Kabul reminds me of Rio de Janeiro, a never ending urban carpet teeming with life, surrounding rocky and statuesque peaks, at which feet the poorest build their own shelters clinging to the mountain’s vertical walls. The only differences are that Kabul’s peaks are naked and trees are lonely, women are hiding their beauty in public, and they listen to qataghani music instead of samba.
Well, there is another difference. You have to climb Kuh-e-Sherdarwaza mountain to see it. The city is immense, and only mountain ranges on the horizon can contain it. But between street’s human chaos and the sky there is a black, foggy and ominous layer of smog. When the wind picks up, it is able to move away the lower morning dusty fog, but not that smoggy and suspended mantle.
“What do people think about pollution? Does the government do anything against it?” I was asking to Hamid, a civil society activist. “They have to survive, to earn a living. Do you think they have time to worry about pollution? Maybe, when things will go better…” he replied, while he was taking pictures of Kabul’s mantle.
The image the city recalls in you is of a boiling volcano. Old infrastructures, simple street markets, disordered traffic, dust and garbage, armed policemen and property guards, governmental characters hiding in palaces, criminals’ impunity and feeling of insecurity in the outskirts. But then, again, humans are able to produce hope even in the middle of an eruption: hundreds of associations take care of women’s future, heal children’s broken dreams or challenge the System’s corruption on radio programmes or before local courts. The Human Rights and Civil Society Network gathering around sixty human rights groups from all over the country, the Afghan Women Network with one hundred and twenty-six local organisations and three thousand individual members, tens of courageous journalists reporting on warlords’ abuses and province governors’ own interests in public affairs. You need time, you need to drink many cups of tea and knock on heavy iron doors to find them and find out about them. You need to ask questions to yourself beyond the reports of terrorist attacks.
One of them happened on January 20, 2016, around three hundred meters from my guesthouse. I heard the sharp blow and saw the column of black smoke rising from between the district buildings. Seven staff members of TOLO News, Afghanistan’s first 24-hour news channel, have been killed. Since the start of 2016, Kabul has seen at least six bomb attacks. Afghanistan is ranked as low as 122 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index, a gauge of media freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Many are also the stories of ordinary violence I have heard, concerning mostly women and girls. However, you do not need to come here to know about these unfortunate cases. You can read reports and listen to the news. You have though to come here to know how people are standing up, and to meet the frontline characters of this diffused civil resistance.
Even in the furthermost provinces of the country the youth is getting organised. In the town of Aybak, 30,000 inhabitants, the modest chief town of Samangan province, two months ago, when seven people were killed by Taliban in Zabul’s province, the local human rights defenders were able to bring into the street around 250 people, an extraordinary number of dissent voices for that context, where young journalists investigating corruption fear the threats of its own regional government. At each violent attack, they organise press conferences (the last one after the Kabul’s attack of January 20), radio or TV talk-shows, or public rallies asking for an end to country’s violence and for justice against criminals. The growing number of supporters they year-by-year gain represents the first seed of a critical citizens’ mass counterbalancing the power game between public authorities, warlords and local mafias. Aybak is located in a valley of the Western extreme foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range. Outside the town, there is a beautiful circular temple carved from the living rock, which hosted Buddhist rituals. Besides it, you can still visit a royal palace of those times, also carved from a rocky hill. Local people told me that it was an important centre of the Bactrian civilisation, the easternmost part of the Hellenistic world. The temple, however, seems dating back 5,000 years. During the recent Taliban rule, the royal palace was used as a military checkpoint, and Taliban did not pay attention to the temple, certainly because it did not have any sculpted human shapes to be demolished any more. Its circular and perfectly rounded mystique did not interest them, and they let it keeping going through history.
You see, how many civilizations come and go, some producing enlightenment, some darkness. “For forty years now, every new government is worse than the previous one” I have heard by several voices. The Soviets came in the ‘70s in support of the local socialist regime, then after two civil wars, the Taliban imposed their Islamic rule. Then, at the beginning of the new millennium, the elections brought Hamid Karzai to power, and people said he was very corrupt; then, 2014 brought to power Ashraf Ghani and a deal between local Democrats and Jihadists was sealed, but disagreements and misunderstandings have so far made the government unable to act. “Every new regime is reputed to be unfair, and when it comes to power, the same people who were criticizing the previous regime say then that it was better the the current one!” I have heard again.
