LC-VANS | The Lint Center Virtual Archive for National Security
Afghanistan’s Shangri-La: A Different Type of War Essay
By Courtney Soboleski
In every conflict, a bed of unknown and underlying stories forms a collective murmation of life beyond the ravages of war. These truths defy what we know about a place if only because they are mirror images – exact opposites of what we expect. Such realities go unnoticed as they don’t conform to the ugliness of conflict. I know of one such place in Afghanistan.
Cradled between two immovable barriers, the quaint town of Bamyan crouches between the Hindu Kush and Koh-i-Baba mountain ranges. It is encapsulated in an alluring time, space, and culture. The silk road folklore and peculiar stone-faced niches of destroyed Buddhas are not even remotely what is the most fascinating though. Rather, it is the day to day life of the Hazaras that live in the valley.
Now, to be clear (and to emphasize my point in all this), in all my time spent in Bamyan any fear I ever felt was concocted more from a wild imagination than actual danger. That is why this land is unique. It manages to exist as a microcosm within a country-wide campaign marked by violence. I’m positive that every single Afghan living there knows of the conflict plaguing their country. Undoubtedly, the second and third order effects of war stretch to even the farthest-reaching corners at some point. It’s just that the focus is elsewhere.
Families continue to do what they have always done. There’s just a greater sense of urgency and purpose. This manifests as a certain resolve or refusal to succumb to it all and a stronger agency in the Bamyan people than I have ever observed in all my travels. Some may argue (and I assure you, have) that my perspective on the world I became entwined with is inaccurate. After all, these are not the experiences of any American soldier at battle and they are not the images broadcast globally. But isn’t that the point? Dichotomies endure everywhere and Afghanistan is not immune to the phenomena. It’s not to say that either point of view is untrue; just that without both coexisting, the history isn’t complete. This story is the other side of the one you already know.
While I was there, Bamyan was working tirelessly to become the first tourist city in the country. In fact, it is what struck me the most about my entire stint. Prior to even stepping foot in the dusty Kabul airport or embarking on the labyrinthine trip to reach Bamyan, I spent the previous months absorbing as much knowledge as possible. I poured over textbooks, scoured the internet, and explored countless image searches. None of that adequately prepared me for the history that hadn’t yet made it to mediums though.
Aside from the intangible memoire I’ve drawn before you; there are two more concrete pillars to any successful tourism endeavor: products and activities. A growing number of capacity development projects throughout the region originally funded by foreign aid have become catalysts for a booming hand-made crafts industry. Woven, wooden, and agricultural products are being marketed in every corner of the city. In fact, there are dozens of local shops selling everything from silk road antiquities to intricate garb to local artistries influenced by the surrounding land.
Naturally, what remains of the Buddhas of Bamyan is a monument unlike any other – as much for its significance as for how captivating the entire site of connected tunnels and carvings are. The same proves true for Band-e-Amir, the national parks, the Women’s Gardens, Dragon Valley, and any other organic site in the province. Activity has taken on a more progressive implication though. You can now ski the Hindu Kush, participate in marathons, go hiking, or savor some of the finest culinary dishes in the country – all within a small radius of Bamyan proper. Somewhere in between is the market on Bazaar Rd. which features everything from street carts, farmer’s market-like grocery shopping, and noisy ice cream carts. It is truly one of the most fascinating places. I chalk this up to the seeming forbidden-nature of it all to outsiders, albeit self-imposed, coupled with how innately gratifying the experience can be.
Even the infrastructure has been carefully developed. The main roads are paved. There’s a litany of grocery stores, pharmacies, barber shops, and any other service you’d require. There are several quality restaurants, a handful of what would be considered anywhere else as boutique hotels, and even a few logistics outfits that will coordinate, plan, and execute everything for you.
It is in this juxtaposition that Afghanistan has achieved peace. It might not be comprehensive or widespread but the first steps in stability rarely are. Instead, the only measurable and achievable success there will occur at the grassroots first, in tiny places like Bamyan.
Photography credit to Courtney Soboleski