Sierra Magazine

Perilous Gardens, Persistent Dreams

Healing the wounds of war and nature in Afghanistan.

By Rob Schultheis

Photographs by Beth Wald

"To every man, his homeland is as beautiful as Kashmir."
— Afghan saying

It’s barely 9 a.m. on this day in early September 2002, and already more than 300 families have arrived at the dusty row of giant tents that houses the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees repatriation center on the outskirts of Kabul. They have come in rented buses and trucks, vehicles jammed to bursting with everything they can possibly carry. One rickety bus, adorned with dangling chains, Christmas lights, sculptures of jet fighters, and gaudy murals of lions, snowy peaks, mosques, scimitars, and peacocks, has three or four goats tethered to the roof and several hundred pounds of firewood lashed to the rear. A minibus is nearly hidden beneath a load of household furniture, carpets, bicycles, and a homemade satellite dish hammered together out of scrap metal.

Some of these families have been living in exile since 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and began bombarding the country’s rebellious villages into rubble. Others left during the factional fighting between rival guerrilla groups that followed the collapse of the Rabani government at the end of the ’90s, and still others fled the oppression of the Taliban, which was overthrown only last year, and the ruinous drought, which has parched the country for more than four years.

At the peak of the Soviet-Afghan war, nearly half of the country’s 17 million people were refugees. Close to 3 million were living in Pakistan, another million and a half in Iran, and at least 4 million were internal refugees, fleeing fighting, ethnic persecution, drought, and famine.

Now the Afghan masses are returning home. There are a half-dozen refugee resettlement centers like this one scattered around Afghanistan’s frontiers, and at all of them the flow of humanity this year has been overwhelming. A month or two earlier the numbers passing through here were ten times what they are today; with winter not far off, many of the remaining refugees are postponing their repatriation until spring. But even with these reduced numbers, the system is strained to the breaking point. The wheat ration to homeward-bound families has been halved, and the amounts of cash, blankets, and rudimentary shelter-building materials per person have also shrunk.

One peasant headed for Wardak province, just west of Kabul, is loudly complaining to the UN staffers about how long it’s taking to process his family’s papers. (Afghans never seem to lose their capacity for outrage, impatience, and entitlement, even when their pockets and bellies are empty. Nang, pride: It’s one of their great natural resources.) When I ask him in Dari how he is doing, he immediately stops yelling and turns to me, smiling. He visibly swells with joy as he answers: "I am going back to my village. It is the best place in the world!"

His is likely a minority view. The Afghanistan he and his fellow refugees are returning to is still a disaster zone, damaged and all but destroyed by a quarter century of savage war and the worst drought in its history. It will be a bitter homecoming for most of these happy, hopeful people: The home they dream of and long for is gone. The new Afghan government and international aid groups are just beginning to address the mine-strewn fields, ruined infrastructure, and widespread lawlessness that frustrates reconstruction efforts.

Many of the challenges are environmental: the withered crops, dwindling forests, and shrinking marshes. In Afghanistan, postwar reconstruction and environmental restoration are often the same thing.

Before the wars and drought, Afghanistan was a triumph of human ingenuity in one of the harshest environments on Earth. As much as 80 percent of the country’s mostly rural population owned the land they lived and worked on, which inspired them to be careful stewards as well as constant innovators in folk technology and science. Old Afghanistan was a garden, ever perilous, yet rich enough to support great imperial cities like Kabul, Ghazni, Herat, and Kandahar, centers of art, learning, and culture. It was as if humans moved into Death Valley thousands of years ago and proceeded to build a series of great, prosperous, and sophisticated empires there.

Afghans adapted to life in the high deserts and dry mountains with incredible creativity. Afghanistan, for instance, is plagued by desiccating sand- and dust-bearing gales. From the seventh century on, peasants designed and built adobe horizontal-vaned windmills to harness the wind power and grind wheat into flour. These were humanity’s first windmills, predating those in northern central Asia and China. Historians tell of actual wind farms consisting of 75 or more mills in a row. Windmills are still in use in many areas along the Iran-Afghanistan border.

Most amazing are the irrigation systems, called karezes or qanats. Centuries ago, Afghan villagers solved the problem of evaporation from open-air desert canals by building a system deep underground. Miracles of folk engineering and hard labor, karezes collect runoff, snowmelt, and groundwater high on the mountainsides and carry it down to the fertile plains, allowing agriculture to prosper in areas where it would otherwise be impossible. They can extend 20 miles or more, as deep as 100 feet beneath the surface; vertical shafts every hundred yards or so enable maintenance teams to descend each spring to repair cave-ins and clear out alluvial debris. Karezes are still vital to farming in vast areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Other peculiarly Afghan adjustments to desert farming include fertilizer factories—giant adobe pigeon roosts that attract flocks of wild birds and collect their precious guano; solar-powered drying houses, designed to concentrate the heat of the sun and turn grapes into raisins; and pipes that channel heat from kitchen ovens beneath the floors to heat the living areas of farmhouses in winter.

