kind of obsession with their flag. The one they put back up in their Kabul embassy is the same one they lowered in 1989. But it wasn't the first to be planted back on Afghan soil. That was the one the marines raised at their base on the outskirts of Kandahar at the start of the military campaign. They called their base "Camp Justice", and to make it clear that in this case justice above all meant vengeance, they raised a flag which had been signed by relatives of the victims of the Twin Towers.
The Afghans have no difficulty in understanding this kind of thing. The great bazaar of the Four Arcades, with its famous murals and floral decorations, was razed to the ground and sacked by British troops in 1842 to avenge the murder of two emissaries from London, and the subsequent slaughter by the Afghans of 16,000 men and their families on the road from Kabul to Jalalabad. A single doctor survived to tell the tale. In 1880 it was the British again who hanged the twenty-nine Afghan leaders of a new separatist movement in the fortress courtyard, then destroyed most of Bala Hissar so that "no-one may ever forget that we know how to avenge our own men", as Her Majesty's general in charge of the operation wrote.
With memories such as these recalled by many of the monuments and street and district names in modern-day Kabul, it would certainly have been more diplomatic if the mysterious entity which calls itself the "international community", and which increasingly seems to be a private club existing exclusively for the personal benefit of the United States, had entrusted the command of its peace force to a country which, unlike Britain, was not associated here with colonialism, aggression and a record that is nothing to be proud of, namely the first aerial bombing in history in which the victims were civilians, carried out by the British airforce on Kabul in 1919.
Centuries previously the Afghans had experienced another, even more memorable act of vengeance. Passing through the Bamiyan plain in 1221, Genghis Khan had seen his nephew killed by an Afghan arrow, and ordered that no sign of life be left in that valley. For days on end, Mongul soldiers slit the throats of every man, woman, child and animal until it is said their swords had no blade left and their arms hung limp with exhaustion. Then they cut down every tree and uprooted every plant. So it was that the great Buddhas, carved in the rocks but already bereft of the gold covering which had originally adorned them, looked blankly out over the plain for hundreds of years ... until other warriors, this time the Taliban, came and demolished them with their bazookas, perhaps in order to avenge the international community's refusal to recognize them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, despite having every reason to do so.
Now it is the Taliban's turn to be victims of the Americans, who want to avenge their own dead and above all restore the notion of their invincibility to the world. The fact that the Taliban were not directly and perhaps not even indirectly responsible for those deaths is neither here nor there. Nor is it deemed relevant that the Afghans, who were certainly not involved in the Twin Towers massacre, should be the first to pay the price for that act of revenge. How much it cost remains a mystery.
This war has been followed by hundreds of journalists. More pages of print and more hours of television have been dedicated to it than to any war previously, yet with great determination the United States has managed to keep it invisible, and never will reveal the full truth behind it.
There remain questions in this war that the United States refuses to answer and which for this reason have stopped being asked. Here are some of them: how many completely innocent civilian victims have there been so far? Already far more than the victims of Twin Towers, in my opinion. How many casualties have there been among the Taliban military? I reckon more than ten thousand. The only proof I have is small but significant. Before coming to Afghanistan I went back to Peshawar and the region dominated by Islamic fundamentalists where I had met the young men setting off enthusiastically to join the jihad just after the war had started. I bumped into one of them again, who had managed to struggle back in defeat. He said the B-52s' carpet bombs had been terrifying and lethal. Along with his comrades he had gone to fight the Americans, but they didn't even see them. He had only heard the roar of their aeroplanes high in the sky and experienced the devastating consequences of their bombs all around: men literally blown to bits, others crushed by the terrifying blast, who died with blood streaming from their ears and noses. Only three survived out of a group of forty-three. If the same had occurred where the Taliban had actually put up some resistance and tried to defend their territory as they did for weeks at Kandahar, the losses must have been considerable.
The Taliban have no anti-aircraft defence. They are confined to fixed positions, in primitive trenches and mud forts, at the mercy of the massive, incessant aerial hammering which the Americans are meting out. Never in the history of warfare perhaps has there been such an unequal war, one where the losses on either side have been so blatantly disproportionate. The United States has inflicted thousands and thousands of deaths while hardly incurring any itself. Yet in no way had this altered my young jihadi's view of the world. It hadn't impaired his blind faith in Islam, induced him to hate the West any less nor admire the Americans for their military superiority. Not in the slightest. "Our weapons are not sufficient to reach the Americans in their aeroplanes. Now it is up to Allah to decide what to do", he said. His having become a ghazi, a veteran of the jihad, now gave him a position of prestige in the village and in the Islamic fundamentalist organization under whose orders he said he intended to remain. "And what if they order you to place a bomb in New York or somewhere else?", I asked him. "I will do it", he replied without hesitation. In this perverse chain of violence, what other kind of revenge can an uneducated, obtuse Muslim boy in a mud village in Asia now imagine against the pilot of a B-52 who in his eyes has massacred dozens of his comrades?
