Of Kabul I remember the dirty snow and the shops of pistachios and walnuts. Of Kabul I remember that thick, dark smog layer encapsulating the town’s air bubble I could see from above, from the top of Shir Darwaza mountain. A whole humanity was swarming in the streets under the layer, squeezed like their poor air reserve between a solid, brown earth and the upper space. That was, that is the destiny of Kabul, immense and desperate, with its sprawling urban fabric climbing the slopes of stony mountains like reptiles. Now that the Taliban are there, and that its urban fabric can’t escape the dust and the mud, it’s the people who try to escape, from the airport, a zona franca of hopes and anguish.

Of Kabul I remember the Bagh-e Babur gardens, where the great Mongol emperor Muhammad Ẓahīr al-Dīn rests in peace. On his grave, an inscription in Persian language says: “If there be a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!”.

When I visited Kabul for the first time, 2016, the day after my arrival I was welcomed by an explosion happening a few hundred meters from my accommodation, a car-bomb had hit a bus of journalists. That smoky and loudly blow, together with the dirty snow, and plastic piles obstructing the Paghman river, made me think the opposite: “If there be a hell on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!”.

Bagh-e Babur gardens hosted the launch of our EU-funded campaign “Women for Change”, supporting the political, and civic leadership of women in the country. It was not a dream, it was a Gramscian act of will, with dozens of women among politicians, journalists, teachers, judges, or artists involved. For European standards, Afghan women are severely discriminated and abused both in the domestic and public space. They are subject to pressures and threats from traditional social circles, and they are not adequately protected in their free and autonomous exercise of public functions. Our campaign’s idea was very simple: to protect women, we have to prepare their leadership. And preparing female leadership means also addressing the structural factors of bad governance of that country.

Of Kabul I remember the dishes of aromatic rice and the succulent vegetable soups. The brown faces of people walking fast on sidewalks and their indecipherable eyes, staring at me without disclosing their feeling toward a foreigner passer-by. I remember the founders of mixed schools where boys and girls studied together, or the girls playing in a female musical band set up by an orphanage. I remember the encouraging numbers of people, men and women, who decided to report cases of violence against women to the police stations, or sue their authors at state’s courts.

Will that still be possible?

I am disgusted by the great fanfare with which we have celebrated “our” withdrawal from Afghanistan. Presidents and generals honouring the job of Western soldiers and officials in public events, and then rushing into quickly folding their flags. The voidness behind those celebrations came to light in just a few weeks. With the Taliban’s takeover. The Taliban won because the Afghan army did not know what they had to fight for. For a corrupted government? For a divisive political class? For a nation which has been mostly under foreign rule or under its massive support during the last 50 years, since the abolition of the monarchy and the proclamation of the republic (1973)? Like that dirty snow, we have seen the state’s army and institutions unequivocally melting. Our diplomacy and our intelligence staff, while still laying down on August’s beaches, suddenly proved to be ridiculous and clumsy. The American president ran toward the media to say that they hadn’t been in Afghanistan to build a nation. So, what did you do there beside going after Bin Laden, what did we do there in the last 20 years, if it was not an attempt of “nation-building”? Let’s speak the truth, at least now. All what was done in Afghanistan in the last years, including our campaign for women’s leadership, was in some way about “nation-building”!

One the one hand, we preached human rights and the rule of law, on the other hand, we turned a blind eye to corrupted institutions (Afghanistan is still among the dozen most corrupted countries in the world[1]). We cannot now just say: “Oh, I am sorry, we were not expecting the Taliban to be back”. It does not make sense. The only explanation making sense to me is that we paved the way for them to be back. As patriots, as brave fighters who defy the whole world, as holders of their country’s historical and cultural values.

A mess. I do not even think we will be able to rescue human rights defenders or local partners and bring them and their family to Europe or elsewhere. They will either die there or take the path of other refugees. In the meantime, Europeans are getting ready for the incoming refugees from Afghanistan: by building new walls, like in Greece.

It is another punch in the face of our democracies, this Afghan tale. It started wrongly and ended wrongly, because we did not carry out until the very end the only thing we had to openly do: “build a nation”. Help Afghans to build their nation based on shared values, values Italians and Afghans, or Americans and Afghans have in common.

Of Kabul, I remember the calm conversations with local friends, their stories of daily struggle for a life in dignity, their conviction that the country needed them. I remember the chicha-cafés where I was hiding incognito, ravished by the sweet smell of tobacco. Of Kabul I remember the “international compound”, where foreigners were living behind disgraceful cement walls which alienated them from the town. I remember that late feeling of “we” and “them”, enshrined in physical spaces and watchwords. Lack of empathy was pouring from the walls’ crevices. No glimpses of love were coming from too many foreigners; just a well-rewarded duty to be finished. Without love and compassion, Taliban have no challengers. The problem is that love and compassion are not commodities on sale, our money is of no use for that. Were we at least able to open our borders to the next wave of refugees, thus showing love and compassion for the destiny of a country where “we” have spent the last twenty years …

Oh Kabul, we were wrong. Sorry about that: democracy is not for you. We wish you all the best!

“If there be a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!”.

Malcesine, August 21, 2021

[1] According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is ranked 165th out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index (data 2020).


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