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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2006, 17:36 GMT
A city reborn: Five years in Herat
Qadir Assemy
Qadir Assemy spent the Taleban years in Herat
The city of Herat in western Afghanistan has experienced five years of relative calm since the fall of the Taleban, compared to the turmoil of the south.

But it still faces many challenges and these provide an insight into the life of a typical Afghan city.

Dr Qadir Assemy, a native Herati, considers whether the last five years have restored Herat's fortunes.

HERAT'S PAST

The violent history of Afghanistan has not left Herat untouched.

I was born in a village outside Herat in 1973. By the time I was two my family had fled for neighbouring Iran because of revolution and civil war.

I was 19 when I returned to Herat. Most of the houses were collapsed and we had to stay in small, old compounds.

Despite civil war, I managed to get through Herat Medical School.

Herat map
But the situation changed dramatically when the Taleban swept up from the south. In my culture anyone called a "Taleb" is a deprived, poor man with nowhere to stay but a mosque. For us, talking about a Taleban who could lead a society or capture a city like Kandahar sounded unbelievable.

And then we came to realise that these people were not the Taleban in the way we always understood it. Overnight, we were told the Taleban were going to take Herat. Overnight, everything changed.

Schools were banned for girls, there was no media, no television, music, western clothes - I could not wear jeans anymore. We had to grow beards and my female classmates, teachers and lecturers were not there anymore.

I do not believe that Europeans have lived like this; to have an illiterate guy stop you at a checkpoint and hurt you for having a tape in your vehicle or asking why your beard is not appropriately long is awful.

Health of the city

Providing medical care under the Taleban was not easy. The hospital that I later helped to run, was only a tiny clinic at that time.

Clinic in Herat
Dr Assemy spent years managing a small clinic in Herat

No male doctors were allowed to work in the female wards. There were only two female doctors so women waited for ages to get proper care.

There were so many challenges. A doctor and a nurse who set up a private clinic were punished by the Taleban by being tied to a tree outside the hospital. The doctor was a very old man.

When violence was rife wounded people from the opposition to the Taleban came to the hospital. Then the special forces would come to get them. Later, their dead bodies would be hanging from trees.

Many good doctors left to set up shops in the bazaar.

HERAT'S PRESENT

Herat today is totally different.

EDUCATION IN HERAT TODAY
Population: 249,000
Schools: 585
Net primary school attendance: 73.7%
Net primary school girls' attendance: 67.6%
Female literacy rate: 27.5%

Sources: Unicef and Afghan government
It borders Iran and Turkmenistan and as with any border city there is movement and life; markets selling Iranian and Chinese goods as well as traditional Herati carpets.

Healthcare and living conditions have dramatically improved. There are a lot of private clinics and labs with relatively sophisticated diagnostic machines. Health facilities have been opened up in remote areas.

Traffic is heavy in the morning when people rush to work. Kindergartens, primary schools, universities all function well.

Friday is the only day off in Herat and many people go to Friday prayer. It is the picnic day as well. If weather permits, many inhabitants try to get out of the city.

Wedding halls are all over the place and they are known to be the most common cause of traffic jams

Herat is a city dominated by Persian culture from Iran. So much of Afghanistan has hybrid cultural influences. There are many lyricists, writers, and editors living here.

Many roads are paved and we have pine trees growing along our streets.

Life for women

Herat was always a conservative city and it still is. Women are free to do what they want in terms of shopping, driving, going to exercise clubs. But in reality, I think many women are too insecure. Many still use the burka - including my wife and my mother.

Women in burqa
Dr Assemy's wife and mother prefer to wear the burka

They feel more comfortable hidden underneath and so not receiving comments from nasty men.

But there are now more political parties and organisations trying to provide room for women to grow up and find their own place in society.

Still there are taboos from the past when it comes to letting females out of the house. More women want to be independent and brave enough to break down these taboos. I somehow feel, though, that they have a long way to go.

THE FUTURE FOR HERAT

Security is key to the future of Herat. The city is now probably safe enough to get out of your house in the middle of the night and drive about.

HERAT: 'PEARL OF AFGHANISTAN'
Herat was probably first settled 5,000 years ago
Greek historian Herodotus called it the "breadbasket of Asia" in the 5th century BC
Herat was a major city of Khorasan, the ancient Persian empire
Known as 'Florence of Asia' in 14th and 15th centuries

But people do get caught at the wrong place and the wrong time. Criminal incidents are frequent. There are car thefts, break-ins, prostitution and, more rarely, abduction.

The Taleban is not so much of a threat here. They were never really accepted by the local population. There was such an irrational and ruthless attitude towards Persian speakers in Herat - that I would like to compare it to the Holocaust. Anything belonging to local culture, beliefs and traditions were to be got rid of.

But the issue of warlords is more complex. Over the past five years many have got into the government structure even though some are still responsible for illegal taxes, harassment, revenge operations and armed gangs.

Over the past five years, many warlords have got into the government

I do have hopes for Herat.

In Persian literature, the dusk in Herat is praised for its good spirit. I would like others to enjoy it one day.





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