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Iranian: B5-B6 Limbs of no body
By Mohsen Makhmalbaf

29/10/2001 12:58 am Mon

The Iranian
June 20, 2001

Limbs of no body [Part 5-6]

By Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Geographical situation and its consequences

Afghanistan has an area of 700,000 square kilometers. Mountains account for 75 percent of the land. People live in cavernous valleys surrounded by towering mountains. These elevations not only attest to a rough nature, difficult passage and impediments to business, but are also viewed as cultural and spiritual fortresses among Afghan tribes. It is obvious why Afghanistan lacks inter-state routes. The shortage of roads not only creates obstacles for the fighters who seek to occupy Afghanistan, it stops businessmen whose prosperity may become a means of economic growth.

To the same degree that these mountains obstruct foreign intrusion, they block interference of other cultures and commercial activities. A country that is 75 percent mountains has problems creating consumer markets in its potential industrial cities and in exporting agriculture products to the cities. Despite the use of modern weapons, wars take longer and find no conclusion.

In the past Afghanistan was a passageway for caravans on the Silk Road traversing China through Balkh and India through Kandahar. The discovery of waterways and then airways in the last century, changed Afghanistan from being an ancient commercial route into a dead-end. The old Silk Road was a passage of camels and horses and didn't have the characteristics of a modern road. Through the same winding roads Nadir Shah, Alexander, Timur and Mahmmod Ghaznavi went to India. Given the mountainous character of these roads, there used to be primitive wooden bridges that have been badly damaged in the past 20 years of war.

Perhaps today, after two decades of foreign and civil war the people want the strongest party to win and give a single direction to Afghanistan's historical fate, no matter what. These same mountains, however, are a hindrance. Perhaps, the true fighters of Afghanistan are not its hungry people but the high mountains that don't surrender. The Tajik resistance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud owes its survival to the Panjshir valley. Conceivably, if Afghanistan was not mountainous, the Soviets could have easily conquered it; or it could have been prey for the Americans to hunt down like the plains of Kuwait, and bring it closer to the Central Asian markets.

Being mountainous increases both the cost of war and reconstruction after peace. If Afghanistan was not so rugged it would have had a different economical, military, political and cultural fate. Is this a geographical misfortune? Imagine a fighter who has to constantly climb up and down mountains. Suppose he conquered all of Afghanistan. He then has to constantly conquer the peaks to provide for his army. These mountains have been sufficient to save Afghanistan from foreign enemies and domestic friends.

When you look at the Soviet-Afghan war, you see a nation's resistance but when on the inside, you realize that each tribe has defended the valley it was trapped in. When the enemy left, again, everyone saw their valley as the center of the world. And again, the same mountains have made agriculture very difficult. Only 15 percent of the land is suited for agriculture and practically just half of this is actually cultivated. The reason for livestock farming is that the grasslands are on the mountainsides or its environs.

It can be said that Afghanistan is a victim of her own topography. There are no routes in the mountains and road construction is expensive. The roads if any, are either military or narrow paths for smugglers. The only trunk road passes around the borders. How can a border road function like a primary artery in the body of Afghanistan to resolve problems of social, cultural and economic communications? The few interstate roads that existed were destroyed in the war. To whose advantage is it to pay for the costs of drilling these tough and elevated mountains? For which potential profit should this exorbitant cost be borne?

It is said that Afghanistan is full of unexplored mines. From what route are these possibly exploitable resources supposed to reach their destinations? Who will be the first to invest in mines that will generate profits in an uncertain future? Has the lack of roads been a sufficient disincentive for the Soviets and Afghans not to think of excavating the mines?

On the other hand, Afghanistan is a land of eternal hidden paths that are quite efficient for smuggling drugs. There are as many winding roads as you want for smuggling but for crushing the smugglers, you need straight ones that don't exist. You can't know the infinite number of paths and you can't attack a path every day. At the most, you can await a caravan at a junction. A smuggler was arrested around the city of Semnan in Iran who had walked barefoot from Kandahar carrying a sack of drugs. He had no skin on his soles when arrested, but kept on walking.