Afghans’ greatest cultural adaptation to a countryside too forbidding to support full-time occupation was nomadism. Contrary to their romantic image, nomads are not simply footloose people addicted to wanderlust. Through the ages, Afghan nomadic and semi-nomadic groups have put together intricate skeins of migration to keep themselves alive, and even thriving. Historically, Afghanistan’s nomad tribes, now numbering more than a million people and lumped under the name "Kochis," were among the wealthiest in the country. Through their skill, the country’s marginal and submarginal pasturage has supported their huge herds of transient camels, sheep, goats, cattle, and horses for thousands of years. In fact, studies by early Russian ethnographers show that the manure dropped by central Asian nomadic herds was a key factor in fertilizing the stony desert soils along migration routes. When Stalin forced the nomad tribes in Soviet Central Asia onto collective farms in the 1930s, soil quality across the area actually deteriorated.

I was fortunate to visit both villages and nomad camps in Afghanistan back in the 1970s and early ’80s, before the war destroyed so many of them. Life there was surprisingly comfortable. In eastern Afghanistan, the typical peasant dwelling was a spacious high-walled compound with a massive multiroom adobe house inside. The rooms were decorated with murals of birds, bouquets, trees, and animals. Almost every house had a flower garden. Nomads on the move lived in tents, but most Kochi families also owned permanent dwellings. The traditional diet for "middle class" peasants was rich in butter, milk, yogurt, meat and fowl, dried fruit, and nuts. In some areas, like the inhospitable central highlands, the lifestyle was less plush, but for many rural Afghans the old way of life really worked, generation after generation: what we would call today a sustainable economic system.

"Be glad of a few days of peace in this garden where the nightingales sing. When the singing has been silenced the beauty of my garden will be gone, too."—Khushal Khan Khattak, 17th-century Afghan poet

During the decade-long Soviet occupation, virtually the entire Afghan countryside was a free-fire zone. Washington Post reporter Jim Rupert surveyed war damage in eastern Afghanistan in the winter of 1985–86: Every one of the 32 villages he visited had been bombed and was in ruins. In 1986, Barnett Rubin of Helsinki Watch described "the Soviet policy of destroying all the parts of the delicate agricultural and pastoral system that undergirds food production in this semi-arid country in which agriculture is heavily dependent on irrigation. Bombing has destroyed carefully terraced hillsides . . . grenades and bombs have destroyed the intricate underground irrigation channels. Soviet aircraft and ground troops systematically slaughter the livestock . . . fragmentation bombs, artillery, and napalm have devastated carefully tended orchards and vineyards." The Soviets, mujahedin guerrilla fighters, and various warring factions also left an estimated 800,000 mines littered across the landscape, making many areas uninhabitable even after the fighting ended.

Many of Afghanistan’s cities and major towns, where the Soviet occupation forces were based, escaped serious damage during the war, but in the case of the capital, Kabul, the reprieve was only temporary. In 1993–94, after the last Communist puppet regime fell, rival guerrilla groups battling for power virtually destroyed the city. Whole neighborhoods and districts were leveled in ferocious street fighting with tanks, rockets, and artillery. Most Kabulis fled. When I visited Kabul in the winter of 1996–97, the place was a city of the dead; you could stand for an hour on a major street and see only a couple of old men on creaky bicycles, a man dragging a half-ton of junk in a cart. Even today the southern and western quarters of the city resemble Hiroshima or Berlin in 1945: mile after mile of absolute annihilation in which every single building has been reduced to a gutted shell or a mound of rubble.

"May Kabul be without gold rather than without snow." — Afghan saying

And then came the drought.

Afghanistan has always been a desert country. In the mid-’60s, annual precipitation in Kandahar totaled less than 8 inches; in Helmand province, in the country’s southwestern corner, less than 3. (In the United States, desert is considered to begin where annual precipitation drops below 20 inches.) Yet this was enough to keep the traditional rural economy alive.