The terrorism to which the Americans fell victim in New York and Washington arose precisely because of the kind of asymmetrical situation which began with the end of the Cold War. As long as the world was bipolar and the threat of reciprocal nuclear annihilation held the two superpowers in check, the Soviet Union and the United States couldn't afford to go around the world doing whatever they liked. Sooner or later one of them reached the limit imposed by the other and had to call a halt. This is no longer the case. The United States' sophisticated military arsenal is now unparalleled, and today it can intervene in many parts of the world, especially the poorer ones. It can afford to indulge in whatever violence it likes, safe in the knowledge that any response it provokes will be puny in comparison. The United States runs no risk whatsoever in extending the war today to Afghanistan and tomorrow to Sudan, Somalia, Iraq or Syria. The only possible risk it can run is that of an inversely asymmetrical response, i.e. terrorism.
The way in which the Americans have decided to react to the attacks on New York and Washington will not solve the problem. On the contrary it will make matters worse, because it will simply reaffirm the imbalance. By trying to protect themselves, the Americans have made everyone else more vulnerable and the whole world a more precarious, less pleasant place to live.
Another question which can't be asked about the war the Americans are waging in Afghanistan is: what has happened to the hundreds of families of the Arabs who came to fight the jihad againt the Soviets here on behalf of the United States, and then stayed on as followers of Osama bin Laden? A group of these families lived in the house next to the one where my potato seller lives. "There were several women and at least ten children. One night they all got back into trucks and left", he says. Where are they now?
My young jihadi from outside Peshawar told of how he had crossed the region around Tora Bora on his way back to Pakistan, and had seen Arab fighters going up to Pashtun peasants and begging them to take their wives and children with them, making them promise they would look after them, much as Jewish children were left with Arian peasants so they might survive the Nazi raids. What have these people done wrong? Who will look after them?
The victims of this war aren't only those who have already died under the bombs. They are also those who will die in the months to come, because the most deprived regions in Afghanistan have been deprived still further by the American bombs and mines. They are those who are dying this very minute because the cynical pursuit of war has held up the vital food supplies from World Food Programme (a UN agency currently run by an American lady) for months.
At this moment there are hundreds of thousands of Afghans, some 250,000 of them in Maslakh near Herat alone, who have ended up in remote parts of the country to avoid the American bombs. Food cannot reach them there in this season because of the snow. They are already starving, and mass deaths are a serious risk. But theirs is a tragedy which passes unnoticed. It upsets the positive picture which the spokesmen of the international coalition against terrorism are intent on presenting to the world, and which no-one bar the odd horrified, insubordinate U.N. official even mentions or gets angry about. If anyone does raise a question, the response thus far has always been the same: "Remember 11 September", as if those victims justify everything, as if their lives were different from and much more important than theirs.
One form of violence generates another. Only by breaking this vicious circle can we hope for some kind of solution, but no-one seems prepared to take the first step. Among the numerous non-governmental organizations which now fill Afghanistan, bringing with them not just their countries' money but their own versions of humanitarianism and aid too, I have not heard of a single one which planned to come here and work towards reconciliation, to propose non-violence or to urge the Afghans - and maybe others too - to reflect on the futility of retaliation. And my God, how they could do with it! Rarely have I seen a country so imbued with violence and hostility, so ready for war. Everywhere I turn I feel hatred. The Tajiks hate the Pashtuns, the Uzbeks hate the Tajiks, the Pashtuns hate the Uzbeks and everyone hates the Hazaras, who to this day are seen as the descendants of the Mongul hordes (their name means "in thousands") and heirs of Genghis Khan.
I've always believed that suffering was a teacher of wisdom, and coming to Afghanistan where they have seen so much of it, I truly expected to find fertile ground for reflection on non-violence and commitment to peace. No chance. Not even here, where the need for it is most obvious.
