A Journey to the Afghan Province of Nuristan

Hope and Skepticism in the Valley of Light

People in the West generally perceive eastern Afghanistan as a war zone. True, the terrain is hotly contested, both politically and militarily. But we hear very little about the progress made in these remote regions. Martin Gerner reports from the area

photo: Martin Gerner
Nuristan lies in the far northeast of Afghanistan and is regarded as one of the country's poorest and remotest regions. The photos shows the village of Sutan Lam in the Dare-Noor Valley with its typical terraced fields

​​ For their own safety, travelers to the border region of Nuristan are well advised to take along someone who knows his way around. Our guide's name is Basir. In the early 1990s, his family emigrated to Erlangen, Germany. He returned to his homeland in 2005, a decision that he has never regretted. "Look at the energy that these people have," he says as he points to the bustling streets at sunrise, "this is extremely encouraging."

Our destination is the valley of Dare Noor, near the remote Nuristan province. This is a wild and mountainous region where violent incidents occur on a regular basis. Travelers from the outside are a rarity. On UN maps, the area is shaded in as a danger zone. NGOs have categorized this as an area of "permanent Taliban presence." We have come here to visit an aid project.

Poppy fields, sheep from Germany and carpets

As we leave Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar province, the paved highway soon turns into a gravel road. At the side of the road are billboards that condemn growing poppies as the work of the devil. The poppy fields are not yet in bloom and cannot be readily recognized as we drive by. Government representatives maintain poppy cultivation has already been eliminated from half of Afghanistan's provinces – a statement that should be viewed with skepticism. In actual fact, no one has reliable statistics.

The road winds up switchbacks to an altitude of 2,000 meters, to the village of Sutan Lam. Instead of the ubiquitous brownish-green fields of rock, the landscape is dominated by verdant terraces for growing crops. Men stand barefoot on a wooden plow that is pulled by oxen. And there is a real surprise in store for us at our destination: "There is no fighting here," explains Haji Mahboob, the village elder, as he greets us.

photo: Martin Gerner
Guest room in a corner of the Dare Noor Valley, also used as a mosque. In the background the typical woven baskets that are used for harvesting and agricultural purposes, as well as for transporting the sick in an emergency

​​ Basir has come here to mark the opening of a carpet-making workshop that has been established with funds from the GTZ, a German organization that promotes sustainable development worldwide. The German-Afghan is at home here, and without his help, German aid workers would have had a hard time getting established here. The GTZ has given the village over 50 snowy white sheep. Wool from these animals will be used in the looms that will produce the carpets. It took a great deal of effort and expense to drive the bulky looms by truck from the valley down below. The first carpets are due to be sold in the beginning of the coming year, and this should improve conditions in the village.

"Eight out of ten men here are without regular work," says the village elder, "and we hope that the business with the carpets will improve our situation." The farmers speak very openly. Earlier they would have planted poppies. But they say that the governor announced a ban on cultivating the flowers, which they gradually complied with. However, the promised compensatory payments were never made.

From the land of "infidels" to the land of light

For two months, a hundred women were trained to work the looms. "This was hard to swallow for some of the men," says Basir, "because they live in a traditional society that eyes such things with suspicion." Although women also work in the fields, none of them are present during the ceremony to mark the opening of the carpet workshop.

The lives of men and women were not always so starkly separated. The people in Dare Noor have cultural ties with the nearby province of Nuristan. It wasn't until the late 19th century that the region was Islamisized. At the time, local inhabitants believed in more than one god, and the region was called Kafiristan, land of the infidels. After Islam came to the region, it was given the name Nuristan, land of light.

photo: Martin Gerner
Haji Mahboob points his stick toward the adjacent province of Kunar, where the Taliban, government troops and the US military often clash

​​ Jet fighters can be heard overhead. "Amerikai" – Americans, says Mahboob, and points to the mountainous ridge on the other side of the valley. "Over there begins Kunar province. In some villages there are Taliban and a few members of Al Qaida," he says, indicating an area that is only about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away as the crow flies. And is his village threatened by the air strikes?

Language as a protective barrier

On the other side of the valley in Kunar the people speak Pashto, on this side the language is the local dialect of Pashayi. The linguistic barrier acts as an invisible protective wall, explains Mahboob.

Basir recalls one encounter he had with Islamists. "Recently, two mullahs came to the village. They were from the area, but they had received their religious training in Koran schools in the Pakistani border area. They wanted to teach us about political Islam. We had a heated debate. I based my arguments on the advantages of economic development. That convinced the members of the village. Things have been calm since then," he says with relief.

Civilian casualties

The next morning there are reports on the radio about a new attack in Kabul and the mistaken shelling of a wedding by the US Air Force in Nangarhar province. The bearded men sitting around me shake their heads.

They are unsure exactly what military strategy the US military and ISAF is pursuing. None of those whom I spoke with favors an additional deployment of foreign troops. Instead, they are growing increasingly skeptical with each incident involving civilian casualties. In one of the most recent air strikes in the province of Heart, western military forces even had to admit that they had grossly underestimated the number of victims, including many women and children.

Strange researchers from Germany

photo: Martin Gerner
Inhabitants of the Dare Noor Valley listen to the radio in the morning as news spreads of a new terrorist attack in Kabul and on civilians in Nangarhar

​​ A village square in Dare Noor has been graded. "On two occasions the villagers have been promised a school for their children, says Basir's brother Ali, "but the provincial government has not kept its promise." The air of discontent is very palpable. If the development is so sluggish, says one man, then they will have to resort to civil protest and block the access roads to the village. He says that there is simply no excuse for sending the bulk of financial aid to those regions where there is heavy fighting. There are no statistics to back this up, but people are clearly disappointed.

The people in Dare Noor trust the Germans. But the most recent visit to the village has puzzled them. Two German university departments have sent an observer to take soil samples and bring back flora and fauna from the mountains. The residents of Sutan Lam were slightly taken aback as they observed this strange spectacle. German scientists suspect that endangered species live here. There is even talk of establishing a natural park under UN supervision. But doesn't Sutan Lam have more urgent problems?

The German guest makes a dismissive gesture. He says that more attention for Dare Noor will result in a brighter future for the people in the village. Those standing nearby listen attentively, but don't say a word. All they can do is hope that at least this scenario will come true.

Martin Gerner

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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