In Transition by Iva Zimova Northern Afghanistan, October 2001

I spent a month traveling through the Northern Afghan provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan. It was the soft sorrel color of the mountains that I noticed first as our Russian army plane dipped down towards the Faizabad airport. It was late afternoon and the soft light of sunset set a velvety sheen across the landscape. There were a few curious locals gathered at the airport as we landed. Children standing in their bare feet, quiet, staring. Their eyes were the color of the mountains.

Those dark, dusky mountains were easily beguiling, like the Northern Lights of my home in the northern Québec. There are no trees. It's like a dessert - a landscape as harsh as the lives of the people that depended on it. I call them my Velvet Mountains. But as the dust from the plane engines settles, the view is less idyllic.

This is northern Afghanistan, the territory that serves as a base for the opposition Northern Alliance in their campaign against the ruling Taliban regime. It is a nation that hasn't been a nation for generations. It lies at the cross roads of middle Asia and competing regional interests have left the nation fractured, even medieval in appearance.

There is no electricity, running water, or telephones. The houses are made from mud, the water is pumped by wells, and roads are made from rocks that crews break with sledgehammers. There is no public transport - some people walk, some ride donkey or camels, others horses, motorcycles or just bicycles leaving clouds of dust behind them.

We were three - two men, a writer for the New Yorker magazine and a German photographer, and myself. The Northern Alliance was at the airport to meet us and took us to our hotel. One room and three mattresses on the floor were assigned to us.

Dinner was similarly meager - some watermelon, potatoes soup, rice with raisins, almonds and pieces of lamb, nan (unleven bread) and tea. This first meal was to be our last good one. For the rest of the stay we were served only rice. We took to eating from stalls in the streets.

We made a visit to Dasht-e-Qala with a representative from Shelter Now International, an American NGO that had a road building project going on. The trip was eight hours by jeep. The road was very dusty and it was still quite hot outside. When we opened the windows to cool down, dust would swirl into the jeep. It was a no-win situation. We settled with the heat. We were constantly covered in dust. After a day, you get used to it. You don't feel it anymore. It was the dust getting into my cameras, which was a problem.

Like many, I felt magnetized by the burkha. I guess I always had some stupid questions to ask the men - How do you recognize your wife? How can you get married if you've never seen your future wife? How can you fall in love? Sometimes, when we were passing by in the jeep, some women would turn, clutching their burkhas and hide their faces to the wall. Other times, as we were walking, I would see a curious eye peaking out at me, or hear a small little voice giggling, "Hello, mister. Hello miss, Hello"

As a woman, to be in jeans was very uncomfortable. Not because of the heat, but because everyone looks at you. I didn't wear a burkha, but I did have to cover my head with a scarf and wear long sleeves. It was hot, about 25 C. I did finally buy a burkha and wore it once to a wedding, but it was impossible to work in. I had to learn how to walk in it like an Afghani, which prompted much laughter.

It was no laughing matter for Michel Peyrard, the French journalist whom the Taliban detained in October after he illegally entered Taliban territory dressed as a woman. ( Peyrard was released in early November ). The Afghans told us that he's very tall and he didn't walk right in the burkha. Even our male travel companions were recognized as foreigners in their Afghani head gear and pants by the way they walked.So I gave up on the burkha.

Dasht-e-Qala - a flat, dry landscape set the tone for the bleakness we were to encounter here. Dusty and dry. You wonder what the cows are eating there. There's this little green vegetation that's almost the color of the soil. But you have to look close.

We were having a very difficult time getting ordinary people to talk about the U.S.-led bombing of the Taliban. We asked, "Did you celebrate? What do you think of it?" The answer was, "The bombing is good. We were happy. It was good." One man we spoke with had come from Talaqan to buy some sheep and goats. We asked him how he perceives his future if there would be an end to war, an end to the Taliban. He said his life would not change. He will continue traveling from place to place, buying and selling livestock.

Lots of people were simple. They didn't know how to write, how to read. Religion and the mosque shaped their daily lives. Those who were educated were more suspicious of the war and its outcome. They feel that the previous upheavals have put them back a hundred years in time. And though they stayed in Afghanistan, they are skeptical about the future. One Afghani former journalist asked me how he could move his family - not to Pakistan where refugees usually flee, but straight to Europe. He wanted to avoid the fundamentalists altogether. I don't know how these people can defect - emigration requires money they don't have.

I visited the high school in Faizabad. The students were beautiful young women between sixteen and seventeen with large brown eyes and fair skin.

They study the Koran and Islam religion, math, physics, geography, Farsi and English. Most of them would like to become teachers or doctors.

When the classes ended students put on their burkhas and slipped down the dusty street.

Children were a constant presence. One day, after school let out, we had over a hundred kids walking with us, tugging at our sleeves, saying, "Hello. I love you." We would sometimes split up, and say to them, "See that guy over there? Go to him." And they would run over to our companion and torment him while we did some work. But sometimes it was harder to laugh it off. Twenty years of war and with little schooling had quelled their bashfulness and it was difficult to get away from them. They wouldn't listen if an old man said, "Bera, bera," go go - shooing them from us. Sometimes, their curiosity turned to aggression and they threw pebbles at us.

In Faizabad, en route to a wedding, there were women in burkhas playing hand drums. I never understood how the wedding worked. When we arrived at the house, they let me into a cellar where the bride was locked with her friends. It was too dark to take pictures. Then a large tin box was brought full of presents for the bride. It was displayed by the women, and then sent down to the cellar. At another house, men prepared the rice and food which they sent to the women. The wedding lasted days, though we didn't stay for long.

We passed another wedding, the man on the trucks going through town were throwing rocks at people. Our translator didn't want to go near because he didn't want to get killed. I understood why when I got hit on the hand with a rock while protecting my cameras.

Dasht-e-Qala lies south of the Amu Darya River, which borders the Afghan province of Takhar with Tajikistan. This was the front, an area that was held by the Northern Alliance. At the time, mid-October, it was pretty quiet. The Northern Alliance tanks looked so old, hardly capable of movement. But there were many journalists, and they were desperate for news. The Northern Alliance took shots at the Taliban side just for the journalists. Sometimes they didn't aim well and mortars would fall in the river. Danger needed only an opportunity. One soldier was accidentally killed when Taliban snipers retaliated.

Unsatisfied, a British journalist organized a scrimmage for the TV cameras. He had soldiers running across a graveyard, pretending to attack the Taliban. All for this a journalist. My companions and I called out, "Hollywood! Hollywood!"

I felt uneasy watching photographers setting up shots - asking the soldiers to redo things if they didn't get the shot they wanted. Maybe now it's changed. Maybe the real war has started.

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