One of the most moving places in Kabul is the orthopedic centre of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Pain and hope are found in their most concentrated forms here. The director of the centre is Alberto Cairo, a quiet, efficient man from Turin. He is the only person at the centre who has two arms and two legs. All the others, the patients, the employees, doctors and technicians, have some part of them missing. Even the cleaner here has only one leg. "Working here helps us feel useful, and helps those who come here minus a limb to realize that life can go on", said the young man accompanying me. He was a translator. He had been cycling home one day when a Northern Alliance sniper hit him in the leg, shattering it above the knee. "The man who did this to you will be back in Kabul now, if he's not dead already", I said absent-mindedly. "Have you forgiven him?" "No, no. If I could I'd kill him", he replied. Everyone listening to us felt the same way.
In the women's section, a girl of thirteen is learning to walk with a new plastic foot, moving slowly along the line of red footmarks on the floor. One day six months ago, her mother asked her to go and fetch some firewood. Shortly afterwards she heard an explosion, soon followed by the screams. The child is being helped along by a physiotherapist, who herself is minus a leg. She lost it years ago on a mine hidden in the school yard. I ask her if she holds out any hope for a world without war. She laughs, as if I'd told her a funny story. "Impossible, impossible", she says.
Every politician who visits Kabul shows up at Alberto Cairo's centre, bringing aid to help him continue his highly commendable work. What no-one has the courage to say is that the only way to put an end to this work, to the handouts and visits from politicians is to ban with immediate effect the manufacture and sale of every single mine imaginable. The international community ought to send a peace force to dismantle every single mine factory in the world, wherever it might be.
Alberto Cairo has been in Afghanistan for twelve years, and expects to stay here for the rest of his life. There is certainly no shortage of work for him. Besides the millions of old mines, there are now also all the new ones the Americans are scattering from the skies. He too smiles at my hope of a world without war. "War is the salt of life in Afghanistan", he says. "It's tastier than peace". This isn't cynicism on his part; it's realism.
But I can't resign myself, even though I realize we are living through a particularly tragic moment in the history of mankind. For weeks now, all I have seen and heard about this war seems to be designed to prove that man is absolutely not the noblest part of creation, and that he is experiencing a severe setback on his road to civilization before our very eyes and with our own involvement. Just when a set of rules for human coexistence seemed to be assured and shared by the majority, just as the United Nations seemed set to become the forum for resolving conflicts and the various conventions on human rights, on the protection of children, women and the environment to have laid the foundation for a new international ethic, everything has been turned upside down, and administering death to others has once again become a technical, bureaucratic routine, just as the transportation of Jews was at the end for Eichmann.
Prisoners are being shot with their hands tied behind their backs before the eyes of Western soldiers, sometimes with their active involvement. The massacre is conveniently classified as a "prison revolt", and duly filed as such. Entire villages, whose only crime is that they happen to be in the proximity of a mountain called Tora Bora, are being flattened by carpet bombing. There are hundreds of victims, but their existence is shamelessly denied with statements to the effect that "all the targets hit were military". A figure of the importance of Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld describes Osama bin Laden's fighters as "wounded animals", hence particularly dangerous and to be gunned down if at all possible, even though the refusal to accept an unarmed combatant's surrender constitutes a war crime under the Geneva Convention. The fact that Rumsfeld's almost daily appearances on the podium at the Pentagon have become one of the most popular and keenly followed television programmes in America says a great deal about the current state of a large proportion of humanity.
Even torture has ceased to be a taboo subject for the western conscience, and its legitimacy is openly discussed on talkshows in the context of extracting information from suspects which could save American lives. Hardly anyone protests. No-one openly asks if the marines, special forces or CIA agents who are interrogating hundreds of Taliban and Arabs to discover the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden do so while respecting the norms whereby prisoners of war are required only to give their personal details. The international community seems now to have accepted that American national interest must prevail over every other principle, including that of national sovereignty, which used to be considered sacrosanct.
Even the American press has shelved many of the time-honoured principles which used to give it such an important role in checking those who hold power. With my own eyes I saw the text of an article which the correspondent of a major newspaper wrote from Afghanistan and the version of it which was subsequently published. Once upon a time it would have caused an uproar. Not any more. "We've become Pravda", the journalist said.
When another correspondent suggested writing a psychological portrait of Mullah Omar partly to explain how and why the supreme Taliban chief was putting his regime's existence in jeopardy by refusing to hand over Bin Laden, his editors replied: "No. The American public isn't ready for this yet". The truth is that everything which humanizes the enemy and which could explain his reasons must be avoided. The enemy must be demonized and presented as an unacceptable monster which must be eliminated.
