As insecurity sweeps through Afghanistan, war escalates and tens of thousands flee, it is time to take a deeper look at the blind spot of much of the coverage: rural Afghanistan.
There are many perceptions of the horrors the people from Afghanistan go through daily. It is best to start by emphasising the danger endemic in the lives of Afghans from rural areas, who constitute the vast majority of the population of Afghanistan. Most notably, the children and youth tend to be victims of trauma and mental health issues as a result the intense warfare they witness everyday. The future of Afghanistan has been at risk for decades; the youth are unemployed, not knowing whether they’ll wake up safe or even survive the next moment. They are also financially insecure, with some choosing to illegally migrate overseas in hopes of a better life and support their families back home.
These are just a fraction of the terrors there are to speak about. What happens outside Afghanistan’s major cities goes barely noticed by anyone, even those residing within those cities, let alone the generally uninformed Afghan diaspora.
Education is scarce in rural Afghanistan. Much of the promised development projects were never completed due to corruption, and others were not even initiated. In my home province of Zabul, in Afghanistan’s south, I’m yet to see any work being done that warrants mention. In short, economic opportunity is virtually non-existent beyond a subsistence level, and there are no meaningful opportunities for material progress. This leaves only a few alternative, one of which is migration. The others includes joining the Taliban, or joining the militias, or arbakis, who have contributed to the ruination of much of Afghanistan’s youth. The arbakis are notorious locally for their corruption, their cruelty toward the local population and their violent tempers. They are also known for their deep involvement in the consumption and supply of drugs. In this, they are distinct from the Taliban; whilst the Taliban and officials in government are both involved in the drug trade, the Taliban are generally less inclined to consume those same drugs.
Then there are the long, dark and worrisome nights. The sun sets and the villagers return home from the day’s activities. Shops close down, farmers return from their fields and everyone returns home with fear. Life outside the four walls of people’s homes ceases to exist, just like the sunlight. In the distance, or in their vicinity, battles rage, barrages of bullets are heard, tank shells are fired and the smoke from the battlefield can be smelt, as the Taliban and the Afghan Army increasingly move to residential areas and streets to fight over the country’s future.
It isn’t uncommon for Afghans in rural Taliban territory to have never had electricity. To add to this, they’re fearful of using solar energy or flashlights to light up their homes at night. They’re all too wary of the fact that many Afghans met their premature ends by being blown to bits for lighting up their homes, becoming targets for American bombers flying overhead in the dark sky. Such was the case when I’d visit my grandparents. We would avoid even using the torch on our mobile phones. In the dark we would sit, barely able to see each other, eating, drinking tea and conversing. Such is the impact of war. Its tentacles reach every aspect of our lives.
Rural Afghans have no real human rights. Often time they can’t go to their farms during daylight hours, fearing they could get caught in the crossfire of battle and its resultant airstrikes. Other times, there are rumours of Taliban IEDs being planted alongside main roads aimed at Afghan Army convoys that often kill civilians too. The source of income and food for the farmers is left uncertain, whilst mothers anxiously await to see whether their sons will arrive home safely, in one piece. Literally.
Neither is it safe to travel by road to a neighbouring city. Night is when the roadside battles pick up their ferocity, as the Taliban fire from the mountains and the army encamp themselves in their checkpoints. Neither party trusts the civilians as they can’t tell who belongs to which side. In case of a medical emergency, most have to wait until the morning to take a sick person to the hospital. Going out at night means even greater danger.
Even if one manages to get to the main road, there aren’t any vehicles for them to get a lift. Motorcycles, on the other hand, are generally banned in the cities, having become notorious for being preferred by the Taliban to conduct drive-by attacks or assassinations. In Taliban territory, riding a motorbike will be viewed with suspicion, as the fighters usually accustomed to riding them are prone to viewing them with excessive paranoia as a threat. In any case, it isn’t just the Taliban or Army who haunt the roads, but the bandits in between looking to loot vehicles and often time killing those who don’t comply with little hesitation. As if that weren’t enough, there is the odd case of wolves roaming around, which make shepherding in the winter months exceedingly dangerous.
Whether night or day, rural Afghans live in darkness. The future remains for them just as bleak as their recent past. Outside the safe zones of provincial and district centres, there is no law on the land. The land belongs to no one and is available for the taking, in which rural Afghans lay at the mercy of one or the other side. This is the reality outside the major cities. When the sun sets, everything and everyone is up for grabs.
In the coverage often relating to Afghanistan, these realities are not remotely interesting enough to warrant any sort of mention. The tears of the mother, the anxiety and pain of a father, the frustration of the maimed child and the fearful, huddled together families are not important for global media. The coverage simply doesn’t care.
Nevertheless, through their perseverance and lack of alternatives, the same rural Afghans rarely sit complaining about their lives or envying others. They continue on with their lives, with little choice, and live to whichever extent the circumstances, groups, politicians and commanders around them permit.
Afghanistan isn’t perfect, but it was given to us by God, who has planned everything, endowed us with the passion in our hearts and implanted in us the love for our homeland. It is He who has beautified Afghanistan, granting its people resilience and hope. Ultimately, Afghan lives don’t end when we die. They end when we lose belief.