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Voices of war and hope

The children of Afghanistan have never known peace in their own country. They are seldom heard, but

Dusk is falling over Kabul, and for Mortazar, a 17-year-old boy with an easy smile and a red waistcoat, it's time to go home. The silhouette of "TV Mountain", with its dense thicket of broadcasting towers, dominates the skyline. Every day, Mortazar stands for ten hours on one of Kabul's busiest streets, amid CD stalls and shop mannequins, hawking mobile phone top-up cards. He makes about $5 a day. "Nowadays I've almost lost interest in becoming something else," he says. "Maybe I'll be an interpreter if I can improve my English - or perhaps a footballer."

Afghanistan, seen through the eyes of its children, is a difficult mix of hope and hardship. Forty-seven per cent of Afghanistan's 33 million people are under 14. They have never known peace in their own country. Mortazar's family, tempted back to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, is now struggling to survive in a dysfunctional city. The billions of dollars of reconstruction aid sloshing around have not touched their lives. "Because of the economic problems, I have to work," he says, "and everything is getting more expensive. Four years ago I was a refugee in Iran - at least there I could go to school."

With winter approaching, the poor are preparing for the cold. Chronic power shortages, exacerbated by a long-running drought, which has reduced the amount of power generated by hydroelectric dams, mean that families must make do with just a few hours of electricity each day. Most cannot afford generators and many will be unable to buy firewood.

"The government doesn't care for anyone," says Mortazar. "It's just stealing money and doing everything for itself. When the foreigners are watching, they behave. But as soon as backs are turned they just take whatever it is - blankets, food, whatever - and sell it. I've seen it happen. My sister has, too. A charity came to her school and started giving out stationery: when the foreigners left, the rest just went missing."

Saleem, a slight, ten-year-old boy with kohl smudges beneath his eyes, is more sanguine. "Whatever you say about it," he says, referring to the government, "it's better than the Taliban." His cousin Fareed doesn't comment. He is absorbed in trying to mend a battered bicycle wheel.

Fareed's bicycle repair shop is located on a dusty slip road not far from Kabul airport. Chickens scratch for food in the rubbish strewn all around, and the neighbourhood of mud and brick houses that stretches out behind is one of Kabul's poorest. "I'm open early morning until late at night," he announces proudly, glancing up at a sky pierced by a single, bright star. With calloused hands, an oily salwar kameez and serious eyes, Fareed looks older than his 15 years. He did not grow up; he was just forced by circumstance to become an adult. He doesn't go to school and his business brings in, on average, a dollar a day. "Things are not great right now," he concedes, struggling with an inflated inner tube. "But they'll soon be looking up." "The next few years are going to be good," Saleem agrees with enthusiasm, though he is unable to say why they will be good.

All the signs are that they won't be good. The insurgents, with safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas, are well-resourced and growing stronger. Robbers and kidnappers operate with impunity and Afghans travelling by road are sometimes stopped by militants and searched for any evid ence of involvement with foreign companies or NGOs: the wrong business card in your wallet or number in your mobile phone can get you killed.

President Hamid Karzai, up for re-election in 2009, is widely perceived as indecisive and his government as corrupt. Politicians have built mansions in wealthy Kabul neighbourhoods such as Sher Pur, and Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali, has been accused of involvement in opium trafficking, which he denies. Last month's cabinet reshuffle came too late to inspire much confidence and relations with the British have been poisoned by a series of incidents, notably Karzai's refusal in January to accept Lord Paddy Ashdown's appointment as UN envoy in Afghanistan. The police, riddled with corruption, are in desperate need of reform, and the Afghan army, though improving, is still under-strength and unreliable.

Civilian casualties have eroded public support for Nato troops and it remains to be seen if, under Barack Obama, the troop surge will make things better or worse. Leaks and contradictory statements from the Afghan government and its western allies reveal uncertainty and division. Tentative negotiations in Saudi Arabia have shown that the militants are in no mood for deal-making - this winter, there may be no respite before the inevitable spring offensive.

Along way from the bustle, dust and razor wire of Kabul, villagers in Keshem, a district in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan, are gathering the harvest. Donkeys smothered beneath thick loads of fresh hay are driven along narrow roads hemmed in by high mud walls and clear, fast-flowing irrigation channels. The fertile Keshem valley, once famous for its poppies, is at peace.

At Jari Shah Baba girls' school, the tranquil sound of children learning Dari - a variant of the Persian language spoken in northern and western Afghanistan - by rote drifts in through the open windows of one of the classrooms. Out of a class of 15 girls aged 13, all in neat white headscarves, just one has a mother who went to school. But there is change, largely because of economic reasons. The girls here say that their fathers now support them going to school and, when asked what they would like to be when they finish studying, most shout out "doctor", "teacher" or "engineer". Educated girls make more money.

Two new school buildings are under construction with money raised by Afghan Connection, a British charity that, working closely with the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, has so far financed the building of 30 schools for more than 30,000 children. Jari Shah Baba is one of many good news stories that can be found in Afghanistan.

Children hurry along corridors and play in the grounds outside. The air of eager optimism, in and out of the classroom, is unmistakable. "We want to work to improve Afghanistan so that it can be like other countries," is the line often repeated, but always with conviction.