There was only one moment in CNN's live coverage of the Mazar-i-Sharif fortress massacre where there was even a touch of compassion for those hundreds of corpses so obscenely strewn across the courtyard, from whose gaping mouths a Northern Alliance soldier was already going round trying to salvage some gold. A Swiss member of the International Committee of the Red Cross appeared on screen. He said he was there to photograph the dead and try to identify them. "Every one of them has a family", he added. This short sequence and these few words were cut every time the report was shown subsequently.
Meanwhile, there was another story which wasn't cut. In fact it was repeated endlessly, especially on the Voice of America and in the BBC's Asian broadcasts. Groups of Taliban on the rampage were supposed to have stopped buses along the Kabul-Jalalabad road a few days ago and checked the length of each passenger's beard, just as they did in the days when they were in power. If said beard fell short of the required "Islamic" length, they chopped off the offender's nose and ears, and the victims were taken to hospital in Kabul and Jalalabad. I went round every hospital in the capital one morning looking for these poor unfortunates, but couldn't find a single one. There weren't any. The story was false, but once it had been broadcast nobody bothered to deny it. Equally false was a story used as another example of Taliban atrocities, by Cherie Blair no less, which suggested that any woman who painted her nails under the regime of Mullah Omar had them extracted by force.
The emotions which have been stirred by a whole series of false news items, including the one about phials of nerve gas being "found" at an al-Qaeda training camp near Jalalabad, have helped to make the horrors more acceptable and ensure that the victims are included as part of the "inevitable price" which has to be paid for freeing the world from the dangers of terrorism. This is the aim of the U.S. administration's policy of information and disinformation, and it is this which has fed Western public opinion. Self-censorship by the American media, and to a large extent the European media, has done the rest.
The determination with which the United States has pursued silencing every dissident voice and drying up every possible source of alternative truth was demonstrated by the missile which fell "by mistake" on the headquarters of al Jazeera, the Arab television station in Kabul. I went to have a look. There was no mistake. The small villa which housed it was the third in a row of identical, single-storey concrete buildings, all surrounded by small gardens, in an avenue like many others in the district of Wazir Akbar Khan. There were no barracks nearby, no ministries, armoured cars or any other potential military targets. In the middle of the night a single missile launched from an aeroplane at high altitude fell on precisely this villa, totally gutting it. It was a blow against freedom of speech all right, but one which by now is taken for granted, accepted and justified, a blow which has come to form part of our lives like the American special military tribunals, the arrests with no legal guarantees and the death sentences with no appeals.
Yet none of this, not the innocent victims, not the massacre of prisoners, not the restrictions on our basic rights nor the profound injustice of the war has shaken public opinion. Not in America, certainly, but not in Europe either.
In truth, what is happening to the Afghans is happening to us too, not that we are aware of it, and the widespread indifference currently being manifested towards it has roots which go deep. Years of unbridled materialism have reduced and marginalized the role of morality in people's lives, meaning values such as money, profit and social success are the only yardstick by which we make judgements. Prosperous, consumerist man, with no time to stop and reflect, more and more caught up in the mechanism of a highly competitive life which leaves less and less space for the private, has lost his ability to feel or to get angry. Everything is centred on himself, and he has no eyes and no heart for what goes on around him.
This new type of Western man, cynical and insensitive, egotistical and politically correct (whatever the politics involved might be), is the product of our wealthy, developed society, and he frightens me as much as the man with a Kalashnikov and the look of a big-time cut-throat who stands on the corner of every street here. These two men are comparable. They are different examples of the same phenomenon: men who have forgotten they have a conscience, are unclear about their role in the universe, and have become the most destructive of all living creatures, polluting the waters of the earth, cutting down its forests, killing its animals and using ever more sophisticated, varied forms of violence against their fellows. All of this clear to me in Afghanistan. It burns within me, and makes me very, very angry.
The only moment of joy I have had in this country, now I come to think of it, was when I was flying over it. From the porthole of a little nine-seater United Nations aircraft on the way from Islamabad to Kabul, the world looked so though man had never existed and had left not a single trace of himself. From up there the world was simply wonderful. There were no borders, no conflicts, no flags to die for nor fatherlands to defend.
I pity those whom love of self
binds to their fatherland.
The fatherland is but
a field of tents in a desert of stone,
says an old Himalayan song which Fosco Maraini quotes in his Secret Tibet. Even if those tents had been there I wouldn't have seen them.
