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  May/June 2003 Issue
Perilous Gardens, Persistent Dreams
All They Need is Wolves
Consider the Lilies
Restoration Art
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One Small Step
Lay of the Land
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Perilous Gardens, Persistent Dreams (continued) 1 | 2

"The world lives in hope."
—Afghan saying

The attitude of the Snow Leopard Shop proprietor notwithstanding, many Afghans I talked with care deeply about their vanishing wildlife, which they consider part of their national patrimony. There is an undeniable environmentalist strain in Islam (the Sermons of Hazrat Ali contain a lovely, lyrical paean to the beauties of the peacock), and Afghan poetry is rife with praise of the glories of the wild world. "In the old days, men earned fame and honor by hunting," a farmer in the Panjshir valley told me. "A hunter who killed a hundred ibex was a legend long after he died. But have you ever eaten ibex?" He made a disgusted face. "No one likes it! Tourists would like to come here and see ibex and the other wild animals, if we don’t kill them all." He was one of several Afghans who asked me about the feasibility of opening up ecotourist trekking routes and guesthouses in the mountains, to bring in money. The powerful Afghan vice president, Karim Khalili, head of the Hazara tribe, was already talking about national parks and tourism when I interviewed him back in 1996, when he and his people were fighting for their lives against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Afghanistan is unlikely to host a Club Med anytime soon, but given a modicum of support, the Afghans could turn their wilderness and wildlife into economic assets. After all, tourism was the country’s biggest source of hard currency before the wars began in 1979. On my 2002 flight from the United Arab Emirates into Kabul, I encountered a group of seven elderly but intrepid European women, off on a two-week tour of Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. In Afghanistan, improbability is the order of the day.

In the course of my travels around the country, I came to two paradoxical conclusions: Afghanistan is an utter disaster, and with a little luck, Afghanistan has a bright future. The two perceptions kept shuffling back and forth, sometimes occurring simultaneously.

In Kabul, for instance, the drought is so severe that the Kabul River, normally a mini-Danube rushing through the heart of the city, has dried into a stagnant marshy ditch. In one area near the Old City, enterprising merchants looking for rent-free real estate have built an entire bazaar in what was once the river bottom. "In my neighborhood, the water table has fallen six and a half meters in the last year," a young Kabuli doctor told me. Neighbors have to pool their resources to drive their communal wells deeper into the aquifers beneath the city, or walk to the nearest functioning well and carry water home all day. Everywhere I saw men, women, and children hauling jerry cans and pails of water block after block in the dust and the heat.

And yet, the city is rapidly rebuilding. In the few months after the Taliban’s overthrow, Kabul’s population soared to more than 3 million, with returnees camping out in ruins and abandoned buildings while they put up new homes. Along the main north-south thoroughfare in eastern Kabul there is a neighborhood a mile long devoted entirely to building construction. Workshops clatter and bang away all night, cutting rebar. New businesses are starting up everywhere: In one bazaar, I even found a row of three stalls selling flowering plants, shrubs, and saplings for home gardeners. Though the country is almost devoid of telephone service, and electricity itself is spotty, everyone was talking about the new global Internet economy, and computer schools were springing up to serve it. I interviewed scores of Afghans from all of the nation’s varied ethnic groups, Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Aimak, and Uzbek, and every single one of them was focused on the future, not the past. Ex-guerrilla fighters talked of reviving the family farm; cab drivers’ sons planned to start trucking companies, or become doctors; schoolgirls dreamed of going to university.

"Even the highest mountain has a trail to the top."
—Afghan saying

Here’s what gives me such hope for Afghanistan: the Saga of the Helicopter Gunship. In the early 1980s, the mujahedin northeast of Kabul managed to shoot down a Soviet Mi-24 Hind gunship, the most fearsome weapon in the Red Army’s arsenal. (A single Mi-24 packed 168 small air-to-ground rockets, a rotary cannon that fired ten rounds per second, and two thousand-pound bombs.) The helicopter crashed close to a major foot trail, and it instantly became so famous a landmark that an enterprising local opened a teahouse in its fuselage. The jury-rigged chaikhanna soon became a popular stopover for travelers: Guerrillas, traders, nomads, and refugees relished resting in the shelter of what was once an object of dread and terror, sipping tea, dining, and sleeping overnight before hitting the trail again.

And then one day it was gone. A British journalist returned after a year’s absence to find the spot empty, the massive metal carapace vanished without a trace. When he asked his Afghan hosts what had happened to it, they led him down to the nearest dirt road. There was the gunship, now outfitted with axles, tires, and the motor and transmission from a junked Soviet jeep, rolling along with a full load of passengers and a mountain of luggage lashed on top. Adapting to changing markets, the teahouse owner had turned the helicopter into a minibus and was hauling people and freight from village to village around the foothills.

When I visited the Panjshir valley northeast of Kabul, I found the villages were all lighted at night. A UN or Afghan government electrification program? No. It turned out that years ago a local villager had read a book on generators, and designed and tinkered together his own pocket hydro plant. Other villagers copied it, and now the whole valley is powered by a series of small, homegrown hydro projects.

North of Kabul, on the fertile Shomali Plains, mine-clearing is taking place at breakneck speed. Everywhere you look, Halo Trust de-miners in heavy flak vests and plastic visors are crouched over antipersonnel and anti-tank mines, booby-trapped shells and aircraft bombs, cutting wires and defusing. The moment a farmhouse and its fields are cleared, the family moves back in and starts repairing and planting. Hundreds of families are camped out at the edge of the mined danger zone, waiting for the chance to go home. "My family has lived here for hundreds of years," one ruddy-faced farmer tells me as his children swarm laughing around him. "I had to leave when the Taliban came. We lived in Pakistan for six years. It was like hell. When we get home, we will never leave again." He and his fellow villagers are already talking about building a new school, to ensure the community’s future.

Afghanistan’s greatest natural resource isn’t gas or oil, or copper, or rubies and emeralds: It is the Afghans themselves. If this desperate, damaged country eventually recovers, it will be because of the people, their intimate knowledge of their uncompromising homeland, and their passionate love for it. "Give Afghanistan two or three years of peace, and a year or two of normal rainfall, and it will be back on track," an American diplomat told me. "Bet on it." In the winter of 2003, heavy snows finally returned to the mountains, giving hope of a break in the long drought.

At the edge of Shomali, at a place called Deh Sabz, another elderly refugee farmer visits what was once his home. The land has dried out: Unlike the central Shomali, farming here was dependent on irrigation, and the Taliban dynamited the karezes that brought water from the mountains. Together, we peer down the maintenance shafts that lead to the canal. We can’t see the bottom. The farmer picks up a hefty cobblestone and drops it into the darkness. A second or two later we hear a deep splash. The old man smiles. He will return with family and friends to clear the system downstream and let the water run onto his fields again.

He walks down to where a trickle of water still emerges from the tunnel mouth, and carefully, gently, he scours the built-up sand and mud away from the opening. The rivulet becomes a streamlet, and the desert silence is suddenly broken by the silver music of water.

Rob Schultheis has visited Afghanistan over 30 times since 1972. He has reported on events there for Time, CBS, NPR, the New York Times Magazine and Smithsonian.

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