Himmat Singh Gill
THE giant Russian aircraft, IL 76, with India’s special envoy to Afghanistan Satinder Lamba, a few diplomats and a team of Indian journalists on board, could only take off around noon on a cold December morning because of the heavy fog that hung over New Delhi. Also on board was Qanooni, the newly appointed Afghan Interior minister, who had flown in from Bern to New Delhi a few days earlier to hold talks with Indian leaders. He was now flying back to his country to take over his new assignment. Flying at over 30,000 feet, the high-voltage Indian diplomatic mission headed for the Bagram airport, an hour’s drive from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
As we lumbered into Bagram after a somewhat heavy landing, and headed by road for Kabul, tremendous destruction and devastation stared us in the face. Village after village, hamlet after hamlet, stood lonely and forlorn. They had been heavily bombed and not a soul was in sight. Vineyards and apple orchards, lush at one time, now lay in ruins, and the freezing wind blowing in through the glass-splintered windows of the odd house that still stood intact, relayed its own depressing message. In the distance the snowy Hindu Kush mountains seemed to be the only unchanged and consistent relic of a great and glorious past that now lay in rubble and ruin because of a vicious war. It was apparent that even after the fighting stopped in the Tora Bora mountains, it would take years of labour and reconstructive surgery on the part of the world to bring this strife-ridden and history-pocked land to smile once again.
Signs of massive destruction were littered all over. T-62 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, burnt-out hulks of trucks and oil carriers lay in every corner of the dusty and barren plains. Heavy machine guns mounted on roof tops and sandy heights proclaimed that a war had just passed by. After some time, it was actually a relief getting into Kabul. But it was not the Kabul that I had left 19 years back when I was a Military Attache here.
Gone were the boulevards and the flowering trees that once stood sentinel by the roadsides. Also gone were the long-booted, skirt- wearing and bobbed-hair girls on their way to the Kabul University and schools, and the aroma of the dumba freshly cooked over a slow charcoal fire in Share Nau and its suburbs. One hardly saw any cars on the roads, and the few buses we passed by seemed to be only half full. The markets, in the modest quarters of the city, were, of course, getting back to normal, and men and women had begun to move about their daily business of living again. The affluent localities like Wazer Akbar Khan, where we once lived next to the house of Frontier Gandhi — Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan — were all there with no damage of any kind.
The embassies were padlocked, but the flags still flew over them. India’s embassy was being spruced up for its reopening scheduled to coincide with the inauguration of the new Afghan government of the Northern Alliance, now called the United Front, on December 22. India would be the first nation to open its embassy and this speaks of the astute legwork and foresight of the Vajpayee diplomatic team led by Jaswant Singh. His mark seems to be everywhere. He has already scored a double diplomatic coup with Qanooni and Abdullah Abdullah having already visited India in the last few weeks. In fact, Abdullah Abdullah travelled back with us to New Delhi. While the British, the French or the Americans are nowhere in sight in Kabul as yet, it stands to India’s sure-footed diplomatic initiative that we find ourselves in the driver’s seat in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Indians — Hindus and Sikhs, numbering about 450 today — met us at the Kabul Hotel in midtown and they could not have been happier. At one time they had been ordered to wear yellow robes for identification by the Taliban and did not know what the future would bring them. The Taliban, they told me, (and I recognised some friends I had known 20 years ago like Kartar Singh, Ravinder and Avtar Singh), had forbidden them to live as neighbours of Afghan Hindus and had put restrictions on their daily offerings of prayers and ardas at the local gurdwaras. But they told me that even in these troubled times, they did meet up with the sangat at the Karte Parwan gurdwara though the practice of the langar had perforce to be held on a limited scale. The fact that the Asa Mai temple also remained open speaks volumes for the resilience of the Afghan Hindu community. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has already announced that the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs will form part of the Grand Loya Jirga that will be held next spring, and will eventually be eligible to become full-fledged members of the Afghan government. Today, there are about 210 Sikh families in Jalalabad, about 400 in Khost, an approximate 15 families in Kandahar and about 80 Sikh families in Herat.
A few impressions of today’s Kabul will live with me. Portraits of Ahmed Shah Masood, the Lion of Panjshir, who was assassinated some time ago, adorn the Foreign Ministry building and nearly every street corner. Rabbani’s portraits are also there, but in diminishing numbers as the days go by. The common man, inspite of the 20-odd years of strife and hardship, still has time to smile and offer the little that he owns. Though the famous Hamidi store today stands closed, the day is not far when its doors will open to foreign merchandise. The Kabul police is back on traffic duty, and one finds policemen swinging their arms as wildly as before while guiding traffic. Yes, the uniforms are a lot more dirty and a lot more frayed. Yet, the signs of a new awakening are all there.
The Marco Polo restaurant, once the meeting point for diplomats, alongwith the Intercontinental Hotel will reopen next year. We carried a large number of film cassettes on our flight into Bagram, as cinema halls are back in business. Small shops with large chunks of meat hung on hooks, resound with the sound of music and song, and the quacks of chicken, as they are carried away to the cooking pot, fill the air. Yes, life is fast returning to normal.
Where does India stand in the ‘big game’ now being played in the diplomatic field? It seems that India has played its cards well, and Indo-Afghan ties will reach a new high in the coming months. India had during 1979-80 openly sided with the invading Soviet forces and the common Afghans had lost faith in our commitment to them. India has, by its early moves, brought in strategic depth for itself in Afghanistan and neutralised the Taliban and other terrorist groups infiltrating from this country into J&K. The US interest in this region, no doubt, will always remain, but now it could be India that could hold influence in South Asia. India’s growing presence in Afghanistan will also result in neutralising China in the strategic north eastern Wakhan region of the country and diminish its role and relevance in relation to the Commonwealth of Independent States that straddle the Amu Darya river
As the shadows lengthen on the wind-swept, dusty runway at Bagram, it is time to return home. But in the comfort of a long coat and the warm interior of the IL 76 aircraft, one’s mind cannot help but race back to the thousands of destitute Afghans who are cold and hungry. Their faces remain fixed in the mind as the aircraft makes a soft touchdown in Delhi. The Afghan winter has just begun…
The writer was a part of the Indian delegation which went to Kabul on December 12.