On the way back from Aybak to Mazari Sherif’s airport, I was asking myself: “Whom does this country belong to?”. “The problem is that governments are not made to support people, but to protect international interests or political parties’ shares of power” tells me Abdull Wadood, who directs the Human Rights and Eradication of Violence Foundation. “Please, you have to understand that security is not just about force, military technology and intelligence. Security is also about soft tools, a culture of rights, education, health, and jobs, a lot of jobs. Do you understand?” asked me Hussain Moin, a representative of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Whom does this country belong to? I am so confused. After ten days in Afghanistan, I feel in a piece of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, where characters are playing their role and a counter-role as well. People from Ghazni province say that they hear US helicopters at night, and the day after Daesh’s flag waves on some hills. Were they parachuting Daesh militants? Taleban insurgents cross daily the Pakistani borders to organize their actions and refurbish their militias. Is the neighbouring country feeding permanent instability so as to prevent Afghan territorial claims coming from the British rule times over the current region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? Before going back to Kabul from the Northern provinces, I went to see the Amu Darya river which marks the borderline between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, nearby the only bridge connecting the two countries. That bridge was opened in 1982 by the Soviet Union to supply its troops deployed in Afghanistan. From there, the Soviet army entered Afghanistan, and from there it left Afghanistan. Many entered, and many left this country, only its people stayed, and when they could not stay where they were born, they moved elsewhere inside the country or fled abroad. Millions have fled the violence, then in times of relative peace returned, only to flee again when renewed fighting broke out. “What do you think about Syria?” I have asked Najib, a young man working on humanitarian assistance for women and children. He laughed. “We have been a test-field for many years, the system has been tuned here, now it is Syria’s turn. It is a way to show others up to where they can go. People are just a cost factor”. I have brought with me in Kabul an essay on Niccolò Macchiavelli, the political philosopher who served the Florentine Republic of the Renaissance times. He is associated to the saying “The end justifies the means”, but in fact he has also written that any lordship or authority can only last and prevent threats if it is able of military defense, on the one hand, and if it serves the interests of its citizens so that they will put their trust in the State, on the other hand.
Today is January 25, the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Many of my friends will attempt to come together and march in the street reminding the current President of Egypt that his authority will not last when it becomes tyranny. What I have learnt from these Afghan days is that stability lies in the fulfilment of people’s right of self-determination, in rejection of political violence, and in the capacity of a government to genuinely defend and serve people’s interest, even against the interest of a short-sighted political élite or of other countries’ appetites. “There won’t be any lasting peace in Afghanistan if no transitional justice is provided, and legacies of massive human rights abuses against citizens are not redressed” tells me a representative of BARAN network for community development and rehabilitation.
Since a couple of years, Kabul’s winter is not performing as well as before. Snow is lacking, and temperatures are even pleasant at midday. This is maybe one of the reasons for that black mantel. Even human rights activists who are used to deal with domestic or political violence are starting wondering what will happen if the climate really changes. They are not prepared for, or they think they are not. For a city under long-lasting crisis like Kabul, it will be another challenge more adding to the current ones. Who knows. Maybe, it will help conflicting parties to come to better terms.
 The so-called Durand Line is a 2,250-kilometre long line between Afghanistan and Pakistan, established in 1893 by agreement between Sir Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat and civil servant of British India, and Abdur Rahman Khan, the Afghan Amir, to fix the limit of their respective spheres of influence and improve diplomatic relations and trade. After 1947 Pakistan’s achievement of Independence following the end of the British rule, there has never been a formal agreement between Kabul and Islamabad on the territories along that border, and the Afghan Government claims that the Durand Line had been imposed on them under coercion. Some argue that the 1893 treaty expired in 1993, after 100 years elapsed, and should be treated similarly to the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory.
 See chapter IX of De principatibus, a political treatise better known under the title The Prince (1513).