Theater of Cruelty

Samangan province has 438 inhabitants, spread over 000 communities that are without water, electricity or mobile coverage

AFGHANISTAN / We bring here Francesca Borri's reportage from Dara-i-Suf in Afghanistan – a land of families and alliances of families.


photo Francesca Borri

We can just make out a piece of cloth, then an elbow. Then we see a shoulder, it moves. Beneath the earth masses lies Ali Joumah, still alive. No one seems to care. It is not unusual here for something to collapse. When he comes into view, the headlamp is still on, and he looks at me, shaken. "I'll be in good shape again in a little while," he says. He came here on his own last week but doesn't want to go again. He is twelve years old.

Dara-i-Suf is a coal mining area. It's a completely different world. On the map it is not that far from Kabul, about 25 miles. But you have to drive north first, then back south, because even if the Americans spend 2300 billion dollars in Afghanistan, the roads are still gravel and mud. That is why it is a 19 hour drive from Kabul to Dara-i-Suf.

It is deserted. The road is carved out of the mountain sides and runs between streams and overhanging cliffs, it winds through the landscape like a silver sculpting. It is quiet, we only see hawks flying above us. It resembles a photograph from Sebastião Salgado, but the narrative itself is taken from one of Dickens' novels.

Samangan Province has 438 inhabitants, spread over 000 communities that are without water, electricity or mobile coverage. Here it's just coal. Just a spade and hoe. The changes are not due to today's Taliban, but to the sanctions that led the Afghans from poverty to starvation. Among the miners you see both children and adults – they come here from all over Afghanistan. .

The Shah brothers

Outside of Kabul, everyday life is largely as it always has been. Nadir Shah is 41 years old, but because life is so tough here, he looks 20 years older. He is a leader in the local community – this is a Western construct, as one might guess from the English word community platforms; elected by everyone, including women, and the kind of advocate that NGOs like to deal with. Except that none from one NGO has set foot in Dara-i-Suf.

"The international crusade for women's rights makes no sense. None of the Taliban's decrees are relevant here. We don't have parks, gyms, or offices we can ban women from, or trips that require a male patron. We also have no schools to close. But this is what makes us starve. To reopen schools we don't have," he says. "The first right is the right to stay alive."

“Ask anyone. Our priority is to build roads," says the brother. He has studied to become a pharmacist but is unemployed, while the third brother, who can barely read, has a job. What's the point of studying at university, he asks. "Without roads there is no economy, and without economy, how can we get the development we are talking about?"

Without roads, how do you get to a school? "Children pass out from hunger," he says. "And you want them to memorize tables and years?"

Never met a journalist

The village I am in has 1000 inhabitants. It really only consists of houses along a road, everything is mud and mud, both the road and the houses. The citizens quickly gather in the mosque. They have never met a journalist before. They have never been heard. They are sitting in front of me, some with yellow mining helmets, helmets with the logo of a UN aid organization, plastic helmets that look like toys, a helmet suitable for scooter use and not for mining. They have no other equipment.

He doesn't limp, because he didn't even get crutches. He drags himself off on the ground.

Those without a helmet are missing not only the helmet, but also a leg, a foot, a hand or an ear. They were injured and disabled after an accident. Hayatullah Rahimi is 25 years old. He started working at the age of 6 and lost a leg when he was 16. Since then he has had to manage without help. No treatment. His other leg lies lifeless on the floor. He doesn't limp, because he didn't even get crutches. He drags himself off on the ground. And he lost an arm too, because a fracture in the elbow didn't heal properly.

“But after all, those who die – two or three every week – they just die. They are not even counted. In Afghanistan, you are not even a number," he says. The only dead that are counted here and become statistics are NATO people.

"Work for food" – paid with flour, rice and oil

In addition to the disabled, there is a "Job for food" project. A scheme UN organizations resort to when they try to avoid strengthening the regime's power – sort of
community service. The payment is in flour, rice and oil, that kind of goods: "As if we are animals, with no needs other than a bowl of food," says Ahmad Ari (31), whose job is to smooth mud and clay until it resembles a road again. The local version of paving: "After all, there are sanctions and support at the same time. What kind of strategy is this?” he asks. Afghanistan receives $40 million each week; for 2023, the UN has asked for 4600 trillion dollars – the highest amount of money ever given to a single country. "We want investments, not alms. We want business operations, not NGOs," he says. "If not, in ten years we will still be exactly where we are today."

"You are so concerned about the burqa," he says. "But freedom is also freedom from want."

“Roosevelt. Does it ring a bell?” asks a man to his right. 'Freedom from necessity' was one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's four freedoms, a term for US foreign policy goals in 1941 and his New Deal. The man's name is Farhad Balkhi, he is 28 years old and has a master's degree in international law, and he is not the only top-educated miner: Of those I meet here, 56 have an academic degree. In the past they have had other jobs – before the sanctions, not before the Taliban. One worked as an engineer, another was a veterinarian. One worked as a surgeon, until his department was closed.

The US blocked

The US blocked the central bank's reserves, leaving Afghanistan's government with a deficit. The entire banking system was then blocked, to prevent capital from coming from abroad. "To Ashraf Ghani and his cronies, no, you didn't get a penny..." he says, referring to the last president who ran away – supposedly with 884 million dollars – when Kabul fell.

