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Limbs of No Body: The World’s Indifference to the Afghan Tragedy

Indifference to the Afghan Tragedy

The original version of this article can be found in The Iranian.

The chief casualty of any war is a sense of genuine, universal humanity. With the United States now at war in Afghanistan, humanitarian considerations are in short supply—except insofar as they can be used propagandistically to muster further support for a military strike. For this reason we have decided to publish here an edited and adapted version of an essay by Mohsen Makhmalbaj, which appeared in The Iranian (Tehran) on June 20, 2001, and is reprinted as follows with their permission. Makhmalbaj, who is Iran’s most celebrated film maker, and was a political prisoner under the Shah, has made such important films as The Cyclist and Kandahar-both about Afghanistan. The intimate portrait of Afghanistan that he provides here should not be read primarily as a political and historical document-in these areas it is clearly inadequate, for example in depicting the role of the United States in forming the Mujahedin in its war against the Soviets-but rather as a deeply moral and humanitarian account of the tragic circumstances of the Afghan people and the callousness of the West. It is thus a vivid portrayal of one of the world’s great human tragedies by one of its great artists-imparting a message desperately needed in our times.

The Editors

If you read my article in full, it will take about an hour of your time. In this hour, fourteen more people will have died in Afghanistan of war and hunger and sixty others will have become refugees in other countries. This article is intended to describe the reasons for this mortality and emigration. If this bitter subject is irrelevant to your sweet life, please don’t read it.

The World’s View of Afghanistan

Last year I attended the Pusan Film Festival in South Korea where I was repeatedly asked about the subject of my next film. I responded, “Afghanistan.” Immediately I would be asked, “What is Afghanistan?” Why is it so? Why should a country be so obsolete that the people of another Asian country such as South Korea have not even heard of it?

The reason is dear. Afghanistan does not have a role in today’s world. It is neither a country remembered for a certain commodity, nor for its scientific advancement, nor as a nation that has achieved artistic honors. In the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, however, the situation is different and Afghanistan is recognized as a peculiar country.

This strangeness, however, does not have a positive connotation. Those who recognize the name Afghanistan immediately associate it with smuggling, the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalism, war with the Soviet Union, a long-time civil war, famine, and high mortality. In this subjective portrait there is no trace of peace and stability or development. Thus, no desire is created for tourists to travel to or businessmen to invest in Afghanistan. So why should it not be left to oblivion? The defamation is such that one might soon write in dictionaries that Afghanistan can be described as a drug producing country with rough, aggressive, and fundamentalist people who hide their women under veils with no openings.

Add to all of that the destruction of the largest known statue of Buddha that recently spurred the sympathy of the entire world and led all supporters of art and culture to defend the doomed statue. But why did no one except UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadoko Ogato, express grief over the pending death of one million Afghans as a result of severe famine? Why doesn’t anybody speak of the reasons for this mortality? Why is everyone crying aloud over the demolition of the Buddha statue while nothing is heard about preventing the death of hungry Afghans? Are statues more cherished than humans in the modern world?

I have traveled within Afghanistan and witnessed the reality of life in that nation. As a filmmaker, I produced two feature films on Afghanistan within a thirteen–year interval (The Cyclist, 1988 and Kandahar, 2001). In doing so, I studied about ten thousand pages of various books and documents to collect data for the films.

Consequently I know of a different image of Afghanistan than that of the rest of the world. It is a more complicated, different, and tragic picture, yet sharper and more positive. It is an image that needs attention rather than forgetfulness and suppression.

But where is Sa’di to see this tragedy—the Sa’di whose poem “All people are limbs of one body” is above the portal to the United Nations?

News headlines matching a country’s name must always be checked. The image of a country presented to the world through the media is a combination of facts about that country and an imaginary notion that the people of the world are supposed to have of that place. If some countries of the world are supposed to be coveted places, it is necessary that grounds be provided through the news.

