This week, Video Journalist Yalda Hakim returns to her birthplace, Kabul.
In 1983 her father risked death by smuggling his young family out of Afghanistan on horseback to Pakistan, to escape the Russian invasion. Yalda was six months old.
VIDEO DIARY: Return To Afghanistan
BLOG: Tales from Kabul
PHOTO GALLERY: Yalda's Afghanistan
YOUR SAY: What are your thoughts on Yalda's return to war torn Afghanistan?
While Yalda's parents embark on an emotional family reunion, she takes her camera to an opium den, a drug rehab centre, a refugee camp and a hospital, keen to understand why the city of her birth is so vastly different to what she'd expected.
She often travels hidden in the boot of a relative's car – they know she stands out as a foreigner and they fear she'll be targeted by kidnappers.
Yalda even comes across Oliver Percovich, an Australian ex-pat, who's desperately trying to make a difference by teaching Afghan children how to skate. He donates skateboards to local kids, in an attempt to inject some fun into their lives.
When she's not filming, Yalda stays with various relatives, all of whom she's never met before. She shares their lives, which includes no electricity and intermittent running water.
But the most confronting moment comes when Yalda meets her paternal grandparents for the first time.
When she walks into the room she feels nothing towards these strangers. They can't stop looking at her, touching her, yet she feels distinctly uncomfortable.
Yalda also meets aunts, cousins and nieces for the first time, but sees little of herself in them. Her overwhelming emotion is guilt: why does she live with so much, when they survive on so little?
This week in still endlessly troubled Afghanistan, the Taliban, in a word, murdered a British woman. Her crime, according to them was that she'd been teaching Chrisitianity, something her charity organisation denies. The woman's tragic death – along with that of two German soldiers and five Afghan children – says loads about the immensity of the task of rebuilding the war-torn Afghan society. But tonight ‘Dateline’ has a particularly personal take on the Afghanistan story. It involves one of its own young SBS video journalists, Yalda Hakim. Yalda was born in Kabul but returned a short time back for the very first time. What she experienced, quite frankly, shocked her. It also raised questions about her own identity and her connection to her embattled homeland.
REPORTER: Yalda Hakim
I'm returning to Kabul, my first visit since my family fled the Russian invasion 25 years ago. They escaped on horseback carrying me with them I was just six months old. Because of my personal ties to this country I have always romanticised Afghanistan, a nation of proud people, dignified, ready to defend their land against foreign invaders. But 30 years of war has left the country broken, its people hungry and destitute.
This is the old Russian Cultural Centre, my father, who is an architect, once told me it was one of the most impressive buildings in Kabul. But not any more, it was destroyed in the early '90s during the civil war after the Russian occupation, now it's home to hundreds of drug addicts.
Outside I meet Jamshed, old before his time. As a Mujahideen he fought against the Russians as a proud young warrior. It was during these battles in the '80s that he lost his leg. Now he spends his time in a drugged-out haze.
JAMSHED (Translation): I became addicted out of misery and frustration, when I look at my leg, I just want to cry. I said to God, ‘people can walk normally, why can’t I?”
Afghanistan now produces 93% of the world's supply of opium. US$4 or US$5 will buy enough to stay high for days. Jamshed says it's cheaper than alcohol.
JAMSHED (Translation): I can't afford to buy alcohol.
MAN (Translation): A bottle of alcohol costs 2000 Afghani.
JAMSHED (Translation): Even at 500 I can’t afford it.
MAN (Translation): Heroin is cheaper than alcohol?
JAMSHED (Translation): You can buy heroin for 50.
ADDICT (Translation): May God save us from this pain, why have you come here? This is a place for dogs.
Inside the centre, the stench is overwhelming – the sickly sweet smell of opium combined with human faeces. It's weird in here. There's a man with a plastic bag over his head, either hiding from the camera or trying to intensify the hit. Used needles hang from the ceiling, but no-one can tell me why. In the gloom I spot this man selling grapes – another surreal moment.
MAN (Translation): Do you want some grapes? I’ll give you some for free.
REPORTER: Thank you.
I'd like to talk with these men, but they're too stoned. And they begin to shout.
MAN (Translation): They put the dollars in their pockets and we get heroin.
Even though I have three armed guards I'm worried about being attacked by these addicts.
ADDICT (Translation): You've already destroyed our country, you’ve got us addicted to heroin, they line their pockets, we smoke the heroin, we eat the poison, the rich and powerful eat the dollars.
It's a deeply disturbing place and before long, I have to get out. Upstairs, I'm confused by this old man. He doesn't seem like an addict, just totally bewildered. Jamshed says he first noticed the flood of opium under the Taliban.
JAMSHED (Translation): When the Taliban came drugs were more available, in the name of Islam they sent the drugs by plane. We didn't know dugs even under Najib's regime, if anyone used drugs I’d advise them to stop and beat him. Then one day I was addicted too, my life turned into a disaster.
I returned home that evening deeply troubled by these scenes and recorded my thoughts in a video diary.
