Mon, Nov 05, 2012 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Bamiyan’s governor has high hopes, fears for future

AFP, BAMIYAN, Afghanistan

A glance to the right shows the ruins of Shahr-E Gholghola (City of Screams), where Mongol chieftain Ghengis Khan’s men slaughtered every inhabitant in the 13th century. The massacre, according to legend, was to avenge the death of his son in the battle to capture the city, though there is some dispute over whether he was killed there or during the siege of the nearby Shahr-e Zohak, or Red City, carved into red sandstone cliffs and one of Bamiyan’s premier historical sites.

More recent history is visible in the old Soviet tanks scattered around the town and the mass graves of Taliban victims.

Despite its violent past, Bamiyan has been one of Afghanistan’s most peaceful provinces since the Taliban were overthrown in a US-led invasion in 2001 for harboring then al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In the afternoons, streams of schoolgirls in their distinctive black tunics and white headscarves can be seen making their way home, some heading for caves in the cliffs near the blasted Buddhas.

However, the road to Bamiyan from the capital Kabul can be dangerous, with recent kidnappings and executions, and the safest way into the valley is a half-hour flight over the snow-capped peaks of the mountain ranges.

There are no commercial flights at the moment. Only the UN and aid agencies make regular trips — but, like everything else connected to Bamiyan tourism, there are plans for commercial flights, a new airport, new roads.

Tour operator Gull Bayzadah, who drew 74 international tourists — many UN and aid workers already based in the country — to ski in Bamiyan last winter, shares Sarabi’s dream of developing the province’s potential.

However, he also shares her fear about the departure of the NATO troops, and worries that deteriorating security might force him to abandon his business and leave the country.

“There is always hope that they might stay,” he says wistfully. “That they won’t waste their blood that has been spilled”.

Sarabi acknowledges the challenges of developing transport and infrastructure before tourism can take off, but she is proud of her achievements as the only female governor in a country which, under the Taliban, was notorious for its suppression of women: girls were denied an education and women were not allowed to work.

Even after seven years as governor, she faces opposition from traditionalists uncomfortable with a woman holding power.

“No one would think that a woman could govern a province,” she says with a wry smile. “It’s a tough job to prove ourselves.”

“But I’m happy and at least a bit proud that the people now realize that a woman can do a big job, and can be a kind of role model for the other women and especially girls,” she said.

Of Bamiyan’s 135,000 schoolchildren, 45 percent are girls, Sarabi said — up from virtually zero in the days of the Taliban. The trained pharmacist, in elegant gray suit and white headscarf, said she has made a special effort to get girls into school — traveling personally in the summer months to remote districts not accessible during the snowed-in winters to encourage parents to allow their daughters to study.

“We now have the highest percentage of girls in school in the country,” she said.

However, bringing change in the attitude towards women is a constant struggle.

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