National Geographic Croatia, May 2004

Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, the city on the river with the same name, at the altitude of 1800m, what makes it one of the highest capitals in the world, is not a favourite tourist destination nowadays. It is still de facto war affected area, but a big construction site as well. And among the builders of new Kabul, Croats play the important role …

News of incidents in Kabul awaited me in Istanbul. I had just gathered all information, permits, and documents necessary for me to enter the country, when I received a message from Hari Brkljačić, commander of the Croatian military mission for the defense of peace and security as part of multinational forces there. He wrote about two most recent attacks by suicide bombers in which two soldiers died and at least ten people were wounded. The tree-day Islamic holiday of Kurban-Bajram was near, and according to beliefs of religious extremists, it is a period when all those who sacrifice for Allah go straight to heaven. He also told me that because of this holiday, all military units are at the highest state of alert and readiness, and that he won’t be able to be my host in the Croatian base nor will he be able to offer me the shelter and security that we had previously arranged.

In the capital of Afghanistan, the home of some two to four million people, danger lurks from three sides. First of all, there are the Taliban supporters, who are still hiding in the hills surrounding Kabul and sometimes throw missiles at the city. Then there are suicide bombers, who sometimes blow themselves up in front of groups of foreigners, preferably soldiers. Thirdly, there are the occasional poor or angry residents who attack foreigners and kidnap, rob, and murder them. “When you are in Afghanistan you have nowhere to run! But you don’t have any reason to hide either!” Hari said to me.

My adventure already started in the flight for Kabul. Traveling with Ariana Airlines, the only company that flies civilians to Afghanistan, I sat on a torn bus seat in an airplane that British Airways had stopped using back in 1960. A bearded Afghan man took up the role of host in the airplane. There were no instructions about flight safety, and the only service we received was a cup of green tee prepared on an open flame.

The first impression of the devastated Kabul landscape led me to that city’s more recent history. Twenty four years of war had left scars on almost every step of the way. When king Zahir-Shah was ousted by a coup in 1973, after a long reign, everything went downhill from there. The era of peace and stability, freedom of expression, equal rights for men and women, and bloom of tourism, ended. Five years later, a civil war broke out, then soon after the Soviets arrived, then the Mujahedini, then the Taliban with their draconian, reactionary, and aggressive worldview, and then intervention of The Alliance after 9/11…

This devastated land is crying for peace. But “peace” in Afghanistan has always been a relative concept. Once again, the Taliban had taken over the southeast region of the country. ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) controls just a narrow radius around Kabul, where explosions are a daily occurrence. In the north of this land, fractions of the Mujahedin are warring against each other.

With this in mind, daily life in Kabul seemed ironic. Traffic jams, crowds at the open market, laughter coming from tea houses, loud music from small shops, and here and there a passer-by squatting and leaning against a wall to enjoy the warm winter day. I was walking through this world, amazed, when I heard two bombs explode. Following my instincts, I jumped into a nearby store, where everyone started laughing at me. “Are you new here?” A man with mustache smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “Relax and enjoy! Compared to what happened here about two years ago, this is nothing! This is the time of peace for us.”

And really, only one day spent on the streets of Kabul is enough to understand that for Kabul the time of peace, the time of change and of slow improvements, have come. Women in traditional gowns, “burka”, which cover them from head to toe, walk through the streets more and more, for they can now go out freely. There is also an increasing number of women who choose to uncover their faces. It is not uncommon to see a woman in modern, western clothes, with her hair down and some make-up on.

Dark-skinned and slim Wahida, with a fragile yet elegant composure and a gentle voice, opened the first beauty parlor immediately after the end of the Taliban rule. “In the beginning, I didn’t have many customers, maybe one every week or two,” Wahida said. “Female beauty is still taboo. Women who decide to reveal their faces are exposed to the greatest insults, or even to acid attacks! But women are becoming more open, and now we have about 2000 regular customers, and the numbers are growing!”

Many men, especially young men, could hardly wait to shave their beards that had been mandatory during the Taliban rule. Ideal male beauty is a smoothly shaven face, with a short mustache.

Night life has also flourished. Shar-e-Naw Street on Thursday nights resembles a downtown of any world capital. Music blasts and the smell of fast food spreads through the air. People spend hours in lines, waiting to buy tickets for movie shows, and flashing commercials blare through the desert night. If there is electricity, of course. If not, then the generators are turned on, so Kabul’s noisy night gains one more background hum in its general crowd and confusion.

