In a spectacular valley swept by centuries of Silk Road history, the hopes and fears of Afghanistan’s only female governor capture the mood across the country as Western troops prepare to withdraw.
Habiba Sarabi’s hope springs from the transformation of Bamiyan Province from a place of massacres and oppression of women under Taliban Islamists to one where most people live in peace and young girls flock to school.
It is fueled by a belief that the historical, cultural and physical beauty of the central province could become a magnet for international tourists whose dollars would help support those gains.
The fear comes from the fact US-led NATO forces that have fought Taliban insurgents for the past 11 years are to leave the country by the end of 2014 and all gains could be lost.
“If NATO totally makes the decision to withdraw I am sure a civil war will start,” she said in an interview in her modest office in Bamiyan town, where donkeys vie for space on the roads with cars and few weapons are in sight.
Aged 56, she remembers the bloody strife that engulfed Afghanistan in the 1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, when the West lost interest after backing the Afghan uprising against the Russians.
“If they repeat this mistake again it will be a disaster,” she said.
Bamiyan is home to the Hazara people, a Shiite Muslim minority, and any chance of a return to power by the hardline Taliban — or even a share in power — is frightening, Sarabi said.
“The Bamiyan people suffered a lot during the Taliban. People can remember several massacres in Bamiyan and still we have mass graves here,” she said.
If Afghanistan is spared the disaster Sarabi fears, it is not inconceivable that her dream of turning the area between the magnificent Hindu Kush and Koh-e-Baba mountain ranges into an international eco-tourist destination could be realized.
If not for 30 years of war since the Soviet invasion of 1979, it would likely have already drawn travelers seeking new places to ski in winter and fly-fish for wild trout in summer, while rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of Genghis Khan and Marco Polo.
Bamiyan’s physical attractions include the sapphire-blue Band-e-Amir lakes, which rise magically within a jagged, barren mountainscape without a river in sight — now center of the nation’s first national park.
They lie about 75km from Bamiyan town off a smooth new South Korean-funded highway that winds through canyons and crags of bleached ochres and past a plateau where a new airport is planned.
One of the few foreign visitors last week was retired Swiss businesswoman Ruth Mordasini, realizing a lifelong dream of returning to a landscape and culture she first saw as a 21-year-old traveling through Afghanistan in 1969.
“Bamiyan is so beautiful,” she said. “But when I told my son and daughter I was going to Afghanistan they thought I was crazy. It is sad that nobody knows what the future will be.”
Beyond the natural beauty lie centuries of turbulent history at a cultural crossroads of the old Silk Road trading route between Asia and Europe.
The modest Roof of Bamiyan hotel faces the cliffs where famed giant Buddhas stood for 1,500 years before being blown up by the Taliban in 2001, to international outrage. The huge empty niches stand as a memorial to cultural barbarity, while the cliffs themselves are pockmarked by caves where people still live as they did centuries ago.
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.
“Day by day there are improvements, but there is definitely resistance from men to women’s progress — not only from men, but also from tradition, so we have to change the mind of the people, their way of thinking,” she said.