What I’ve perceived is that unfortunately in today’s Afghanistan, except for poppy seeds, there is almost nothing to spark desire. Thus Afghanistan has little or no share in world news, and the resolution of its problems in the near future is far–fetched. If like Kuwait, Afghanistan had oil and surplus oil income, it could also have been taken back in three days by the Americans and the cost of the American army could have been covered by that surplus income.

When the Soviet Union existed, Afghans received Western media attention for fighting against Communism. With the Soviet retreat and later disintegration, why is the United States, which supports human rights, not taking any serious actions for ten million women deprived of education and social activities, or for the eradication of poverty and famine that is taking the lives of so many people?

The answer is because Afghanistan offers nothing to long for. Afghanistan is not a beautiful young woman who raises the heartbeat of her thousand lovers. And we know that Sa’di was not speaking of our time when he said “All people are limbs of one body.”

The Tragedy of Afghanistan in Statistics

There has been no rigorous collection of statistics in Afghanistan in the past two decades. Hence, all data and numbers are relative and approximate. According to these figures, Afghanistan had a population of twenty million in 1992. During the past twenty years, about 2.5 million Afghans have died as a direct or indirect result of war—army assaults, famine, or lack of medical attention.

In other words, every year 125,000 or about 340 people a day, or 14 people every hour, or 1 in about every five minutes, have been either killed or died because of this tragedy. This is a world wherein the crew of that unfortunate Russian submarine was facing death some months ago and satellite news was reporting every minute of the incident. It is a world that reported nonstop the demolition of the Buddha statue.

Yet nobody speaks of the tragic death of Afghans every five minutes for the past twenty years. The number of Afghan refugees is even more tragic. According to more precise statistics the number of Afghan refugees outside of Afghanistan living in Iran and Pakistan is 6.3 million. If this figure is divided by the year, day, hour, and minute, in the past twenty years, one person has become a refugee every minute. The number does not include those who run from north to south and vice versa to survive the civil war.

I personally do not recollect any nation whose population was reduced by 10 percent via mortality, and 30 percent through migration, and yet faced so much indifference from the world. The total number of people killed and made refugees in Afghanistan equals the entire Palestinian population, but even among us Iranians our share of sympathy for Afghanistan does not reach 10 percent of that for Palestine or Bosnia, despite the fact that we have a common language and border.

When crossing the border at the Dogharoon customs to enter Afghanistan, I saw a sign that warned visitors of strange looking items. These were mines. It read: “Every twenty–four hours seven people step on mines in Afghanistan. Be careful not to be one of them today and tomorrow.”

I came across more hard figures in one of the Red Cross camps. The Canadian group that had come to defuse mines found the tragedy simply too vast; they lost hope and returned home. Based on these same figures, over the next fifty years large numbers of Afghans will step on mines before their land is safe and livable. The reason is because every group or sect has strewn mines against the other without a map or plan for later collection. The mines were not set in military fashion to be collected in peace. This means that a nation has placed mines against itself. And when it rains hard, surface waters reposition these devices turning once safe remote roads into dangerous paths.

These statistics reveal the extent of the unsafe living environment in Afghanistan that leads to continuous emigration. Afghans perceive their situation as dangerous. There’s constant fear of hunger and death. Why shouldn’t Afghans emigrate? A nation with an emigration rate of 30 percent certainly feels hopeless about its future. Of the 70 percent remaining, 10 percent have been killed or died and the rest (or 60 percent) were not able to cross the borders or if they did, they were sent back by the neighboring countries.

This perilous situation has also been an impediment to any foreign presence in Afghanistan. A businessman would never risk investing there unless he is a drug dealer, and political experts prefer to fly directly to Western countries. This makes it difficult to resolve the crisis that Afghanistan is faced with. This adds to the ambiguity of crisis in a country burdened with such an enormous scope of tragedy and ignorance on the part of the world. I witnessed about twenty thousand men, women, and children around the city of Herat starving to death. They couldn’t walk and were scattered on the ground awaiting the inevitable. This was the result of the recent famine. That same day Sadako Ogato also visited these same people and promised that the world would help them. Three months later, I heard on Iranian radio that Madame Ogato gave the number of Afghans dying of hunger to be a million nationwide.