Even before the drought began, these conditions were worsening, apparently because of global warming. In 2001, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported a more than 4-degree temperature increase for central Asia as a whole over the last century. According to the IPCC, the 82 percent of the region marginally suited for agriculture will eventually lose from 40 to 90 percent of its productivity as a result. The panel went on: "As mountain glaciers continue to disappear [because of warming], the volume of summer runoff eventually will be reduced. . . . Consequences for downstream agriculture, which relies on this water for irrigation, will be unfavorable."

In 1998–99, the rains and snows in Afghanistan failed almost completely. This super-drought encompassed areas of India, Pakistan, and what was once Soviet Central Asia, but was at its most severe in Afghanistan. An estimated 5 million wheat farmers and 80,000 nomads were affected. Kochi herders brought their flocks to the city of Ghazni and began selling them at giveaway prices. The animals were going to die anyway, of hunger and thirst. When nomads sell off their breeding stock, that is the end of the road: A way of life thousands of years old was facing extinction.

Droughts are nothing new, of course, but the social mechanisms for coping with them are disappearing. When I was in the western Afghan city of Herat in 1972, a year of drought followed by heavy spring snows and floods had decimated the Kochi herds in the area. Back then, stretching the Islamic custom of zakât, or almsgiving, local merchants collected enough money not only to feed and house the victims but also to replenish their herds. But now the traditional safety net is unraveling, a victim of the poverty and cynicism that inevitably follow decades of violence.

The next two years brought no relief: Crop yields across Afghanistan decreased by half from 2000 to 2001, and the UN upgraded the drought to "the worst in a hundred years." In 1999–2000, 59 percent of the Afghan population had "diet surety" (they knew where their next meal was coming from) and 43 percent had access to sufficient water. But by May 2002, only 9 percent of Afghans had diet surety, and 15 percent secure water.

Not only fields are returning to desert. In 1979, 2.8 percent of Afghanistan was covered by forest, just enough to sustain small-scale logging for building material while keeping the woodlands alive. By 1996, the figure was less than 1 percent. Over that time, forests in eastern Afghanistan shrank by 90 percent. More recent reliable figures are unavailable because of war and disorder, but if anything the situation is worse. Most of the loss is from smugglers cutting the wood and shipping it into Pakistan, but the rebuilding of Afghanistan is also a factor. In Kabul today there are vast lumberyards where timber—from slender saplings to enormous forest giants—is off-loaded from trucks from the provinces. The trucks never stop coming, feeding the reconstruction of the capital.

The Afghan people know how important their forests are. In the past, villages maintained and carefully husbanded traditional forest plots nearby; now village women spend hours each day walking to the closest forests and hauling back firewood and fodder. You don’t survive in the desert for thousands of years by being shortsighted or insensitive to the natural world; on the other hand, if you and your family are hungry and someone offers you cash for that precious grove of trees that serves as windbreak and fuel store for your farm, what do you do? For many, the only answer is to gamble away tomorrow to live today.

And then start planning for tomorrow again. In village after village, locals ask for roads and schools first, then agricultural assistance, and reforestation next. Several small organizations like the French MADERA and the Afghan-founded SAVE have inaugurated tree-planting programs. But the worst deforestation is taking place in areas that are also the most lawless and dangerous. In September 2002, a group of United Nations Environment Programme scientists arrived in the country to survey forest conditions. I arranged to accompany the team to Kunar province, north of the Khyber Pass in far eastern Afghanistan. Two days before we were due to leave, the trip had to be called off because of attacks on Westerners in the area by renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Forests are more than trees, of course, and along with its timber Afghanistan is at risk of losing its wolves, snow leopards, bears, and foxes, as well as alpine ruminants like Marco Polo sheep and ibex. Along Chicken Street, downtown Kabul’s traditional tourist shopping bazaar, three or four shops openly sell endangered-species pelts. One place baldly calls itself the Snow Leopard Shop. Its proprietor is unapologetic: "The people in Badakhshan are happy when hunters kill these animals. The leopards and wolves kill their sheep and goats." But isn’t there a danger the wild animals will be wiped out? The merchant hoots with derision. "They are everywhere in the mountains, like pests! There will always be leopards and wolves in Afghanistan!"

People used to think the same of flamingos and storks, but they are disappearing as the drought diminishes Afghanistan’s rare wetlands. The lakes and swamps near Ghazni, home to Afghanistan’s flamingo population, have all but vanished, as have the great Band-e-Amir lakes west of Bamiyan. The endangered Siberian cranes that visit Band-e-Amir on their annual migrations are virtually extinct: Where there were once flocks of the majestic birds, observers in 2002 found just one lone chick, wandering forlornly at the edge of the dead inland sea.

"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.

I n 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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