After the “overlander” movement and travels to the east in the 1970s, Kabul hasn’t seen tourists. Most of the foreigners in Afghanistan were humanitarians, journalists and businessmen. Now it is possible to see small groups of Japanese tourists with constant looks of wonder on their faces, as they walk among the ruins of the king’s palace and stop for a photo. Although all tourist attractions have been destroyed, construction cranes are slowly becoming an attraction and symbol of the new Kabul. One-story cottages made of mud, half destroyed in the war, are now being leveled, and big cement buildings are being built in their place. Although the changes are coming slowly, Kabul is being built.

Far from their homeland, Croatians are also participating in this change. Most of them belong to the military police – the first Croatian armed unit to travel to an international peace mission as part of the ISAF mission. There are forty such mission units and their tasks are numerous. They train and help the Afghanistan National Army and police that is waking up from the war chaos and is trying to get reorganized. During that time, Croatians and other members of the ISAF Kabul Multinational Brigade are doing regular police work throughout the entire city. They take care of anything from investigations of traffic accident scenes to security of public gatherings and cultural events.

An interesting ISAF project that Croatian soldiers participate in is the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration) project. One of the legacies of these many years of war is the fact that almost every family has a whole arsenal of weapons, and that most men have fought in many of the fractions. By disarming them and offering them the chance to reintegrate into society through civil activities is an important step in building long term peace and stability. After they turn in their weapons, ISAF offers them several alternatives: funding for education, financial help for starting a business, or inclusion in a demining program.

Mines are also a great problem left over from the war. In the entire region of Afghanistan, more than 10 people a day die from exploding mines. Kabul is considered the city with the most mines in the world, since 40 percent of the wider city territory has not been cleared yet. This often poses a problem for Croatian soldiers as well. One of their tasks is to find terrorist bases in the hills around Kabul from where the city is being attacked, and the paths leading to them are still covered with mines. Luckily, all the Croatian military missions in this region so far have ended well with no injuries, and our soldiers are well respected in Kabul.

In addition to their military duties, Croatian troops also initiate and carryout several humanitarian actions. During regular patrols, Croatian troops saw the misery of the local population, and they could not remain indifferent. So they organized their first action when they saw barefoot and hungry children walking through the snow in a Kabul suburb. Lieutenant Damir Princip, the initiator of this action, described his feelings while explaining where the greatness of the Croatian soldiers lies. “When we had crossed mine fields to find where terrorists were storing their weapons, we could have gotten blown up at any moment, yet I didn’t even think twice about that. But when we saw a barefoot four-year-old standing on the cold stone in the middle of the snowy winter, I wasn’t ashamed to let tears flow.” His emotional impulse wasn’t without result.

Several days later, Croatian soldiers came back to the same spot with four tons of clothes, shoes, blankets, school supplies, and food. Many remember the war days in Croatia and are full of compassion for the people in Kabul.

The Croatian military camp in Kabul is like an oasis covered in symbols from the homeland. The walls of a little house that serves as a living room for the soldiers are covered with tourist posters of Croatian cities. Croatian television is watched by satellite, and in this air-conditioned room, Dalmatian and Slavonian music often fills the air. In their free time, new issues of newspapers and magazines from the homeland are read, or card games such as Bela or Briškula are played. The soldiers, however, are not satisfied with the food in the camp, so on Fridays they prepare Croatian meals, such as barbeque, mussels, or Slavonian stew. When that isn’t enough, they try to organize a visit to Restaurant Zadar in Kabul’s center.

“I’ve been here for six months, but I’m not as nostalgic as many of the Croatian soldiers are,” tells Saska Galic, a Croatian who owns “Zadar”, a restaurant in Kabul. “In the absence of their mom’s cooking, they come to me for homemade soup with noodles, cooked vegetables, smoked ham, and slivovitz.”

When her husband got a job in Afghanistan, Saska came with him and opened a restaurant with authentic Croatian food. She did everything by herself: she painted the walls, connected electricity, sewed the tablecloths, and even coached people who work for her on how to cook, serve food, and clean. Six months later, when her investment started paying off and she started collecting the first fruits of her labor, she still does everything by herself: she gets groceries and wood for heating, and it is not unusual to see her cooking and serving food to her customers while the cook and the waiter are resting.

“Although I give them wages that are two times greater than the best paid doctors in Kabul, they still goof off!” Saska says while describing Afghans. “But they love me! In the beginning they tried to fool me and take advantage of me, thinking, ‘woman, blond’, but when they saw how this wasn’t working, they started apologizing loud and clear!”

