(This is the fifth in a series of dispatches from India Decade blogger Sanjay Kumar, who is currently on assignment in Afghanistan.)
I’ve read three books on Afghanistan, all fiction and all haunting— Khaled Hussein’s two celebrated works, ‘Kite Runner’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’, and Siba Shakib’s account, ‘Afghanistan, A country where God only Comes to Weep’.
So, having been in Kabul for a while now, how far do the struggles, pain and suffering in these books reflect real life in Afghanistan? How true is it that the Hazaras are marginalised in Afghan society, as described in ‘Kite Runner’? And has the treatment of women changed since the fall of the Taliban?
On the face of it, Kabul life looks relatively normal (except for the constant presence of large numbers of troops and police). But when you scratch the surface, the pain oozes out. Noor Aga, a local friend of mine and an IT professional, dresses well, speaks good English, and has a girlfriend. Yet every time he meets me in Kabul he asks about settling in India because he thinks it’s a less fanatical place that will offer greater security.
Hazaras make up about 20 percent of the Afghan population, but their social status is worse than other ethnic groups in Afghanistan and they are particularly noticeable on the streets of Kabul as they are often cleaners, beggars, drivers, conductors and labourers. And while you’ll often see marriages between Tajiks and Pashtus or Pashtus and Uzbeks, there are very few between Hazaras and other ethnic groups.
One of my female Afghan friends say conditions for women are better than what they were during the Taliban era, but not much different. Freba Zahar, a journalist with a European TV station, lamented to me the fact that women still don’t have freedom of choice here. She said she accepts there might be individual instances of defiance, but that it’s not easy to break free from the prevailing social norms and customs. She said her best option is probably trying to leave the country.
There are many people like Freba and Noor in Afghanistan today, people who want to break free from the cycle of violence and destruction, who want to lead a normal life, who want to write a new chapter for their country’s history. As an outsider, all I can do is try to empathize. After all, it’s Afghans who will have to come forward to establish a new society and a new nation.