The students say they are not worried about security and seem unwilling to think about it. "I used to watch the news," says one of the girls. "But it's always bombing and killing. We're bored with the fighting - we don't want to hear about it any more. I prefer to watch Indian soap operas."

Still, even in Badakhshan, the indicators of war are all around. Empty shell casings do for school bells, old Soviet tanks lie sunk in the grass, and red and green flags flutter by the roadside (marking landmines and martyrs' graves). Many Afghan officials predict that it is only a matter of time until the insurgency spreads this far north. But for now, thoughts are on future dreams.

"I want to go to university and study medicine," says 19-year-old Zulfiya. "But it's difficult." Zulfiya is fortunate to have her father's support. Of the 1,150 students at Jari Shah Baba, approximately 400 are married and many of these are already looking after their first child. Burkhas, belonging to the older girls, hang inside classrooms ready for the journey home. Expressive faces vanish suddenly behind blue nylon. For those able to compete for a place at one of Afghanistan's few state-run universities, competition is stiff. Last year, 35,000 students took the entrance exam; there was space for 10,000.

Kourban, a student from Sang Boran boys' school in nearby Baghlan province, is not worried about passing the exam - he has always been top of his class - he is worried about paying for his studies. "I'll face a lot of financial problems," he says. "I know people who dropped out after one or two years at university because they couldn't afford it."

Neither of his parents went to school and just one of his three older brothers can read and write. The family makes its living farming and there isn't enough left over to support a son studying in the city. Now aged 20, Kourban has had to spend time catching up on school years missed during the fighting.

Through Afghan Connection, his school is "twinned" to Eton College: the students exchange gifts and letters in order to attain a mutual understanding. Kourban's demeanour is usually one of calm determination but, when confronted by photographs of Eton's grand architecture and oddly attired students, he is momentarily bemused. "Can I have a scholarship?" he asks, eventually.

Like many Afghans, Kourban believes that Afghan istan would collapse in all-out war if the foreign troops were to leave. His attitude is pragmatic: "We don't have a military force capable of controlling the country," he says. "So for now, it's better for the foreigners to stay."

Others are not so sure: "If the foreigners went away, I think the problems would go with them," says Abdu Rahmin, a 14-year-old boy from Khost, a troubled province in the east that borders North Waziristan, one of Pakistan's most militant-run tribal agencies. "A roadside bomb exploded when foreign troops were driving past my school. My friend was injured in the blast; now I'm always scared something will happen."

His story, and lasting anxiety, is not unique. “My sister-in-law was killed in a bomb blast,” says Nabila, a 13-year-old girl, also from Khost. “When I go to school, I am afraid there will be a bomb on the way; when I get there I start worrying about my father – especially when he goes to the city because there are lots of security problems there.”

Afghanistan's children have learnt the vocabulary of war. When talking about violence, they quickly reduce their experiences to specifics. Terms like "security", "suicide attack" and "roadside bomb" are deftly employed by children younger than Nabila and Abdu Rahmin. These are the words used to describe their world.

"The Afghan government cannot make 30 per cent security for the people," says Abdu Rahmin, angrily. "That is the big failure and disappointment. The Taliban were bad: they didn't like music or fashionable clothes, but the one important point is that when they were in charge, we were safe."

Nabila is not interested in taking sides. Her father is old and she has no brothers to help support the family. She is worried about money, and about losing her parents and maybe being blown up. But, when asked how she compares life under the Taliban with life now, she answers without hesitation: "In the Taliban time, there was security; in this time, no." She is equally matter of fact when asked about the foreign soldiers: "I don't know about them any more. Since they came to Afghanistan, there has been more killing."

Across the border in Pakistan, a tilted half-moon hangs in the black sky above Aza Khel Afghan refugee camp in Nowshera, a district of the North-West Frontier Province, and the call to prayer rings out over the vast community of flat-roofed mud houses. People here are deeply distrustful of western involvement in Afghanistan. Militants hide among the houses.

"They say there is a problem in Afghanistan and that they are there to fix it," says Hairullah, a confident 16-year-old boy whose family originally came from Nangrahar, a province in eastern Afghanistan. "Then they say there is another problem, so they need to stay. It's obvious the soldiers are just there to cover Afghanistan and make it part of the United States."

His brothers nod in agreement. Hairullah is one of more than three million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. He has visited Afghanistan just once, four years ago. The camp is located next to a river on the other side of the railway tracks that run along the main road. Floods regularly damage the houses and conditions are basic, but at least there is mains electricity most of the time. Many of the 9,000 families living in Aza Khel have been here as long as 30 years. Despite this, the atmosphere is one of uncertainty and impermanence.

For Hairullah, there is no question of staying. "As soon as I am a doctor," he says, "I am going back to Afghanistan to help my people. I want to make my country strong."

"I'm going, too!" interrupts his brother, Zaidullah, a small, outspoken 11-year-old. He is dressed in a turquoise salwar kameez.

"I don't like being away from my homeland. When I am taller, I am going back to help my country."

Sam Alexandroni was awarded a 2008 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. For more information on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust visit http://wcmt.org.uk

For more information on Afghan Connection visit http://afghanconnection.org

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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