In the mountains of Afghanistan water is more of a calamity than a blessing. In winter it is freezing. It floods in spring and in the summer its shortage yields drought. This is the property of mountains without dams. Uncontrolled waters and hard soil reduce agricultural possibility. This is the geographical picture of Afghanistan: Arduous to cross, incapable of cultivation and mines impossible to exploit due to transport costs.

The fact that some find Afghanistan as a museum of tribes, races and languages is because of its geography and sheer difficulty. Every tradition in this country has remained intact because of isolation and lack of interference. It is only natural for this rough and dry country (with only 7 percent of its land being used for agriculture of which half is threatened by drought) to turn to cultivation of poppy seeds to support its people. If the conditions are normal and the price of bread does not increase, from all this poppy wealth, a single loaf of bread is what every Afghan receives.

In its present state the economy of Afghanistan can keep its people half full without any economic development. Wealth though, rests with the domestic mafia or gets spent on unstable Afghan regimes and the people don't get a share of it.

The basic question then comes to mind as to how the Afghan people are supported? It is either through construction work in Iran, participation in political wars or becoming theology students in the Taliban schools. According to statistics over 2,500 schools of the Taliban with a capacity between 300 to 1,000 students, attract hungry orphans. In these schools anybody can have a piece of bread and a bowl of soup, read the Quran and memorize prayers and later join the Taliban forces. This is the only remaining option for employment.

It is the result of this geography that emigration, smuggling and war remain as occupations and I'm wondering how Massoud is going to meet the needs of the people after possible victory over the Taliban? Will it be through continued war or development of poppy seeds or prayer for rain?

On the Iranian border the UN pays 20 dollars to any Afghan volunteering to return to Afghanistan. They are taken by bus to the first cities inside Afghanistan or dropped around the borders. Interestingly, due to lack of jobs in Afghanistan, the Afghans quickly come back and if not recognized, go in line again to get another 20 dollars. The jobless Afghans turn every solution into an occupation. And as much as war may be a profession, few Afghan leaders have died pursuing it.

Continued war provides opportunity for the U.S., the Soviets and the six neighboring countries to give aid to forces loyal to them. This largness is normally aimed at continuing a war or balancing power but in the case of Afghanistan it merely creates jobs. Let's not forget that there's been a two-year drought and livestock have died as a result. The mortality as announced by the UN is predicted at one million within the next few months. The war has nothing to do with this. It is poverty and famine. Whenever farming has been threatened by shortage of water, emigration has increased and wars have worsened.

The average life expectancy of an Afghan has been calculated at 41.5 years and the mortality rate for children under two years of age was between 182 to 200 deaths per 1,000 kids. The average longevity was 34 years in 1960 and in 2000 was pegged at 41. The reality however is that in recent years it has gone down to even lower than what it was in 1960.

I never forget those nights of filming Kanadahar. While our team searched the deserts with flashlights, we would see dying refuges like herds of sheep left in the desert. When we took those that we thought were dying of cholera to hospitals in Zabol, we realized that they were dying of hunger. Since those days and nights of seeing so many people starving to death, I haven't been able to forgive myself for eating any meals.

The Afghans between 1986 to 1989 had about 22 million sheep. That is one sheep per person. This has traditionally been the main wealth of a farming nation such as Afghanistan. This wealth was lost in the recent famine. Imagine the situation of a farming nation without livestock. The original tragedy of Afghanistan today is poverty and the only way to resolve the problems is through economic rehabilitation.

If I had gone to support the mujahedin instead of the true freedom fighters who are ordinary people struggling to stay alive, I would have come back. If I were president of a neighboring country, I would encourage economic relations with Afghanistan in lieu of political-military interventions. God forbid if I was in the place of God, I would bless Afghanistan with something else that would benefit this forgotten nation. And I write this without believing it will have any impact in this era very different than that of Sa'di's time when, "all men are limbs of one body".

Dr. Kamal Hossein, the UN Humanitarian Adviser for Afghanistan affairs from Bangladesh, visited our office in the summer of 2000 and told us that he had been reporting quite futilely to the UN for 10 years. He had come to assist me in making a movie that perhaps would awaken the world. I said: "I'm looking for that which will affect."

