BAMIYAN (Afghanistan), Nov 4: In a spectacular valley swept by centuries of Silk Road history, the hopes and fears of Afghanistan's only female governor capture the mood across the country as western troops prepare to withdraw.

Habiba Sarabi's hope springs from the transformation of Bamiyan province from a place of massacres and oppression of women under Taliban Islamists to one where most people live in peace and young girls flock to school.

It is fuelled by a belief that the historical, cultural and physical beauty of the central province could become a magnet for international tourists whose dollars would help support those gains.

The fear comes from the fact US-led Nato forces that have fought Taliban insurgents for the past 11 years will leave the country by the end of 2014 and all gains could be lost.

“If Nato totally makes the decision to withdraw I am sure a civil war will start,” she said in an interview in her modest office in Bamiyan town, where donkeys vie for space on the roads with cars and few weapons are in sight.

Aged 56, she remembers the bloody strife that engulfed Afghanistan in the 1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, when the West lost interest after backing the Afghan uprising against the Russians.

“If they repeat this mistake again it will be a disaster.” Bamiyan is home to the Hazara people and any chance of a return to power by the hardline Taliban — or even a share in power — is frightening, says Sarabi.

“The Bamiyan people suffered a lot during the Taliban. People can remember several massacres in Bamiyan and still we have mass graves here.” If Afghanistan is spared the disaster Sarabi fears, it is not inconceivable that her dream of turning the area between the magnificent Hindu Kush and Koh-e-Baba mountain ranges into an international eco-tourist destination could be realised.

If not for 30 years of war since the Soviet invasion of 1979, it would likely have already drawn travellers seeking new places to ski in winter and fly-fish for wild trout in summer, while rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of Genghis Khan and Marco Polo.Bamiyan's physical attractions include the sapphire-blue Band-i-Amir lakes, which rise magically within a jagged, barren mountainscape without a river in sight — now centre of the nation's first national park.

They lie about 75kms from Bamiyan town off a smooth new South Korean-funded highway which winds through canyons and crags of bleached ochres and past a plateau where a new airport is planned.

One of the few foreign visitors last week was retired Swiss businesswoman Ruth Mordasini, realising a lifelong dream of returning to a landscape and culture she first saw as a 21-year-old travelling through Afghanistan in 1969.

“Bamiyan is so beautiful,” she said. “But when I told my son and daughter I was going to Afghanistan they thought I was crazy. It is sad that nobody knows what the future will be.” Beyond the natural beauty lie centuries of turbulent history at a cultural crossroads of the old Silk Road trading route between Asia and Europe.

BRINGING CHANGE: Despite its violent past, Bamiyan has been one of Afghanistan's most peaceful provinces since the Taliban were overthrown in a US-led invasion in 2001 for harbouring Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In the afternoons, streams of schoolgirls in their distinctive black tunics and white headscarves can be seen making their way home, some heading for caves in the cliffs near the blasted Buddhas.

But the road to Bamiyan from the capital Kabul can be dangerous, with recent kidnappings and executions, and the safest way into the valley is a half-hour flight over the snow-capped peaks of the mountain ranges.

There are no commercial flights at the moment. Only the UN and aid agencies make regular trips — but, like everything else connected to Bamiyan tourism, there are plans for commercial flights, a new airport, new roads.

Tour operator Gull Bayzadah, who drew 74 international tourists — many UN and aid workers already based in the country — to ski in Bamiyan last winter, shares Sarabi's dream of developing the province's potential. But he also shares her fear about the departure of the Nato troops, and worries that deteriorating security might force him to abandon his business and leave the country.

When Sarabi allocated some shops in the main bazaar to women, creating an unheard-of mixed gender marketplace, the women were harassed by male shopkeepers and some quit.

Afghanistan has an estimated trillion dollars' worth of minerals buried in its harsh landscape, but their exploitation depends — like Bamiyan tourism — on peace once the Nato troops depart.—AFP