‘Nothing that I have ever experienced or read about could have prepared me for… going to an opium den in Kabul today. It was one of the most shocking experiences I've ever had and I've realised that that is a true reality of Afghanistan and I'm shocked.’
But it's not just the war veterans battling addiction. Women and children are victims too. Afghanistan now has 60,000 child drug addicts including 1-month-old Ahmad who became addicted in his mother's womb. But she wants to put an end to her family's shame and is seeking a solution here at Sanja Amanj Kabul's only women and children rehabilitation clinic.
WOMAN (Translation): My husband is dead and he loved me so much, for 40 days and nights I didn’t eat any food.
This group are also addicts and I was drawn to this striking young girl, Gul Pari which means “flower angel”. She's just 12 years old and been addicted for half her life. She says it was her mother, sitting next to her who gave her access to the drugs when she was so young.
GUL PARI (Translation): I’d watch my mum smoke heroin at home, afterwards when she went shopping I would cut some up for myself and smoke it.
REPORTER (Translation): Why did you keep smoking it and how did you feel afterwards?
GUL PARI (Translation): When I smoked heroin I felt sleepy and relaxed, when I wasn’t smoking, my body was in pain.
Originally from the north-western province of Herat, Gul Pari's family travelled half way across Afghanistan to escape the heroin believing opium was the lesser of the two evils.
GUL PARI (Translation): Mum looked for opium but could not find any so we turned to heroin again and I was hospitalised. I stopped using heroin but now I am using it again and I am thankful to the doctors. I have stopped and recovered.
Dr Shekiba runs the clinic which was built last year. She says their youngest patient is the baby Ahmad but they also treat children as young as three or four.
DR SHEKIBA (Translation): In 2000 when I started working with addicts it was very hard to find a female addict compared to now, now you can easily find them and the number of female, male and child addicts is very high. It's mainly our female patients who use opium as medication because of the poor economic situation – they can’t afford to pay to see a doctor. They never know about the side effects, they get addicted and it ruins their future.
With the government unable or unwilling to stop the ever-increasing opium production I find the head of counter narcotics, Dr Wardak, sitting in the dark, literally, just another victim of Kabul's chronic power blackouts.
REPORTER: I'm just concerned about the lighting.
DR WARDAK: They will start the generator soon.
When the lights come back on I press him about the flood of drugs in the country, but he avoids the question.
REPORTER: So the government isn't doing enough?
DR WARDAK: No, the government already has..
REPORTER: But in terms of supply, in the streets – people can get access wherever they want.
DR WARDAK: Yes, about the drugs, as I told you before, it is not fully controlled by the police officers – it is not fully under control.
Back at the clinic Dr Shekiba jokes with Gul Pari about getting married now that she's better.
GUL PARI (Translation): No, no! marry your own daughter off!
DR SHEKIBA (Translation): I'LL marry you off first, you are older than her. First you and then her.
GUL PARI (Translation): She is thirteen, I am twelve.
DR SHEKIBA (Translation): No, you are thirteen and she is twelve.
GUL PARI (Translation): I am very happy, I want to get an education, before I only cared about drugs, now I want a better life for me and my brother.
REPORTER (Translation): What do you want to be when you grow up?
GUL PARI (Translation): I want to be a doctor and ask other girls my age to stop using drugs if they are addicted or using cigarettes, hashish or heroin.
As I leave the clinic I overhear the doctor telling Gul Pari that she is destined to have a bright future, but I wonder how true this is.
Just behind these hills, 20 minutes from city the Taliban are waiting. They have already infiltrated the city and the security situation is deteriorating fast. It's strange because this is a serene part of Kabul with flowers and holiday houses, scenes you don't normally see in war-torn Afghanistan. But even this happy scene has a darker side. I learn these people don't want to linger here. They're eager to get going because of security fears.
The Australian Embassy calls me to warn of the danger. Like many Kabulis, I'm never sure I'll make it home every night, the only place I can really relax.
‘I mean, I'm so fearful on a daily basis that I don't travel in the one car. I might go out in a white station wagon and I might come back in a blue four-wheel drive. You know, and I sit in these traffic jams every day and I think, “Will that car in front of me explode?” And it's that fear of the lack of security and fear of having no freedom that I find the worst part of Kabul.’
The locals wonder why the Taliban is so strong after being routed seven years ago. Even senior politicians say those fighting the insurgents haven't got their act together. Yunus Qanuni is president of the lower house of Parliament and a critic of the government.
YUNUS QUANUNI, (Translation): There is still no single definition of terrorism among Afghanistan’s international allies, and there is no single definition among….. the officials in Afghanistan and the international community. Those connected to the international troops, we can see they don’t have a specific target nor a strategy for fighting terrorism here. They are all making mistakes in targeting, strategy and tactics. They are dealing with the Taliban here from another angle. All this has created problems that the Taliban can take advantage of and grow stronger.
Even more disturbing, Qanuni says the Taliban's backers are actually part of the government.