It must be added that Afghanistan has not so much suffered from foreign interference as it has from indifference. Again if Afghanistan were Kuwait with a surplus of oil income, the story would have been different. But Afghanistan has no oil and the neighboring countries deport its underpaid laborers. It's only natural when options of occupation fail--as explained earlier in the text--the only remaining choices are smuggling, joining the Taliban or falling down in a corner in Herat, Bamian, Kabul or Kanadahar and dying for the world's ignorance.

Once, I happened to be in a camp around Zabol that was filled with illegal immigrants. I wasn't sure if it was a camp or a prison. The Afghans who had fled home because of famine or Taliban assaults were refused asylum and waiting to be returned to Afghanistan. It all seemed legal and rational to that point. People, who for any reason enter a country illegally and are afterward refused, get deported. But these particular people were dying of hunger. We had ended up there to choose extras for my film. I asked the authorities and found out that the camp could not afford to feed so many people and they hadn't eaten for a week. They had only water to drink. We offered to provide meals. They wished we'd go there every day.

We brought food for 400 Afghans ranging from one-month old babies to 80-year old men. Most of them were little kids who had fainted of hunger in their mothers' arms. For an hour, we were crying and distributing bread and fruits. The authorities expressed grief and regret and said that it took a long time for budget approvals and kept saying that the flow of hungry refugees was far greater than what they could manage. This is the story of a country that's been ravaged by its own nature, history, economy, politics and the unkindness of its neighbors.

An Afghan poet who was being deported from Iran back to Afghanistan expressed his feelings in a poem and left:

I came on foot, I'll leave on foot. The stranger who had no piggy bank, will leave. And the child who had no dolls, will leave. The spell on my exile will be broken tonight. And the table that had been empty will be folded. In suffering, I wandered around the horizons. It is me who everyone has seen in wandering. What I do not have I'll lay down and leave. I came on foot, I'll leave on foot.

The ratio of drug consumption in the world to its production in Afghanistan

In modern day economy, every supply is based on a demand. The production of drugs everywhere meets the need for its consumption. This universal market includes both poor and advanced countries such as India, the Netherlands, the U.S., etc. According to UN reporting in 2000, in the late 90's about 180 million people worldwide were using drugs. Based on the same report 90% of illegal opium is produced in two countries of which one is Afghanistan as well as 80 % of heroin. Again, 50 % of all narcotic drugs is produced in Afghanistan. You may think if that 50 % equals half a billion dollars then the total value of drugs reaches one billion globally but that's not the case. Why?

Although Afghanistan earns half a billion from drug production the actual turnover is only 80 billion dollars. In transit to the rest of the world, the mark-up stretches 160 times. Who gets the 80 billion dollars?

For example, heroin enters Tajikistan at one price and exits at twice that much. The same goes for Uzbekistan. By the time drugs reach consumers in the Netherlands, they cost 160 to 200 times the original price. The money ends up with the various mafias who also manipulate the politics of those countries en route.

The secret budget of many Central Asian countries is supplied through drug traffic, otherwise, how can smugglers who walk all the way from Kandahar for example, be the prime beneficiaries of this wealth? How can we at all consider them the true smugglers of drugs?

If it weren't for the extremely high drug profits, Iran for example, could have ordered a half a billion-dollars worth of wheat to Afghanistan as an incentive to stop planting poppy seeds. Yet the 79.5 billion-dollar profit is far too valuable for the mob and its allied forces to dispose of poppy seeds. Ironically, the Afghan drug producer is not himself a consumer. Drug use is prohibited but its production is legitimate. Its religious justification is sending deadly poisons to the enemies of Islam in Europe and America. This reasoning is nicely paradoxical given the economic significance of drugs on the governmental budget of Afghanistan.

The total drug turnover in the world is 400 billion dollars and Afghans are the victims of this market. Why is Afghanistan's share only 1/800th? Whatever the answer, the market needs a place with little to contribute civilly but which is a cornucopia of drug production.. If there were roads in Afghanistan instead of obscure paths, or the war ceased and the economy flourished and other incentives replaced the half a billion dollars, then what would happen to the 400 billion dollar market?