Since she is regularly in contact with Afghans, Saska has developed her own special impression of them. “These people are extremely nice and hospitable, but they rarely keep their promises. Differences among them are a result of the standard. Money spoils people throughout the world, hence here too. He who literally has 5 afa (about a dime), would give you everything, while the most wealthy among them would just look to see where and how they can cheat you and make more money off of you!”

This easy tempered woman from Zadar mostly has foreign customers. Because her restaurant became one of the most appreciated gathering spots for foreigners, and sometimes also for the diplomats, it is on the list of easy targets for attack. But Saska says simply: “I’m not afraid. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be!”

Apart from her, several other Croatians decided to try their luck in the hospitality business in Kabul. Stanko Dunatov, also from Zadar, opened up three pizza- places and Ana Pongrac from Vinkovci, who was until recently the only woman who drove a car in Kabul, opened up a little hotel “Chez Anne.” Several Croats also work in different UN programs. Tina Ivankov, also from Vinkovci, helped build 300 new schools as part of one of the programs. Dr. Gordana Tanasković, an anesthesiologist whose many patients are mostly mine victims, also lives here. There are also more Croats in companies such as the Ecologist, Oxfam, IOM and others, and all of them, more or less directly contribute to building of the new Kabul.

In the center of Kabul, every business has its own street that is named after it. Butcher Street is full of stands upon which are hung bloody pieces of animal carcasses. Flower Street looks like the most kitschy botanical garden in the world, and all of the flowers there are fake. But Chicken Street has nothing to do with chickens. This street was well-known in 1960s and 1970s when it was a travel center of Afghanistan. Hippies and overlanders used to stay in cheap hostels there, and in basements, the forbidden fruit of night life was consumed. On the street alone, one was able get cheap hashish, Russian alcohol, or Chinese escorts from traditional rug merchants. Today not much of this remains, except for a few souvenir and fake antique stores, which are not making that much business.

After this, we went to the bazaar that stretches along the only river in Kabul – which is dried and filled with trash. As in every large Asian bazaar, everything can be bought there, from needles to elephants. The most interesting part of the bazaar is the so called money market. In a small street, which is strictly guarded by the police, are tables covered with coins of various currencies. Although such a system of money exchange seems primitive, these businessmen were the first people in Kabul to have satellite telephones!

Since Friday is the only day in the week when some sorts of sports are organized, we went to see that. Cock fighting was underway in an area that had been the grand garden of the first Mogul Czar Babur Shah in the 16th century. On a plateau behind the ruined mosque “King With Two Swords,” there were bloody dog fights going on. On the Olympic stadium, which was used for public executions in the time of the Taliban, the traditional horse-game “buzkashi” was going on when we passed by. In it, two teams fight for a trophy – a headless sheep carcass. The spectacle demands special skills because the player sometimes has to lower himself on the back of the horse to grab a heavy piece of sheep carcass. Especially skillful players of this game are even considered heroes among their people. Brutal games, in which animals are the only victims, tell of the fact that Afghans don’t care much about them. We were convinced of that in the Zoo also, which is probably one of the worst ones in the world. In it, there are only a couple of skinny animals in small cages: two lions, two bears, a wolf, a pig, a vulture, and a couple of rabbits and pigeons. But to the people of Kabul, going to the zoo is one of the favorite ways to pass time and on Fridays more than 10,000 people visit the zoo. Most of them gather in front of the tomb of the late Marjan the Lion, famous for the fact that he ate a Taliban supporter eight years ago, who was trying to prove his courage by entering its cage. The brother of the killed Taliban threw a grenade into the lion’s cage, but he only wounded the lion. This proud lion, the hero of the zoo and an example of Kabul’s endurance, survived through the invasions of Russians, Mujahedins and the Taliban rule. In the end he died a natural death at an old age.

On the second morning I visited Mohajarin, one of the many refugee camps in Kabul. During the war, more than four million people escaped to neighboring countries and even more were displaced within Afghanistan. The living conditions in Mohajarin are minimal: there is no electricity, no water in the bathroom facilities, and many families live in UNHCR tents. These tents are the only help that these people receive from the international communities. That’s where I met Abdul Razeg, whose optimistic view of Kabul reality surprised me, considering his living conditions. The 30-year-old, who supports eight brothers and sisters, a ill mother, a wife, and a child with about $60 a month, came to the camp 13 years ago, when the Mujahadins destroyed his property in a fertile valley north of Kabul. “Our lives are slowly getting better,” Abdul said. “Before we could hardly survive, and now I can already build a house for my family. Inshallah (with God’s will) we might leave our tents before the rainy season.”