YUNUS QUANUNI (Translation): Some elements who were supporting the Taliban have now entered factions in our government. The entry of these people has been effective in changing the attitude and policy of Afghan officials towards the Taliban and that is why we still see this game in Afghanistan.
Government spokesperson Asif Nang denies this, he blames the Taliban's resurgence on the international community and lack of support for his government.
ASIF NANG, GOVERNMENT SPOKESPERSON (Translation): The Coalition forces under the leadership of the Americans declared the battlefield free of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but they did not destroy them. Then they sought refuge in a very organised fashion in neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan. If everything continues like it has up until today and the Taliban keeps weakening the government in political, economic and social terms, I don’t think it will be good for the future of Afghanistan or for the future of the world.
But international criticism of the Karzai Government is increasing. For example, a recent leaked US intelligence report, linked Karzai's brother to the heroin trade. And while seven years after the US invasion, downtown Kabul is bustling, there's still no regular power or running water in most of the city. So Afghans ask where all the foreign aid has been spent.
MAN (Translation): Every day the situation is deteriorating…..lots of explosions, the war is getting worse, people are going hungry. Billions of dollars pour into this country but it all goes to foreign NGOs. There is no planning, no questions asked, no accountability, no planning, no government. Under this government people are unsatisfied.
If people are wondering where some of the money went, they need look no further than this suburb called Sherpoor, made famous after the British garrison stationed here was overrun by the Afghans in the late 19th century. Today's conquerors are diplomats, non-government organisations and Afghanistan's newly rich. The locals describe some of these mansions as 'narcotecture' – funded by drug profits.
In this part of the city there is 24-hour electricity and running water but on the other side of town, people are still living in refugee camps with no electricity or running water. This camp is just 15 minutes from the mansions. The children seem happy enough, but life here is grim. And the city is spreading quickly. The camp elder, Kaka Noor Mohammad, say they are forgotten people.
KAKA NOOR MOHAMMAD (Translation): We’ve been here for five years and no one has helped us yet. Even the government ignores these families who live in these tents in snow or in the heat of summer. We are from this nation, we are from this soil, the owners of these buildings won’t even allow us to stay here, they won’t let us go to the mosque, they say we smell.
I find it deeply depressing to see these people powerless, that Afghans are divided and hostage to forces beyond their control. A proud people reduced to this. But there's some hope for the future, tenuous as it may be here at Afghanistan's biggest hospital. It's crowded inside, with all these women seeking medical attention. In another section, men have gathered for a seminar. They're from remote provinces, where the Taliban hold sway. There are plenty of chairs, but they prefer the floor. They're learning to break down old cultural barriers. When they return to their villages, these health workers will be treating women for the first time. The trainer, Abdul Qatar, says the signs are promising.
ABDUL QATAR, TRAINER (Translation): They say things have changed and there is more awareness, they said it’s better now, now the women are allowed to get vaccinated and are coming here to give birth. Compared to the past, it is much better now.
These men know that the Taliban have targeted and killed health care workers, but they refuse to be intimidated.
HEALTH CARE WORKER (Translation): I’d say we don’t have any kind of fear of doing our jobs, on behalf of all my brothers I would like to say we have no fear. Even if we lose our lives in this way, the merciful God will take us to paradise.
As I watched the men diligently planning for the future I wondered how many would survive their return to the remote Taliban heartlands. The next day as I travel across town I chance upon something I would never have expected and something that gives me hope for Kabul's kids. This skateboard rink and this Australian showing them how to ride, when 34-year-old Oliver Percovich first rode his skateboard through the streets of Kabul, these children were fascinated.
CHILD (Translation): It’s good playing with skateboards and they are fun toys and it’s fun and everything. I have learned how to come down from the top a little bit and how to ride and how to jump on it.
Oliver started this project called Skateistan, which he funds himself, it began with 10 second-hand skateboards sent from Melbourne. He says skating is a different way of communicating with Afghans and while security is a major problem he's critical of the sheltered expatriate lifestyle.
OLIVER PERCOVICH: People seem to be talking across each other and it just doesn't… the real issues don't actually get discussed properly a lot of the times.
Skating is certainly different to the macho national sport ‘buzkashi’ where two teams of horsemen fight over a headless calf carcass.
REPORTER (Translation): What do you want to be when you grow up?
CHILD (Translation): When I’m older I want to keep skating.
REPORTER (Translation): When you go abroad do you want to help others? What will you teach them?
BOY (Translation): I will teach them how to skate.
Oliver knows that Afghanistan's future lies with kids like these.
OLIVER PERCOVICH: I think a big part of what we are trying to do is build trust with the children that we are skateboarding with and hope that that grows into something bigger. I'd love to develop a youth parliament out of this, if I could, a future leader, who knows.
That's Kabul – skateboards and heroin, hope and fear, with the Taliban waiting at the doorstep. As my journey comes to an end I realise how removed I am from this world. I'm grateful my parents took me away all those years ago but I worry about the uncertain future here for my relatives and the people I've met.
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