Safety, Prosperity Return to Afghan Village Five years after the invasion of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban has been making a comeback in the country's south. But in the north, at least one village has found peace and prosperity.
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Safety, Prosperity Return to Afghan Village

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Safety, Prosperity Return to Afghan Village

Safety, Prosperity Return to Afghan Village

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne in Kabul.


And I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington.

We've been following the fortunes of Afghanistan this month, five years after the American-led coalition ousted the Taliban. We've heard about villages in the south still caught up in the war with the Taliban. And today Renee takes us to a village in the north that has found peace and prosperity.

MONTAGNE: Steve, I first visited Istalif in the summer of 2002, and that meant heading up a rough mountain road north of Kabul to a site of utter ruin. People there had put up a fierce resistance to the Taliban.

And when the Taliban finally swept through in the late 1990s, they got their revenge by torching everything - homes, vineyards. People say they even killed the songbirds in their cages.

The village of Istalif was especially fragile because it was Afghanistan's ceramic center. When we walked down here in 2002 just after the war, the ground was covered in crushed ceramics.

You walked on a road of crushed ceramics all from the fighting with the Taliban. Today, I'm looking down a road lined with pottery shops, bright with a blue and green-glazed pottery Istalif is known for.

I'm searching out one potter in particular, Abdul Wahkeel, who was the very first and for a time the only potter to come home to Istalif. We find him up a steep, dusty road feeding wood into the open mouth of a big kiln.

He's a tall man, wearing the flat hat traditional here above a sweatshirt splattered with clay. Abdul Wahkeel smiles broadly; he's surprised to see me.

(Speaking foreign language)

Mr. ABDUL WAHKEEL (Potter, Istalif, Afghanistan): (Through translator) Where were you, because you didn't come here for a long time?

MONTAGNE: Yeah. We went back to America. So we've come back to talk to you about Istalif and your pottery five years after the war.

Mr. WAHKEEL: (Through translator) It's good. Things are going well.

MONTAGNE: As we watch, Abdul Wahkeel pulls a thick knob from the brick to reveal a deep red glow inside.

Mr. WAHKEEL: (Through translator) We only need 10 more minutes to have the pots made.

MONTAGNE: The last time we were here, almost five years ago, you were really having problems getting your pots to market. The roads weren't very good. The trucks weren't coming. Is that still an issue?

Mr. WAHKEEL: (Through translator) We still have the road problem because it's not a paved road. But other than that, it's good because the pottery bazaar has attracted attention. On their days off, foreigners working in Kabul come here to shop for pots; and also in the summer, a lot of families come her to picnic and they also buy pots.

MONTAGNE: I see you have electricity now, looks like going into your house.

Mr. WAHKEEL: (Through translator) Yeah, the electricity system has been built here. They're turning it on in a week or two.

MONTAGNE: Perhaps because it's a famous pottery bazaar, perhaps because it's close to Kabul, the capital, but Istalif managed to get its share of the aid the international community promised to Afghanistan: a small new hydroelectric power plant now perches along the river that rushes past the village. Courtesy, says a sign, of South Korea. Germany built the school where boys 7 to 22 come to learn.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group #1: (Speaking foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Abdul Qahar is the principal of the Istalif's Boys School. In it's comfortable office, I remind Abdul Qahar that when we last talked his pupils were learning to read on wooden benches in the open schoolyard.

Mr. ABDUL QAHAR (Principal, Istalif's Boys School): (Through translator) You remember 2002 well. This school didn't have anything, just a couple of tents.

MONTAGNE: Looking out the windows of your office we can see a town and a valley that is safe, that is pretty prosperous. How have Istalif's people made their town safe?

Mr. QAHAR: (Through translator) Well, the reason is that people here in Istalif have skills. Everyone of them in one field or craft, and that's something that supports security. People want to do their work in a peaceful environment.

MONTAGNE: The link between the lack of jobs and violence is much talked about here in Afghanistan. Elsewhere in the country, the Taliban pay people to join them. In Istalif, which had long prospered amidst graceful farms and vineyards, the jobs came back with the people. First, the teahouse and the potters, then the barber, the tailor and carpenter. Soon (unintelligible) pharmacy opened its clean, white doors on the corner.

Now stalls and shops line the main street, offering bread and hardware and scarves. Behind baskets brimming with apples, nuts, peppers and tomatoes, Anwar(ph) tells his story.

Back when he was a boy, a Soviet bomb destroyed his family's home. He lost three of his family and his right hand. Years later, he lost his home. Driven into exile in Kabul by what he calls the cruel Taliban.

ANWAR (Resident, Istalif, Afghanistan): (Through translator) I always dreamed I would come back to Istalif. This was my only hope. Thanks be to God that security is very good here now. Security officials are at our service and we don't have any problems.

MONTAGNE: Security is consistently the top concern of Afghans. They want a strong army, and more and better-trained police. Here in Istalif, four uniformed police are prominently posted in the bazaar. Plus a clean-shaven man in a sports jacket chats comfortably with a shopkeeper. On this street of beards and traditionally loose salwar kameezes, he sticks out. I'm an intelligence agent, he says.

Unidentified Man #2 (Intelligence Agent): (Through translator) Basically, our job is to prevent from the influence of the enemy in the area.

MONTAGNE: The country's domestic intelligence agency aims to have offices in most villages and city neighborhoods. From his office in Istalif, this agent who just smiled when I asked his name, keeps an eye out for anything suspicious. It's an article of faith here that bombers and provocateurs are coming over from Pakistan. In a village that paid such a high price for resisting the Taliban in a country that's so recently hosted al-Qaida and still at war, this man is welcome.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) The people in Istalif district are pretty cooperative with the government, and they would not allow the enemy to infiltrate these areas because they've got very bad memories from Taliban.

MONTAGNE: Nearly five years after people started coming back to Istalif, many have to think a moment when I asked them what's their biggest complaint. Anwar (unintelligible) complains that the plan to pave main street has been delayed too long. Abdul Wahkeel's complaint is personal; he lost three quills full of pot and the profit. School principal Qahar's is humorous. The school, he complains, was designed with one big flaw.

Mr. QAHAR: (Through translator) This school has more than one hundred doors and the kids can easily escape.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: There is one thing Abdul Qahar doesn't complain about, and that's the school bell. Fashioned from an old rocket shell back in 2002 to call students to lessons taught under tents. Is that still your bell now?

Mr. QAHAR: (Through translator) Oh yes. We still use that rocket shell. It's a piece of history. We suffered such pain from those shells. We want to have that in our memories. And one other thing, to all the countries helping Istalif and Afghanistan, we are grateful for their help and will be grateful forever.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

MONTAGNE: And Steve, listeners who'd like to see that bell and our potter, Abdul Wahkeel, then and now, can go to

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Renee Montagne, who's been reporting from Afghanistan.

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