As a precaution the aircraft flew at an altitude of ten thousand kilometres, and the earth, ochre, violet and grey in turn, was like the wrinkled skin of an old giant, the rivers his veins. Before us, like a stormy sea which had suddenly been frozen, was the snowy barrier of the Hindu Kush, the "assassin of Hindus", so-called because hundreds of thousands of Indians died in the cold in these mountains while being shipped off as slaves towards Central Asia by their Mogul conquerors.
Because of its geographical position Afghanistan has always been one of the world's major corridors. All the great religions, civilizations and empires have passed through it over the centuries, all the races, ideas, merchandise and arts. A visionary-cum-philosopher such as Zarathustra was born here, as was a poet of the stature of Rumi. Here the Vedic hymns which form the basis of the Indian sacred scriptures were written, and from here came the first grammatical analysis of Sanskrit, the language to which all our languages are indebted. All those who have gone to rob India of its material riches over the centuries have passed through here too, as did India's own spiritual riches, Buddhism, as it spread to Central Asia, China, Korea and then Japan. It was here in Afghanistan that Buddhism encountered the Greek legacy bequeathed by Alexander the Great, and found expression in some its most refined artistic forms. Afghanistan is a vast, deep mine of human history, buried beneath the surface of places such as Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, Kunduz, Herat, Ghazni and Balkh, the ancient Bactria known as the "mother of all cities".
"And what are you doing here?", asked an American traveller in 1924, surprised to find an Italian embassy along with those of the great powers in Kabul. "Archeology", replied the then plenipotentiary minister Paternò dei Marchi. Our scientific missions have made many excavations in Afghanistan since the start of the last century, so it was truly painful to hear in the first weeks of the raids that the American B-52s were practising their own new forms of archeological dig as they carpet-bombed these precious sites in their hunt for the Taliban.
This is the fate of Afghanistan: to be the focus of someone else's interests. It has always been the stake in someone else's great gamble, from the Greeks to the Persians, the Monguls, the Turks, and in the nineteenth century the Russians and the British. It's just the same now.
When the United Nations aircraft landed on the runway at Bagram, a place which two thousand years ago was the capital of a great civilization, the Kushan Empire, of which the wars have swept away all trace, the new gamblers were all there, on this concrete strip in the middle of a valley which is now deserted, punctuated only by the spectral presence of shells of armoured cars, helicopters, lorries, aeroplanes and artillery. While the three marines and an Alsatian, also American, came and meticulously sniffed through my baggage, some Russian soldiers slightly further on pottered about near an aeroplane and a row of trucks with their flaps down on which was written: "For the children of Afghanistan from Russia". You could make out the silhouettes of some British troops against a backdrop of ruined barracks. You had to look at the stupendous mountains, which appeared to come alive and move with the changes of the shadows and colours of the sunset, if you weren't to lose all hope. It was only the same old story starting up all over again.
The international community thinks it's found a solution to Afghanistan's problems with a formula which combines violence and cash, Afghan soldiers guilty of a variety of crimes but now held in check (as is everyone) by the B-52s and a respectable figure such as Hamid Karzai, the only (weak) Pashtun among the strong representatives of the other ethnic groups.
I hope the formula works, but I doubt it. Even in Kabul life begins again. I saw it do so in Pnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge fell and I saw it do so in the forests of Laos and Vietnam, which the Americans had defoliated with chemicals and carcinogenic agents. But what sort of life? A new, more aware, more tolerant, more serene life, or the kind of life to which we've become accustomed, aggressive, rapacious and violent?
One of the moments I'll never forget from these days in Kabul was my visit to the zoo. "It's well worth it, believe me", suggested the potato-seller. It was Friday, the Muslims' feast day, and a few dozen people had paid the 2,000 afghani or just under three pence to go and see the most pathetic, wretched collection of animals one could possibly imagine: a little bear with a peeling, purulent nose, a blind old lion which could no longer stand up and whose mate had just died, a doe, an owl, two moulting eagles and lots of rabbits and pigeons. The zoo was the front line for a while during the battles between the various Northern Alliance mujahideen groups before the Taliban arrived. Bombs and missiles fell on it and broke open many cages, allowing various animals to escape. The wolves were not so fortunate, and two old specimens remained in a stinking cage with no water into which a warden threw scraps of meat once a day. They've been there for years, those wolves, prisoners shut up in the same space. They know each other very well, but continually shuffle round warily, rubbing up against the walls which they've made shiny and the netting which is now just patchwork. Every time their paths cross they snarl, bare their teeth and attack each other, urged on by a little crowd of men who perhaps delude themselves into thinking they're somehow different, not realizing they too are shut up in the cage of existence, waiting to die there.
Maybe it'd be just as well to live in peace, then.
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