BAMIYAN: The people of Bamiyan raged against Black Hawk helicopters swooping too close to the empty niches that once held their colossal Buddha statues, blown up the Taliban in 2001, because the choppers’ thundering vibrations set off showers of the remaining fragments of mud and stones. By and large though they not only tolerated but welcomed the military base that until last month perched on the outskirts of their small town in the highlands of central Afghanistan.
“There are New Zealand soldiers, so there is no Taliban,” said Ibrahim Chaman, a mobile phone seller whose father was killed by the hardline group over a decade ago. “When they leave, the Taliban for sure will return.”
That affection made it an unusual, perhaps unique outpost in Nato’s web of sprawling camps and fortified outposts across the country, often resented by the people they aimed to protect.
Its closure in April was equally singular, with New Zealand’s head of state and what seemed like half the country’s government flown out on a Hercules military plane from Dubai, to say goodbye to a valley that has firmly etched itself into the consciousness of the distant nation.
Commanders of other bases have kept their demise low-key, with troops slipping away into the night, sometimes leaving piles of debris behind. By contrast, the late afternoon ceremony in Bamiyan was packed with journalists. After solemn tributes to 10 fallen soldiers, the gathering dusk echoed with optimistic speeches from officials highlighting improvements in healthcare, agriculture and education brought by foreign troops and their cash, and the growing strength of local security forces.
But when the New Zealand, Malaysian and US flags were lowered, leaving the Afghan flag fluttering alone as darkness fell, there was a sense that shadows of a more ominous kind were also gathering over the quiet valley.
Bamiyan is a magical place, where the ghosts of long-lost power and opulence haunt a valley of spectacular natural beauty.
Near the university lie the ruins of a citadel untouched since Genghis Khan sacked it in the 13th century, and although the giant Buddhas lie in fragments, frescos painted over a millennium ago still cling to corners of monastic caves that honeycomb the cliff around them.
It is also haunted by more recent spectres, memories of those killed in Taliban massacres barely a decade ago. Home to a heavily persecuted ethnic and religious minority, it has remained one of the safest places in Afghanistan, partly because the memory of that suffering fuels profound hostility towards the insurgency.
Mistrust of Afghans not from the local Hazara ethnic minority runs so deep that when the defence ministry was stationing troops across the country years ago, Bamiyan asked to go without. It is protected only by police, who in Afghanistan are usually recruited locally, and intelligence officers who will take over the New Zealand base.
That was fine when Afghanistan’s insurgency was largely contained, Taliban fighters still focused on areas like Helmand, and Bamiyan was left to its peaceful existence. It was probably the only place in the country where diplomats wandered freely and met Afghans beyond blast walls and security checks that constrict embassy life elsewhere. Even soldiers visited spectacular historical sites in the area, confident they would not be targeted, unthinkable on any other base I have visited in Afghanistan.
So great was the sense of security that Bamiyan was chosen by Nato to be the very first place in the country where Afghan forces officially took over from foreign troops, although the ceremony in 2011 was just a nominal shift to pave the way for real changes this year.
But since then the insurgency has spread and violence lapped steadily closer to this virtual island of calm, isolated by mountain peaks rather than water. First one, then both roads to Kabul became a dangerous lottery. The head of the provincial council, a popular man who had done much to help development in a desperately poor area, was abducted and slaughtered in 2011. A US engineer is among the many others killed on the roads since.
The security of the province itself was next to crumble, with fighters pushing in heavily from the east but also testing boundaries to the west. Half of the New Zealand troops killed in combat during the decade-long mission died last August in the Do Ab area bordering Baghlan province, and their April departure was six months earlier than originally planned.
For those left behind, the threat is tangible. “I don’t see any Taliban in Bamiyan, but when the foreign soldiers leave they will return and be strong,” said Haider Mohammad, a 37-year-old who sold souvenirs to New Zealand troops for six years. Watching as preparations for the farewell ceremony got under way, he added: “When they go, I will leave as well.”
On the base, there was almost an air of celebration after the handover. Soldiers barbecued a whole lamb and visitors clambered up a low blast wall for views to the niches where the Buddhas once stood. Gazing out at the starlit cliff that held the Buddhas, I remembered a man I had met in Bamiyan bazaar years earlier, infamous in the town because he had been forced as a prisoner to spend days stuffing dynamite into the giant statues. Blowing them up took days of hard labour, as other fundamentalists who had tried in vain years earlier found out. The Taliban were more persistent.
By arrangement with the Guardian