In a Bamyan world...
Words and pictures by Aidan Radnedge
A glaring youth leaned in, his pistol aimed squarely between the eyes before he pulled the trigger and he careened off in delirious delight, windmilling his gun haphazardly at the sky.
Not for him the panic felt by the wary elders, who were crammed into the nooks and crannies which are etched into the imposing mountains of Bamyan in Afghanistan. Mothers attempting in vain to corral their runaround kids had only just been describing how volleys of gunfire during recent festival celebrations were enough to send them into panic.
This spectacular setting, 80km from the capital Kabul, remains haunted by a brief yet bloody reign by the Taliban a decade ago. It may be peaceful now, with insurgent bases driven far away, yet families who watched and even cradled dying loved ones remain on anxious alert.
At least, the older members of these families do. The gun-toting youngster is not necessarily included. He was, however, only two years old, the firearm gleefully wielded just a toy, and it would be harsh to deem it malevolent behaviour when it was merely mischievous. His antics, though, and those his fellow kids scrambling harum-scarum up and down the slopes and around the legs of their British visitors, felt all the more striking in such circumstances.
It's the end of a ten-day trip to the still-just-about-war-torn country, visiting refugee camps in Kabul as well as the heroin-haunted Balkh province on the Afghan side of the Uzbek border, and Bamyan had almost been missed out in between these stops.
The beguiling landscape of these parts had looked a highlight on my original schedule, only to fall foul of the logistical challenges faced by organising charity Islamic Relief UK. In the end, a fortunately unfortunate snowstorm cancelled flights out of Kabul and newly-overhauled plans allowed a Bamyan diversion after all.
From the helicopter, swooping over and spearing through the snow-streaked mountain passes approaching Bamyan’s sparse excuse for an airbase, the peaks looked like a bizarre, huge chocolate and ice cream dessert. These views contrasted with the dustier, chalkier slopes as seen up-close, in which an estimated 200 families have chivvied away to fashion steeply-rising, basic hideouts.
Many memories were formed from these travels through a nation belatedly coming to the end of a beyond-unlucky 13 years of Western-imposed war. And for what? Many more years of division and anxiety? The beaming Bamyan women now enjoy a few remedial literacy classes or learn how to start small embroidery businesses, even as their haunted husbands remain taciturn and scarred.
At the hotel, the guards stand with AK47s slung around their necks, stood next to traditionally-attired and customarily keen-to-please bellboys. Elsewhere, ragged families are crammed into caves – whether against a Bamyan horizon, a smoggy Kabul sunset or an Uzbek border with a wall displaying an election poster next to football graffiti declaring: “Messi”.
Perhaps the most jarring moment came when driving back to one temporary base in Bamyan after an afternoon hearing from sorely-afflicted and fearful women envisioning fresh fundamentalist restrictions. There was a surreal juxtaposition as the driver instinctively crooned along to the song coming from his in-car cassette player. All together now: ‘I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world...’
Bring that battle right on – burqa vs Aqua. Well, do ya feel lucky, punk…?
Find out more about the work of Islamic Relief UK