Newspaper article International New York Times

Afghanistan's River of Solace ; Menaced by Taliban, Helmand's Capital City Recalls a Lost Way of Life

Newspaper article International New York Times

Afghanistan's River of Solace ; Menaced by Taliban, Helmand's Capital City Recalls a Lost Way of Life

Article excerpt

The resilience of Lashkar Gah, a city known as Little America, is reflected on the riverbank, a gathering place that has inspired at least one poem.

The banks of the placid Helmand River have always been the social center of Lashkar Gah, the southern Afghan provincial capital sometimes called Little America during the decades of modernization efforts here.

The appeal of the river stands aside from worldly concerns, and there are many of those lately. The water is calm this time of year, the sunset gorgeous. To unwind at the end of the day, people come to the riverbank for bandaar -- easy chat over a cup of tea or, if in season, the delicious pomegranates this region is known for. Other visitors have slowed their worlds with hashish, lying on their backs in the water, away from the crowds, fascinated with the clear sky above.

On a recent reporting trip, I was particularly keen to talk to a friend here, a young university lecturer with helpful insights about this place. Even by its own standard, the surrounding region of Helmand Province has suffered a rough, bloody year. The Taliban, making major inroads, are now holed up in one of Lashkar Gah's suburbs across the river. Was he worried that the city might fall, that the lifestyle he had grown used to -- a vibrant educational environment, multiple private TV and radio channels -- could be in danger?

After a conversation over milk tea on a worn-out couch at a little cafe facing the river, he suggested dinner with a couple of his friends, also university lecturers, at a fish restaurant that had opened just outside the city. The suburb, Karez, is considered one of the safest, he said. Even when the Taliban entered Lashkar Gah a few years ago, they met fierce resistance in Karez.

Before leaving for the restaurant, the professors spread their shawls by the river for the evening prayer. Everyone savored the beauty of the sunset in its last moments.

The river's course is a reminder that life goes on despite violent upheaval, flowing through Taliban and opium country, slowing down in this city, and then running on to Nimruz Province, the smuggling hub on the border with Iran.

Its calm waters have sustained agriculture and towns in the middle of the desert, and would-be conquerors have been drawn along its path for eons. It is that role that informs a Pashto poem by Abdul Bari Jahani, who is now Afghanistan's minister of information and culture, which reads in part:

Helmand,

I ask you in the language of the heart:

Do you recall the cruelties of your time?

You know well what's happened at your edges.

You listened as angry skies grumbled

and death rained down with bullets.

You watched blood flow with your waves

as hangmen discarded martyred bodies.

And you witnessed those who looted

the nomad girls' nose-rings:

all in the name of the great lord. …

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