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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 September 2005, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Afghan village mirrors national plight
The BBC's Soutik Biswas spent Tuesday in an Afghan village, linking ordinary people there with BBC News website readers from all around the world who sent their questions on daily, rural life. Here he reflects on the day.

In seven hours sitting under a burning sun with only a slight wind blowing from the Hindu Kush mountains, replying to questions from strangers all over the world, Rahmat Gul - devout Muslim, father of seven children, teacher and vineyard owner - had not lost his cheeky sense of humour.

Soutik Biswas surrounded by young villagers from Asad Kyhl
Soutik Biswas found villagers with resilience and a sense of humour

When a reader from Turkey e-mailed in asking what single thing he would wish for if he had a magic wand, Mr Gul quipped: "I would like to marry an English woman. I am ready for a new wife."

Mr Gul was one of six residents of Asad Khyl, an arid, brown village of high-walled mud homes, cracked culverts, dry streams and shrubby vineyards in the rolling Shomali plains north of Kabul, whom I had chosen to take part in our live One Day in Afghanistan project.

We had lugged a laptop, a satellite dish, a generator, a table, a few chairs, garden umbrellas and miles of cables from Kabul to Asad Khyl to hook up live with the world so that our readers could have a live pow-wow with Afghan villagers.

Mr Gul's infectious humour, along with a sumptuous lunch feast, helped keep us going.

"Soutik brother, listen to me," he said once midway through the programme with a mischievous smile.

"Why is it so that I am only receiving questions from women around the world?"

Strong views

The Sunni Muslim Pashtuns, who make up some 42% of Afghanistan's population, are conservative and fiercely protective of their traditions and ethos.

Asad Khyl
Afghan history is written into the present of this arid village

So when I drove over a rocky road to Asad Khyl last week to try set up the programme with the villagers, I expected cynical responses and resistance.

Instead, I discovered a Pashtun village with a varied, interesting mix of resilient, outspoken and vibrant people, most with a great sense of humour.

There was the wise elder, practitioner of Islamic law, judge and a vineyard owner Haji Abdullah Saleh, a proponent of conservative Islam but also a strong believer that the nation will unite and prosper only when all of Afghanistan's men and women are educated.

"Poverty can be no excuse for not getting educated. If you have a will and you are talented, you can make it anywhere in the world," he said.

Mr Saleh spoke freely on Islam, terrorism, development, tradition, the economy, and warlordism in his country.

Only when a reader asked whether Osama bin Laden had given his country a bad name did Mr Saleh break into a big smile to ask: "Do you want me killed?"

There was the bright 18-year-old boy, Shukrullah, who dreams day and night of becoming an engineer to build roads.

The international community keeps giving money to poppy growers and criminals to win them over. What is the incentive for villages like us?
Haji Abdullah Saleh
Village elder

There was the shy 14-year-old Shaista who told me that if she did not become a doctor, life might not be worth living.

And in one small mud home, I found Lal Bibi, who looked infinitely older than her 45 years.

Her gnarled hands trembled as she spoke from behind a veil. Her husband went to war 12 years ago and vanished. They had been married for five years.

She said she would like to sew or wash clothes for a living, but nobody in the village could afford that. So she stayed home looking after her ageing mother.

"I don't think I am an unfortunate woman," she told me. "We believe in destiny. This was written in my destiny."

Unstable lives

Most of the 300 families who live in this bleak dun-coloured village are still depending on destiny to rebuild their lives, four years after the departure of the marauding Taleban and the end of the war.

Asad Khyl was a victim of the Taleban's infamous "scorched earth" policy and part of the fiercely fought battles between the advancing Taleban and the Northern Alliance in the late 1990s.

Asad Khyl boy with a bunch of grapes
Grapes would have formed a natural part of the local economy had war not intervened
The entire village fled northwards to Panjshir valley or to the fetid Kabul slums when the Taleban razed their homes, mined their irrigation systems and uprooted their vineyards and fruit orchards.

Shukrullah and Shaista go to rundown schools where there aren't enough tables, chairs, books or teachers.

Lal Bibi wants to work for a living, but there isn't any.

Gul Khan is lucky if he finds work 10 days a month after standing in the local bazaar.

No reward

In a way, Asad Khyl is a mirror to the flawed and skewed development of Afghanistan after the war.

With enough water, electricity, better schools and clinics, this could have been built into a model village. Wild vines, mulberries, and willow grow here; the breathtaking landscape would have been a tourist lure.

But there simply isn't enough water - the irrigation canals have not been repaired, the canals remain dry.

Then there is no electricity - very few villagers can afford to rent a line from a creaky generator which fires up once a day.

A lack of infrastructure and teachers means the local school must work in multiple shifts to accommodate the growing number of students.

There seem to be no rewards for such villages in Afghanistan.

"We never grew poppies, we never courted the Taleban, we lived by the law and our minds and lives were burnt by the war. Still, the international community just keeps giving money to poppy growers and criminals to win them over.

"What is the incentive for villages like us?" asks Haji Abdullah Saleh, as a hazy, brown dusk sets on the village.

What, indeed?



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