“But the worst thing is that these sanctions are toothless. Because they contain no specific requirements. If schools are to reopen, the Americans will say: First there must be a new election, first there must be a new government. So why should the Taliban give in?” he asks. “Introducing sanctions is much easier than bombing. But sanctions are a weapon. A weapon the Geneva Conventions prohibit, since they deliberately hit civilians," he says. “The truth is that the war has never ended here. You never left.”

Laila's eight-year-old son is no taller than a three-year-old child.

Many legal experts draw the parallel to nuclear war, since the sanctions also have a long-term effect on future generations – on a par with radioactive radiation. This mostly applies to Laila Naim, 34 years old, or maybe 36 – she is not sure, because there are no censuses or birth registers here. She has her eight-year-old son with her, he is no taller than a one-year-old child. On all sides there are mothers, sisters and aunts, all tending to thin, sickly-looking children. And craftsmen who worked before the crisis, those who worked from home as tailors, potters or were farmers. "But there are more important and more pressing matters than what the Taliban are dealing with. Did they fight for twenty years to be able to go around checking people's beards?” she asks.

Development program

Suddenly the whole thing becomes a kind of hospital with all imaginable diseases: People stick ID cards, X-rays and prescriptions in my pockets. Pill boxes. There is no hospital here. A visiting stranger is their only hope for treatment.

In addition to the "food for work" programme, there is a "cash for work" project, led by UNDP, UN development program. Unskilled workers get 400 AFN [Afghani, equivalent to NOK 50], while skilled workers get 700. The job consists of building a 120-meter long wall along a stream to prevent water from flooding the road when it rains, causing the road to disappear . Actually, we are talking about 120 meters of road, a road that disappears 120 meters further on anyway. And in the meantime, the workers not only get paid, but learn a trade. Skilled workers split stone with a hammer. Unskilled workers fill stone in wheelbarrows. There are 37 of them in total, all with 10-day assignments.

Dara-i-Suf - all roads lead to coal

Everything else here is coal. It includes what you might perceive as hill combs; there are piles of coal. There are over 8000 coal mines here. That's because they are traditional mines with narrow tunnels without any supporting structure, dug out with a shovel. And as solid as crumbling sand.

In Dara-i-Suf, all roads lead to coal. Any walkway that disappears into the ground is a dead end. You can look straight ahead, and in the end it's just a black hole, because it's a Sisyphus task after all: You climb down and you climb up, with no other options, down and up again, with a yellow helmet and sandals, either it is 40 degrees Celsius or minus 20. The salary is about 3 US dollars a day. Every day, year after year. For years they live here, in huts made of clay and straw, with old Soviet flags as protection from the wind. The parcel seal is in a shed next to it. Suddenly I realize that there is a miner in the shed, not a donkey, I hear it on the cough. Because the coal and coal dust are everywhere, including in the lungs. The first child I see gets off his donkey after almost 24 hours. I ask if all shifts are this long, and he replies, “Shift? What is a shift?”

The first child I see gets off his donkey after almost 24 hours.

There is no one else to be seen along the road, only miners. Workers and children coming from school. Because here they actually have a school. The boys sit on the right, the girls on the left. It's not that unusual. Of all the Taliban's decrees, the one about schools is the most debated, even among the Taliban themselves. So much discussion that many Afghans believe it is more about strategy than ideology – a bargaining chip against sanctions more than the will of the most conservative.

Even the Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaeen, has two daughters who attend school in Doha. Many schools are open anyway, but the schools may not look the way we are used to them – here there is only one classroom.

What else would you like? I ask the children. A soccer field? Toys?

Books, they answer. Because they have school, but they don't have books.

The name is Sayed Zahir

The international community is overwhelmed by the war in Ukraine and has yet to decide how to deal with the Taliban. They are seen as 'de facto authorities'. But outside of Kabul, the power structure is the same as it has always been. For more than being a country of citizens, Afghanistan is a country of families and family alliances.

In meeting with the governor we are not two but nine: the other seven are mashran – the elderly. It is mashran that resolves disputes and today's countless small matters, just as before. They rarely turn to the courts. Where, by the way, Sharia law is also the same as before. The governor is also the same as before. He was already a leader and was recognized – rather than appointed – by the Taliban. And he belongs to the Hazara ethnic group. The name is Sayed Zahir, and he has no doubts: A country with only men will not work. "But if you are poor, you have no voice. You don't have the time and energy to speak up," he says. That is why the UN and NGOs could have been so important here, he believes. “Instead, they show up with finished projects. We tell them that the most important thing for us is drinking water, and they reply that the funds are earmarked for teaching widows to produce organic jam."

Of the US aid, two-thirds went back to the US in the form of profits for US suppliers.

Of the US aid, two-thirds went back to the US in the form of profits for US suppliers.

"But what's the point of giving me this?" he asks and shows me an apple from the World Food Programme. “Here are ideal conditions for orchards, give me a tree. I'm not asking for much. You plant trees everywhere because of climate change. Can't I have one? I don't need anything more. A tree. Just one tree.”


Translated by Iril Kolle.

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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