I reached the conclusion that the statue of Buddha was not demolished by anybody; it crumbled out of shame. Out of shame for the world’s ignorance towards Afghanistan. It broke down knowing its greatness did no good.

In Dushanbeh in Tajikistan I saw a scene where 100,000 Afghans were running from south to north, on foot. It looked like doomsday. These scenes are never shown in the media anywhere in the world. The war–stricken and hungry children had run for miles and miles barefoot. Later on the same fleeing crowd was attacked by internal enemies and was also refused asylum in Tajikistan. In the thousands, they died and died in a no man’s land between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and neither you nor anybody else found out.

A Country with No Images

Afghanistan is a country with no images, for various reasons. Afghan women are faceless which means ten million out of the twenty million population don’t get a chance to be seen. A nation, half of which is not even seen by its own women, is a nation without an image. During the last few years there has been no television broadcasting. There are only a few two–page newspapers by the names of Shariat, Heevad and Anise that have only text and no pictures. This is the sum total of the media in Afghanistan. Painting and photography have also been prohibited in the name of religion. In addition, no journalists are allowed to enter Afghanistan, let alone take pictures.

At the dawn of the twenty–first century there are no film productions or movie theaters in Afghanistan. Previously there were fourteen cinemas that showed Indian movies, and film studios made small productions imitating Indian movies, but that too has vanished.

In the world of cinema where thousands of films are made every year, nothing is forthcoming from Afghanistan. Hollywood, however, produced Rambo about war in Afghanistan. The whole movie was filmed in Hollywood and not one Afghan was included. The only authentic scene was Rambo’s presence in Peshawar, Pakistan, thanks to the art of back projection! It was merely employed for action sequences and creating excitement. Is this Hollywood’s image of a country where 10 percent of the people have been decimated and 30 percent have become refugees and where currently one million are dying of hunger?

The Russians produced two films concerning the memoirs of Russian soldiers. The Mujahedin made a few films after the Soviet retreat, which are essentially propaganda movies and not a real image of the situation of the past or present–day Afghanistan. They are basically heroic pictures of a few Afghans fighting in the deserts.

Two feature films have been produced in Iran on the situation of Afghan immigrants, Friday and Rain. I made two films The Cyclist and Kandahar. This is the entire catalogue of images about Afghans in the Iranian and world media. Even in TV productions worldwide there are a limited number of documentaries. Perhaps, it is an external and internal conspiracy or universal ignorance that maintains Afghanistan as a country without an image.

Tribal Conflicts—Past and Present

Afghanistan emerged when it separated from Iran. It used to be an Iranian province some 250 years ago and part of Greater Khorasan province in the era of Nadir Shah. Returning from India, one midnight, Nadir Shah was murdered in Ghoochan. Ahmad Abdali, an Afghan commander in Nadir Shah’s army fled with a regiment of four thousand soldiers. He declared independence from Iran and thus Afghanistan was created.

In those days it was comprised of farmers and overwhelmingly ruled by tribes. Since Ahmad Abdali belonged to the Pashtoon tribe, naturally, he could not have been accepted as the absolute authority by other tribes such as the Tajik, Hazareh and Uzbek. Thus, it was agreed that each tribe would be governed by its own leaders. The rulers collectively formed a tribal federalism known as the Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga system reveals that not only has Afghanistan never evolved economically from an agricultural existence, it has never moved beyond tribal rule, and has failed to achieve a sense of nationalism.