The second family that I visited in the same camp-site didn’t have such a happy story. The young-looking mother and father lied sick on the dirt floor of the tent and four small children were running around. While they told me how nobody in their family works, and how they depend on the voluntary contributions from their neighbors, a small girl entered the tent, carrying two canisters full of water. Fourteen year-old Hanifa Halil is the oldest child in the family, so she has a lot of different duties. Her work day starts early in the morning when she goes to get water that is one kilometer away. When she fills the 30-liter barrel, she goes to collect paper, cardboard and other flammable trash with which she can build a fire to keep her family warm. Collecting trash is a hard job that takes a long time. One has to collect enough because paper burns fast and the night is long and cold. If she has time left, she goes to the city to beg. Because Hanifa is the only member of the family capable of working, her parents are not letting her get married, because then she would leave her family. They also don’t allow her to go to school, and that, she told me, is her greatest wish. “The public school is free, but it takes six hours a day and I don’t have time for it,” she explained. “I wanted to go to religious school which lasts for only two hours a day and my parents agreed, but Mula (the manager of the mosques and the school) asked for 40 afa (less than one dollar) per month, which I can’t afford.”

Despite the fact that Afghanistan is going through a new beginning and is entering a period of peace and improvements, one must not forget that it is still one of the poorest countries in the world. A country where half of the residents survive on less than one dollar a day. A country where people are still dying from hunger. Out of about 28 million residents, 57 percent are children who are less than 15 years old, and they make up the main work-force of very family. Though it was once strong and self-sufficient, the Afghanistan economy now relies on illegal production of opium, which makes about a third of the country’s GDP. With 3700 tons of opium that were made last year, Afghanistan covered more than 80 percent of the world’s market. A family which is in the opium business can make up to 3,500 dollars a year, which is 5 times more than what an average Afghan family makes. Still, it is only 0.5 percent of the profit that this opium, made into heroin, makes on the world’s market. At least eight percent is taken by the mafia and the government, and 12 percent goes to the countries through which the drug travels to reach its market. One of the heroin paths to the West European streets is called the Balkan arm and it goes through Croatia as well. Although the pressure of the international community on Afghanistan is great, the country doesn’t have the power or the will to solve the problem of opium production. Above all, the production is supervised by the warlords and their armies, which sometimes have several thousand men. Furthermore, two million Afghans live from this and the government cannot offer them an alternative.

The second highest income the country gets is through international aid which reaches up to 2 billion dollars a year. The foreign organizations employ a large number of local residents, they carry out projects that thousands of lives depend on, but they also put a big piece of the cake in their own pockets.

One humanitarian organization that is worthy of respect, is Caritas. Without much administration, they find ways to help those who need it most. During my last day in Afghanistan, I followed one of their actions in which 150 tons of food was distributed among 1600 widows.

The small, muddy street in a suburb of Kabul was crowded with hundreds of women in blue burkas. Organizers of the action randomly chose forty women who agreed to talk after they received food. I sat in a small, quiet room where the women, one by one, talked about their destinies. Deeply impressed, I swallowed every word that the interpreter whispered in my ear. Each time a new lady would come in the room, she would take off her veil. This was my first time seeing what is hidden behind those mystic curtains. In that room, all the symbols of Afghanistan in transition, unfolded. As much as a woman in a burka was a symbol of Afghanistan up until 2001, that much was her face revealed along with a burka a symbol of the new era.

A lady entered the room and took off her veil, revealing a beaten and bruised face.  She said that her father had beaten her when she had mentioned that she was going to the city for humanitarian aid, because he did not like the idea of her coming in contact with foreigners. She explained how she had no where to go, nowhere to escape from an abusive father that beat her often, and that she had to take care of seven children whom she could neither leave, nor take with her. Proudly and defiantly, she swore how she had had enough of life in a veil, and although her father still beat her, she refused to cover her face. For a new era has come, a time of change, she said, and each must contribute if willing to participate in that change.

She was quiet for a moment, and then repeated everything shortly and clearly, with words that rang in my ears throughout my entire time in Afghanistan, and that continued ringing long after I had left that anguished yet proud land: “I have no where to escape!” She said, “But I have no reason to hide, either!”