The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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From Kabul with love: Shahrook ko salam dena

Kabul, Sept. 27:Shahrook ko mera salam dena,” shouts the newspaper boy after closing a transaction with an ‘Industani’. At a busy military road block, an Afghan soldier waves on a taxi carrying Indian journalists even as he stops all other cars for inspection, while his lounging comrade grins and says by way of explanation: “Industan amara dost.”

Indians are obviously the toast of Kabul, partly because they did nothing to hurt the nation during its most trying time while the Americans bombed Afghanistan back into the stone age and Pakistanis started ill-treating and turning out Afghan refugees.

Indians are also loved because — for the average Afghan — India means the happy land of Hindi music that blares out of every taxi’s stereo system in Kabul, Bollywood films that run full house in every movie hall in town and colourful film posters that dot dozens of stores selling nick-nacks for the city’s teeming teenagers.

“That’s the bridge through which Amitabh Bachchan rode his horse while shooting for Khuda Gawah,” said an excited taxi-driver, pointing out city sights.

Bachchan’s films still draw crowds, though it was a Sunil Shetty-starrer that was drawing crowds at Pamir Cinema, the city’s best known hall.

Aah Industan… what a beautiful land. I used to go there quite often. Delhi, Amritsar, Bombay even Calcutta… Afghans were always treated with respect… and the women, what shapely figures!” exclaims Suleiman, a trader at the dry fruit wholesale market near Kabul Dariya.

However, behind the nostalgia and the love for Indian music was shrewd Pashtoon logic. “Indians are the most trustworthy of our neighbours. They support our king Zahir Shah, they are not anti-Pashtoon like some of our other neighbours and they have a nuclear bomb…. It is very important to have a friend who has strength right now,” says Mohammed Usman, a student at Kabul University who has returned from Peshawar in Pakistan.

Pakistan heads the list of nations disliked in Kabul. Not because it supported the Taliban regime, which incidentally is not seen as all evil, but rather because of its perceived step-motherly attitude towards Afghan refugees.

“The Pakistani people were good to us, but their government treated us like cattle. They herded us into dirty, squalid camps and arrested and flogged anyone who protested. Worst of all, they used our nation to satisfy their political needs, sometimes propping up someone, sometimes ditching him for yet another,” alleges Usman. “Ask anyone it’s not a good country,” he adds.

Pakistan’s initial backing of the Taliban followed by its decision to comply with US demands to ditch it is seen as initially a bid to control events in Afghanistan and later a betrayal.

The interim Afghan government’s diplomacy reflects the feelings on the streets. While India’s Confederation of Indian Industry was given the spot where the Afghans recently held their national assembly to set up a Made in India show, Pakistan was simply denied permission to hold any shows.

“Pakistan has to give us better transit facilities to India,” says Sayed Mustafa Kazmi, minister of commerce in the interim government.

Besides, US ‘Kaldors’ or dollars may be the best loved currency in the Afghan capital and US soldiers the most sought after ‘victims’ in its ancient bazaars, but the land of the brave and the free isn’t popular either.

One has to merely take a walk through the streets to realise why. Near the Kabul airport, whole streets have been bombed out of existence.

Most of those who lived in houses and flats in these areas were innocent Afghans with no links with either the Taliban or the al Qaida. Many of them lie in unmarked graves on Kabul’s hillside.

Many others still retain the scars of those scary nights when rockets and smart bombs fell like winter snow. Even now the city is not wholly safe. Street signs warn citizens to beware of unexploded bombs and mines.

The airport looks like the biggest aviation junkyard in the world. Dozens of planes of all shapes and sizes lie like broken toys, waiting for junk dealers to strike a bargain.

“Our airline has had to accept gifts of refurbished planes from India simply because the Americans destroyed every one of the planes which were still in Afghanistan,” says Azim Javed, a worker employed to clean up the nation’s only international airport. At the customs desk, Indians are waved on without any checks.

“Next time come for a longer time. There is much to see. We are destined to be friends. After all, we are blood brothers — both the Indian and Afghan people have sprung from Ariana (the ancient name for Afghanistan literally translated meaning the land of the Aryans),” says an Afghan officer.

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