In September of 2000 when I was returning from Kandahar, I saw the governor of Khorasan on the way to Tehran. He said that when opium cost 50 dollars in Herat, it was 250 dollars in Mashad. And when the fight against smugglers intensified, instead of getting more expensive, opium got cheaper. For example, if in Mashad it reached 500 dollars, it cost 75 dollars in Herat. The reason was due to extreme poverty and famine. The Afghan sheep that used to cost 20 dollars a head is now sold at one dollar at the border but since they are sick, there is no market and the borders are controlled for sheep smuggling into Iran.

Although poppy seed does not have the fundamental importance of oil as a source of Afghanistan's wealth it is somehow the equivalent of oil. More importantly, the secret budget of Central Asian countries is supplied through drugs. That explains the strong incentive for the world to remain indifferent towards Afghanistan's chronic economic condition. Why should Afghanistan become stable? How could it possibly compensate for the 80 billion dollars directly generated from its soil?

Drugs are an interesting business for many. Just a few months ago when I was in Afghanistan, it was said that every day an airplane full of drugs flies directly from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf states. In 1986, when I was doing research for the making of The Cyclist, I took a road trip from Mirjaveh in Pakistan to Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. It took me a few days. When I entered Mirjaveh, I got on a colorful bus of the same kind that you might have seen in The Cyclist. The bus was filled with all kinds of strange people. People with long thin beards, turbans on the head and long dresses.

At first, I wasn't aware that the bus roof was filled with drugs. The bus drove across dirt expanses without roads. Everywhere was filled with dust and the wheels would sink into the soft soil. We arrived at a surreal gate like the ones in Dali's paintings. It was a gate that neither separated nor connected anything from or to anything. It was just an imaginary gate erected in the middle of the desert. The bus stopped at the gate. There then appeared a group of bikers who asked our driver to step down. They talked a little and then brought a sack of money and counted it with the driver. Two of the bikers came and took our bus. Our driver and his assistant took the money and left on the bikes. The new driver announced that he was now the owner of the bus and everything in it. We then found out that together with the bus we had been sold.

This transaction was repeated every few hours and we were sold to several smugglers. We found out that a particular party controlled each leg of the route and every time the bus was sold, the price increased. First it was one sack of money then it went up to two and three towards the end. There were also caravans that carried Dushka heavy machineguns on the back of their camels. If you eliminated our bus and the arms on camel back, you were in the primitive depths of history. Again we would arrive in places where they sold arms. Bullets were sold in bags as if they were beans. Kilos of bullets were weighed on scales and exchanged. Well, how would the world's drug trade take place if such premises didn't exist?

I had gone to Khorasan and along the border was looking for a site for filming. By sunset the villages near the border would be evacuated. The villagers would flee to other cities for fear of smugglers. They also encouraged us to take flight. Rumors of insecurity were so widespread that few cars passed after sundown. In the darkness of the night, the roads were ready for the passage of smuggling caravans. The caravans according to witnesses are comprised of groups of five to a 100 people. Their ages range from 12 to 30 years. Each carries a sack of drugs on their backs and some carry hand-held rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs to protect the caravan.

If drugs are not flown by airplane, they go in containers and if otherwise, they are carried by human mules. Imagine the enormity of events these caravans pass through from one country to another until for example, they reach Amsterdam. Again, imagine what fear and horror they create among the people in different regions to maintain that 80 billion-dollar trade.

I asked an official in Taibad about the number of killings committed by the smugglers. The figures say 105 were either killed or kidnapped in two years. Over 80 have been returned. I quickly divided 105 by the 104 weeks of the two years. It equals one person per week. I reckoned that if these numbers render a region so unsafe that people prefer not to stay in their own villages and flee to other cities by night, how do we expect the people of Afghanistan to stay put? In the past 20 years, they have had one killing every five minutes. Should they stay in Afghanistan and not migrate to our country? How can we think that if we deport them, the lack of safety in Afghanistan will not bring them back?

I inquired of the officials stationed on the roads about the causes for kidnappings and killings. Apparently, the caravans on the Iranian side of the border deal with the villagers. When an Iranian smuggler does not pay money on time, he or one of his family members is kidnapped and they are returned once the money is exchanged. Again, I realize that this aggression also has an economic basis. Near the Dogharoon border the customs agents were saying that the region had been unsafe for eight years but the papers had been reporting about it for only two years. The reason for the relative wave of openness is related to the new situation of newspapers in Iran.