An Afghan does not regard himself an Afghan until he leaves his homeland. Then he is regarded with pity or suffers humiliation. In Afghanistan, each Afghan is a Pashtoon, Hazareh, Uzbek, or Tajik. In Iran, perhaps except in the province of Kurdistan, we are all Iranians first. Nationalism is the first aspect of our perception of a common identity. But in Afghanistan all are primarily members of a tribe. Tribalism is the first aspect of their identity. This is the most obvious difference between the spirit of an Iranian and that of an Afghan. Even in presidential elections in Iran, the candidate’s ethnicity has no national significance and draws no special vote. In Afghanistan since the era of Ahmad Abdali until today, as the Taliban rule over 95 percent of the country, the main leaders have always been from the Pashtoon tribe. (Except for the nine months of Habiballah Galehkani’s rule known as Bacheh Sagha and the two years of the Tajik Burhannuddin Rabbani respectively, Tajiks have not otherwise held power.)

During the making of Kandahar while I was in the refugee camps at the border of Iran and Afghanistan, I realized that even those Afghan refugees who have lived in difficult camp conditions, did not accept their Afghan national identity. They still had conflicts over being Tajik, Hazareh, or Pashtoon. Inter–tribal marriages still do not take place among Afghans nor is there any business conducted between them. And with the most minor conflict, the danger of mass bloodshed prevails. I once witnessed the killing of a member of one tribe, by a member of another, in revenge for cutting in a bread line.

In the Niatak refugee camp (on the Iran–Afghanistan border) which accommodates five thousand residents, it is not easy for Pashtoon and Hazareh children to play with each other. This sometimes leads to mutual aggression. Tajiks and Hazarehs find Pashtoons their greatest enemy on earth and vice versa. None of them are even willing to attend each other’s mosques for prayers. We had difficulty seating their children next to each other to watch a movie. They offered a compromise wherein Hazareh and Pashtoon children took turns watching.

Many diseases were prevalent in this camp and there were no doctors. When a doctor was brought in from the city, the camp residents didn’t give priority to treating those who were most ill. Only a tribal order was accepted. They appointed a day for Hazareh patients and another for Pashtoons. In addition, class distinctions among the Pashtoons prevented them from coming to the clinic on the same day.

In shooting scenes that needed extras, we had to decide to choose from among either Hazarehs or Pashtoons, though all of them were refugees and both suffered the same misery. Yet, tribal disposition came first in any decisions. Of course, the majority were unfamiliar with cinema. Like my grandmother, they thanked God for not having stepped foot inside a movie theatre.

The reason for Afghanistan’s perpetual tribalism rests with its agrarian economy. Each Afghan tribe is trapped in a valley with geographical walls and is the natural prisoner of a culture stemming from a mountainous environment and farming economy. Cultural tribalism is the product of farming conditions rooted in the deep valleys of Afghanistan. Belief in tribalism is as deep as those valleys.

The topography of Afghanistan is 75 percent mountainous of which only 7 percent is suitable for farming. It lacks any semblance of industry. The country is solely dependent on farming, as grasslands (in non-drought years) are the only resources for economic continuity. Again, farming is the foundation of this tribalism that in turn is the basis for deep internal conflicts. This not only stops Afghanistan from becoming a modern country it also prevents this would–be nation from achieving a national identity.

There is no intrinsic popular belief in what is called Afghanistan and Afghans. Afghans are not yet ready to be absorbed into a bigger collective identity called the people of Afghanistan. Contrary to the misnomer of religious war, the origin of disputes lies with tribal conflicts. The Tajiks who fight the Taliban today are both Muslim and Sunni—as are the Taliban. The intelligence of Ahmad Abdali is yet to be appreciated for having created the notion of tribal federalism. He was smarter than those who fancy the ruling of one tribe over all others or one individual over a nation—when tribalism and the economic infrastructure was still intact. Pashtoons with a population of about six million make up Afghanistan’s largest tribe. Next are Tajiks with about four million people, and third and fourth are Hazarehs and Uzbeks with populations of about four million and one to two million respectively. The rest are small tribes such as the Imagh, Fars, Balouch, Turkman, and Qezelbash.

