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Istalif : blossoming trees and the blight of war

Jean-Michel Marlaud - Kaboul, Afghanistan - 30 juin 2014

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The little town of Istalif is located about fifty kilometers north of Kabul, at the edge of the Chamali plain. Driving there is very slow, held up by the countless lines of colorful trucks that crawl towards the Salang Tunnel to cross the Hindu Kush and finally reach Mazar-i-Sharif.

Istalif’s heyday

Istalif can be seen far away to the left, nestling at the foot of the mountain. When we arrived in the valley, my colleagues from the embassy and I had the impression we were back in the days of Babur, the first Moghul emperor, who wrote in 910 Anno Hegirae (1505 CE) : "Few villages match Istalif, with vineyards and fine orchards on both sides of its great torrent [...] If, the world over, there is a place to match this when the arghwans [Judas trees] are in full bloom, I do not know it."

And came precisely during this very short period of time – two weeks – of their blossom. At the entrance of Istalif still stands the fountain Babur called the fountain of the three friends because, he said, it was the only place where stand together plane trees, holm oaks and Judas trees.

Les arbres de Judée en fleurs | Photo : Ambassade de France en Afghanistan

Besides its natural beauty, the spot is known for the talent of its potters, who may have arrived from Samarkand several centuries ago. In 1967, King Zaher Shah asked a Monegasque ceramist, Albert Diato, close to Picasso and the Vallauris group, to help these potters to improve their techniques. Testimony to that time remains in the form of the ceramic panel that decorates the chimney of the residence, inaugurated by Georges Pompidou, then Prime Minister, in May 1968.

Faced with competition from plastic utensils and affected by collapse of tourism, the potters have now changed trades and sell decorative ornaments, heritage of the kitsch imported from neighboring Pakistan.

Istalif est réputé pour le talent de ses potiers | Photo : MAE

The cruel marks of war

The idyllic appearance of the village hides the cracks that we were soon to discover. At the entrance of Istalif, across the river, beautiful traditional mud-brick houses are now abandoned ruins. Above a school, a hole in the ground leads to an underground gallery where residents used to hide during bombing. The village is dominated by a hill where the shell of a Russian tank remains, with its rusty gun posed threateningly.

In its heyday, Istalif boasted a hotel in line with international standards, with an incomparable view over the plain and which was accessed via an alley between ancient plane trees. All the trees have since been reduced to ashes, meticulously burnt and destroyed one after another. Yet nature has reclaimed its territory and green branches sprout from charred trunks. The hotel itself, where Commander Massoud (1953-2001) met Madeleine Albright, has been blown up.

In the main street runs a karez (irrigation canal). It skirted the houses and brought to them its murmuring and coolness, but only a few walls remain, blackened by fire.

Photo : Ambassade de France en Afghanistan

Istalif suffered from Soviet bombings. But the Taliban are the source of its destruction and the exodus of its population : they wanted to prohibit any return of these mountain people who refused to submit and burnt firing every house and cut down every fruit tree half-way up the trunk.

Since 2001, many Istalif inhabitants have returned, nostalgic for their lands. One of them, who splits his time between Afghanistan and Brittany, founded an association that has supported nine of the district’s fourteen schools for about ten years. Half of the funds invested come from private donations, while the rest comes from subsidies from local government in Brittany or from the Embassy, depending on the years.

Girls’ education, a political issue

By visiting four of these schools we observed observe that these funds have been well used : the buildings exist, and while not luxurious but well maintained, as shown by the care taken of the gardens.

The little girls offered bouquets of flowers and started singing patriotic songs, which may seem surprising, but the essential is elsewhere. These classes receive almost as many girls as boys (and are mixed-gender at primary level) although the number of girls decreases markedly as they reach marriageable age.

Breaking with tradition, the girls are assertive and in one of the classes, the melody sung by the girls was not patriotic at all, requesting rather the funding of a sports field by the Embassy !

Ces classes accueillent presqu’autant de filles que de garçons, (et sont mixtes dans le primaire)

Talking to head teachers gave us a better understanding of the specific challenges they face.

Access is a first difficulty : in Afghan society, it is inconceivable for a young woman teacher from Kabul to live in Isatlif, but travel is slow and expensive.

Another problem is the quality of teaching : due to a lack of locals and teachers, two and sometimes three groups of children are taught in a row per day, sometimes walking three hours for four hours of class. Lastly, education, especially for girls, remains a political issue. The volleyball field of the last school, situated at the bottom of the valley and only accessible via a poor trail, has been confiscated for the construction of a mosque...

La dernière école, située au fond d’une vallée seulement accessible par une mauvaise piste, vient de se voir confisquer son terrain de volley-ball pour y construire une mosquée…

Elections on the menu

For a development project to work, money is needed but above all a long-term efforts are required in the field. Istalif is a positive example with these schools but unfortunately also a negative one, with the computers in the classrooms all mothballed as the hydroelectric power plant financed by a third country has been out of order for eight months, because of a lack of maintenance funding.

The morning ended with a lunch in the company of local figures. The surroundings are traditional, with mounds of steaming rice and a waiter circulating with a water jug and a tray to wash our fingers.

But the discussion is about current affairs. Among the eight candidates in the presidential elections, only two had their posters plastered everywhere and they obtained nearly all the votes cast. Yet, they defend different models of society. The answer was clear : they are the two only mujahidin candidates, the others did not fight and they did not count. In Istalif, beyond the orchards and the potters’ workshops, the scars or war are clearly raw...

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