Footprints: Poverty amidst opportunity

Published August 2, 2015
IN the past, residents of Yakawlang district in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, have been able to band together to fill in when the government failed to provide even basic necessities. The Parjoiak hydroelectric dam is one example.—Photo by writer
IN the past, residents of Yakawlang district in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, have been able to band together to fill in when the government failed to provide even basic necessities. The Parjoiak hydroelectric dam is one example.—Photo by writer

WHEN they heard that a delegation of local and international officials would convene on Bamiyan province to inaugurate the eponymous capital as the Saarc cultural capital, the residents of Yakawlang district had little hope that the dignitaries would visit their impoverished area. No one made the journey to the district centre.

Hajji Haidar, 65, was not surprised.

“We listened intently to every word spoken by those who would come to comprise the national unity government,” said the paint shop owner. “Men and women turned out in droves to cast ballots for them, but not one has come to see us.”

Despite its strategic location, with access to Ghazni province to the south, Balkh province to the north, and Baghlan province to the east, residents say the district has long been ignored by the central government — even though it is one of the safest districts in the so-called ‘safest province’ of Afghanistan.

Residents point to the craggy, still unpaved road that cuts through the market, home to hundreds of shops, as proof.

Explore: Afghanistan's Bamiyan on frontline of warzone tourism

“If they didn’t come during the [presidential] campaigns, why would they come now,” Hajji Haidar told me.

Locals said that when officials have come, it has mainly been to pillage the district’s natural resources, namely the Zarin marble mine. The district is rich in minerals, including onyx, coal, iron and turquoise, but poor conditions and a lack of equipment means people are unable to exploit the riches surrounding them.

A source speaking on the condition of anonymity said that strongmen, not residents, profit. He used the decades-long illegal excavation of the Zarin marble mine, dating back to the resistance against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, as an example. “It’s been at least a year since it has been completely emptied,” he said.

The source, who has knowledge of individuals who provided the equipment and access for the illegal excavation, named Karim Khalili, former second deputy to then president Hamid Karzai, and Hajji Zahir Qadir, first deputy of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, as the main beneficiaries of the illegal mining. A Yakawlang resident who is in his mid-thirties, and refused to provide his name for fear of retribution, said he recalled the sound of the helicopters used to airlift the stone.

In 2013, industry experts estimated that illegal operations constitute between 60 and 75 per cent of the nation’s mining sector.

But it’s not just marble that could boost the economy.

Earlier this year, local residents asked experts about the prospect of coal excavation. They were told that excavation would require drilling 30 metres into the ground. The lack of suitable machinery and the almost entirely unpaved roads proved too large a hurdle for them to surmount without government or international assistance.

Orzala Ashraf Nemat, a researcher and human rights activist who has spent several years travelling to the district, said the local economy has been further devastated by the flood of foreign goods into Afghan markets. She explained that the influx of dairy and wheat products from Pakistan and Iran have had a crippling effect on local farmers.

Much of Afghanistan has faced an economic downturn and increasingly unemployment since last year’s presidential polls. Yakawlang residents fear that the economic dip could lead to insecurity in their otherwise peaceful district.

Hajji Mohsen, 67, said an ongoing dispute over the appointment of Dr Tahir Zuhair as the new governor means a further slowdown in the reforms he believes are needed to uplift the local economy.

For Hajji Haidar, who spent two nights as a prisoner of the Taliban in 2001, the recent increases in unemployment combined with “disorder” in the government is an especially dangerous prospect.

Recalling the Taliban slaughter of an estimated 300 people over the course of four days in January 2001, Hajji Haidar fears that a lack of economic opportunities could lead desperate residents to join the Taliban or even the self-styled Islamic State.

“If someone makes 3,000 Afghanis [$60] and the IS or the Taliban are offering 30,000 [$600], why wouldn’t someone fight alongside them?”

Earlier in the month, a former jihadi commander believed to be supported and financed by the IS was arrested in Bamiyan. Local officials said Ibrahim Fakoori and his fighters had been given between $25,000 and $30,000 per month and instructed to disrupt the Saarc festivities.

Nemat said it’s not just unemployment: “Often it’s merely just a matter of survival.”

In the past, Yakawlang residents have been able to band together to fill in when the government failed to provide even basic necessities. The Parjoiak hydroelectric dam, only a few kilometres from the district centre, is one example.

The dam, created four years ago when residents of five villages pooled their money and influence to convince the National Solidarity Programme (a project of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development which encourages local communities to identify, plan, manage and monitor their own development projects) to utilise the waterways around to provide power to residents. As part of an agreement between local residents and the private investors who operate and manage the dam, power is pumped to the market during the day and to homes at night. This scheme puts Yakawlang ahead of even the provincial capital, which still lacks reliable electricity.

However, Gholam Rassoul Mosfeq, the head of Yakawlang’s local NSP shura, said the people cannot continue to make up for the government’s shortcomings.

“What we have, electricity and security, was our own doing,” he said. “But how long can that continue at a time when people aren’t certain they will have an income tomorrow?”

Hajji Haidar, the paint shop owner, said the uncertainty caused by the lack of government attention over the last 14 years in some ways incites more fear than the brutality of IS.

“With Daesh, we know what will happen, they will kill us outright,” he mused. “But with the government we have faced a slow, drawn-out death. They take our land, our money and resources, all the while promising us the world.”

Explore: Bamiyan's ancient cave dwellings shelter homeless Afghans

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2015

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