The Pashtoons are mostly in the south, the Tajiks in the north and the Hazarehs in the central regions. This geographical concentration in different regions will lead either to complete and final disintegration or the continued connection from the head of the tribe through the Loya Jirga system. The only alternative to these two scenarios necessitates changes in the economic infrastructure and the replacement of a tribal identity with a national one.

If we can elect a president in Iran today, free from issues of ethnicity, it is because of the economic transformation resulting from oil, at least in the last century. The question is not the quality or quantity of oil in the Iranian economy. The point is that when oil enters the economy of a country such as Iran, that was basically agricultural, it changes the economic infrastructure and the role of Iran becomes significant in political interactions. It becomes an exporter of a valued raw material and in return receives the surplus productions of industrial countries.

This transformation changes the socioeconomic infrastructure that in turn breaks the traditional culture and creates a more modern one, exporting oil and consuming the products of industrialized countries. If we omit money as the symbolic medium, then we have given oil in exchange for consumer products. But Afghanistan has nothing but drugs to exchange in the world market. Therefore, it has turned back on itself and become isolated. Perhaps, if Afghanistan had not separated from Iran 250 years ago, it would have had a different fate based on its share of oil revenues.

The revenue from opium that I will elaborate on later is far too insignificant to be compared to revenue from Iranian oil. In 2000, Iran’s surplus income from the oil price windfall exceeded $10 billion. Total sales of opium in Afghanistan remained at $500 million.

Iran has played its role in the world economy and by consuming the products of others, has understood that we have choices and have thus become somewhat more modern. But for the Afghan farmer his world is his valleys and his profession is farming when drought spares him. Meanwhile a tribal system resolves his social problems. Given that, he cannot have a share in the world economy. How are grounds for his economic and cultural transition to be provided to let him have a share? In addition, $80 billion in the global drug turnover depends on Afghanistan remaining in its present situation without change because if change prevails, that $80 billion is the first thing to be threatened. Hence, Afghanistan is not supposed to realize a considerable profit since that itself may yield change for Afghanistan. Although Iran and Afghanistan shared the same history some 250 years ago, due to oil the history of Iran took a turn that is impossible for Afghanistan to take for a very long time. Opium is the only product that Afghanistan offers to the world. Yet both because of the nature of this product and the insignificant amount of this tainted national wealth, it cannot be compared to oil. If we add the $500 million income from the sale of opium to the $300 million from the sale of northern Afghanistan’s gas, and divide the total by the twenty million population, the result is $40 per capita annual income. If we further divide that figure by 365 days each Afghan would earn about ten cents a day or the equivalent of the price a loaf of bread on normal days.

But the country’s annual earnings belong to the government and the domestic criminal organizations and it doesn’t get divided fairly. This revenue, therefore, is both insufficient to meet the needs of people and too low to bring about significant change in the economic, social, political, and cultural infrastructure.

Why Have 30 Percent Emigrated?

Livestock breeders habitually move to resolve their living problems. Urban residents and agricultural farmers are less likely to move often. The main reason for the Afghan livestock breeders’ mobility is related to the farming seasons. They constantly move to green and warm areas to avoid dry lands and cold weather. Movement is a natural reflex for livestock farmers. The second reason is lack of a fixed occupation. Afghans migrate to avoid death from unemployment.

Upon waking up each day, an Afghan has four burdens to consider. First is his livestock and this depends on drought not being an obstacle. Fighting for a group or sect is his second concern and generally because of employment he enters the army. Earning a living to support his family is another reason why he moves and if all else fails, he enters the drug business. The extent of this last option is limited and the labor options of a nation of twenty million people cannot really be measured with a $500 million account accrued from cultivating poppy seeds. Thus, characterizing the people of Afghanistan as opium smugglers is unreal and applies only to a very limited number.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 06 (November)
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