Portraits of Afghanistan

Five years after the Taliban's fall, much of the country is in the grip of violence. But some Afghans have seen their lives transformed
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The Independent Online

Kubra, 38, Teacher

Kubra looks far older than her 38 years. Like the other women in her village, her life has been hard and as mother to 12 children - five daughters and seven sons - there has been the added burden and stress of bringing them up during 25 years of constant insecurity and the turmoil of war. "I lived in five different villages in just seven years. Later, under the Taliban, some of my sons fled to Iran. My husband is a farmer." Her four youngest children, two sons and two daughters, are going to school - an opportunity her other children and she never had. Kubra is the only cash bread-winner for the family. Before, she was earning between 30 and 50 Afghanis a day as a tailor (35p-60p), but now her salary has increased as she is employed under the National Solidarity Programme as a tailoring teacher for village women.

"This is a time of lots of improvements in my life. When I'm working, I feel very happy. Security is very good, there is electricity and they have brought sewing machines for us - the women want the project to continue."

Kubra prefers not to think about a return to anarchy. "If the NGOs didn't help us we would die - I mean, now we have a clinic and when we get we can get help. Most important for her are the new freedoms in her life and her hope that Afghanistan "will be good again like other countries" .

Rohgul Walidzada, 38, Organiser, Local Politician

The toughest moment in Rohgul Walidzada's fight for women's rights was in 2000 when she was one of the first four women who dared to walk in the streets of Baharak, a town deep in the valleys of the hindu Kush in the remote north-east.

Despite wearing a burka, she faced criticism and insults, which only got worse when she dared go to the Afghan Aid's office and ask for a job. " People called me Dollari and said I should be burnt because I wanted a job outside the home," she recalls. Since then, she has gone on to become a local organiser for the Aga Khan Foundation and stood for Parliament against Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president.

"I resigned from my job, hired a car at my own expense and travelled to all the districts in the province. I had no problem with men. They knew me from my work on community development and supported my ideas." She narrowly lost, but is adamant she will stand again in 2009.

Like many Afghans, Rohgul has overcome great hardship. A science teacher for 18 years, she is the mother of five daughters and a son who was just 40 days old when they had to flee Kabul, walking 100 miles then travelling by truck cross the front line to the relative safety of Badakhshan. "We thought we would be killed as we had no permission to escape, but we had to carry on. " Life has improved since then. She and her husband both have jobs, their two eldest daughters are at Kabul University studying engineering. But tongues continue to wag. "The other day a mullah denounced my husband as a Communist and people question my morals because I sometimes stay at the office guesthouse away from my family."

Hayatullah, 25, Shopkeeper

"I'm sorry I'm late. I was trying to sort out a row between two neighbours - their sons were fighting." Hayatullah is accustomed to violence. His first shop was destroyed in 1983 during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In his home town, the pro-Soviet government controlled the village by day, the mujahedin by night. Hayatullah lost everything and had to labour in the fields. Several years later, he moved to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif where he was conscripted into the army. After two years' service, he opened a shop. But the Taliban takeover of Mazar in 1998 put an end to that enterprise: "It was chaos and anarchy, and my shop was looted," he recalls. He moved back to Badakhshan and returned to labouring in the poppy fields. "It was hard work from dawn to dusk and I was paid a maximum of 150 Afghanis (£1.60) a day. My health suffered." In 2003 Hayatullah obtained a microcredit of 10,000 Afghanis (£106) which allowed him to open another shop. Hayatullah sells a variety of goods from rice, tea, oil, biscuits and salt to notebooks and pens. Now he reckons he makes 5,000 Afghanis (£53) a month and his 18-year-old daughter, a tailor, brings in another 1,000 Afghanis (£10.60). He paid back his loan in four instalments over two years.

Hayatullah's life is better than it has been for 30 years. "Then it was a hand-to-mouth existence, now I can support my family, my children go to school, I can take them to the doctor and buy medicines. Without the loan, I would be waiting to die."

Malalai, 33, Journalist

Malalai does not pass unnoticed in the streets of Kabul. Her blue jeans and a white embroidered scarf are unusual for an Afghan woman. She is a journalist and says her mission is to give a voice to Kabul's young.

The horrors of the civil war after the Soviet withdrawal came to her doorstep and continue to haunt her. "We only left the capital for two months when our street became the frontline between two warring factions," she says. "We were the only ones left and eventually we were warned that they would come and kill my father." He had been a police officer under the pro-Soviet government. "We went to hide in the provinces but even there we weren't safe. So we returned to Kabul but it was so dangerous we couldn't go out.

"One time an injured boy fell in front of our door. We couldn't rescue him because of the intense shooting. My mother hid us because the dogs came to eat him and the next day only his shoes were left." Malalai is the editor of a weekly radio phone-in programme called Straight Talk which focuses on teenagers. A recent programme debatingwhether there should be women police officers received more than 400 calls.

"I can speak with people from all walks of life, about what they feel and think. I know about people's difficulties and problems and sometimes I can help solve them." Malalai is the only one of four brothers and sisters who has a job. She supports the entire family - her father died of a heart attack some years back.

Fazeleddin, 33, Farmer

"Wartime was not a good time to be a farmer in Afghanistan. I had 20 sheep and 12 cows, but I could not keep them, the armed groups kept stealing them." To make ends meet, Fazeleddin began working as a labourer in the opium poppy fields. His part of Badakhshan had grown poppies for many decades.

But Fazeleddin was lucky. When in 1993 the British NGO AfghanAid brought beehives to the area, he was given three hives and taught how to manage them. Now he has 33 hives. "I even sold a hive for 5,000 Afghanis (£53) to an opium producer recently," he says. "These days he uses his land for wheat and potatoes. Income from poppies is less than before and it requires a huge amount of labour." In a good year, he reckons wheat provides about 20,000 Afghanis (£212) per acre, compared to 24,000 Afghanis (£254) for opium poppies.

He sells honey locally, and to traders who take it to Kabul. "My life has changed tremendously," he says. "I used to work on a farm, now I lease 12 acres of land and employ my own labourers." Fazeleddin has three children, but his enterprise supports an extended family of 18 in all. He has added three rooms to his house, has a generator, electric light and satellite television - an extremely rare luxury in rural Afghanistan. Fazeleddin has sold 80 hives. His success is not an exception according to AfghanAid, which says that 80 per cent of their small enterprise grants have been repaid. And bees can come in handy, too. During an anti-Western riot in 2005, the AfghanAid office was saved when the mob disturbed bees in the compound. "They swarmed, and the attackers got scared and ran away," Fazeleddin recalls with a smile.