Re-Creating Afghanistan: Returning to Istalif
Village in Country's Former Breadbasket Struggles to Rebuild
Listen to Renée Montagne's report on Istalif.
View a photo gallery about Istalif.
For more than 70 years Abduhl Wahkeel's family made ceramics in Istalif. Wahkeel is the first potter to return to the area, but if he can't sell his pots he fears he may have to move his family to Kabul where he can work as a day laborer.
Photo: Tom Bullock, NPR News
The Shomali Plain is just north of Kabul.
Graphic: Katherine Parker, NPR Online
Istalif was home to more than 45,000 people. All were forced to leave when the Taliban decided the town was a liability and razed it.
Photo: Tom Bullock, NPR News
Aug. 1, 2002 -- Istalif, an hour's drive north of Kabul, sits in the heart of the broad, fertile Shomali Plain, once considered the breadbasket of Afghanistan. The village, formerly surrounded by lush orchards, was home to a bazaar with 1,000 merchants.
Istalif managed to survive Afghanistan's war with the Soviet Union. But when the Taliban arrived, the Shomali Plain turned into the front lines. By 1999, the Taliban forced hundreds of thousands of people from the region and destroyed their farms, shops and homes.
Now, in the wake of the Taliban's collapse, the villagers -- along with record numbers of refugees around Afghanistan -- are starting to return, hoping to rebuild what was lost. Morning Edition's Renée Montagne reports on their efforts in the first of a series called "Re-Creating Afghanistan."
She finds Istalif farmer Mizahr Gul repairing his crumbling mud wall. "When the... cruel Taliban came, we were forced to leave our house," he says. "The place we live in now is all rubble..."
The ancient canals that used to irrigate the area's farms are ruined. So, the night before, Gul was forced to haul water from miles away to irrigate his grape vines.
Less than a month after the Taliban fell, farmer Abduhl Bokhi returned to find his house burned down. "Except for the walls that were left standing, there was nothing... no windows, no roof -- nothing."
His neighbors helped him clear the underbrush from his neglected fields. Now the eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and pumpkins Bokhi planted are ripe and ready to eat. He'll use some of the crops to feed his family. Others he'll sell at the bazaar.
Local officials said they've received little outside help so far. One non-governmental agency brought about 2,000 trees and 9,000 grape vines along with pickaxes and shovels.
"It is a positive thing, but 9,000 grape vines are just enough for one or two gardens here," says Muhammad Akrahm, a local official. "It's a drop in the ocean. We would like more help, more trees, more grapevines..."
Officials say they also need clean drinking water, clinics built and stocked with basic medicine, schools and books, plus loans for the small businesses that once filled the bazaar, which was famous for its ceramic goods.
Abduhl Wahkeel is the first potter to return to the area. He hopes to continue the potter's tradition of his father and grandfather. He says he has little choice but to try to succeed. "If nobody helps us and if I don't make enough money to support my family here, then I will have no alternative but to go back to Kabul," where he delivered food, wheat and flour in a wheelbarrow.
A 'Cultural Reawakening' in Afghanistan
Kandahar: Built to Last
Listen to a Morning Edition report from NPR's Mike Shuster about the Shomali Plain. Jan. 16, 2002.
Search for more NPR stories on Afghanistan.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): Return to Afghanistan
April 2002 U.N. World Food Programme report on rebuilding in the Shomali Plain