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To Sing Again 

Afghan women freed from the grip of the Taliban, but what now?

Indigo and white peaks rose beyond earthen dwellings to meet a cobalt sky. Glowing yellow poplars lined the river that flowed beside tall, creamy-gray cliffs carved with caves.

It might have been New Mexico, autumn's golden light illuminating the cottonwoods along the acequias, adobe pueblo nestled below Taos Mountain -- except for the two enormous cliff-hewn Buddhas standing sentry in their niches in the cliffs at each end of the valley. The larger, overlooking the village, was as constant and benevolent a presence as Pikes Peak in our back yard.

This was Afghanistan: Bamiyan Valley, 1977.

As I roved the valley on a steed straight out of a Persian miniature, the warbles of sparrows and "tink, tink" of tinsmiths' hammers floated from the village. Three young girls ran over the irrigated green fields, clambered onto a mud wall, and began to sing. Their eyes were as bright as their crimson and emerald dresses, shawls and baggy pants.

As they sang, breathless and eager, I settled into my saddle and sketched them. When it was finished, I gave them their portrait and kept another, receiving their autographs in scrawled Farsi script.

Later, an Afghan acquaintance from my Kabul bus ride invited me to an evening feast. The room was a forest of pattern and color: elaborate rug tapestries in kaleidoscopic hues and labyrinthine designs carpeted walls and floor. Music -- from instruments unknown to me and with exotic-sounding names like the tambour, the tabla and harmonium -- filled the space; complex rhythms as intricate as the carpets, wild melodies as flavorful as the spices in our food.

Khalil, a tiny boy of 3, strutted and leapt in tough, tempestuous men's showoff dances.

Crossroads

For millennia, Afghanistan was central to trade routes between the East and West; in 330 B.C., Alexander the Great founded Greece's easternmost city there.

In the 13th century, Genghis Khan decimated "every living thing" in the Bamiyan Valley. In 1398, Khan's successor, the warlord Tamerlaine, saw his conquests in northern Afghanistan stymied when his quarry vanished into inaccessible mountain caves.

In A.D. 400, more than 1,000 Buddhist monks lived in the Bamiyan Valley; many of their caves still contain frescoes embodying the fusion of Iranian, Hellenistic, Roman, Indian and Central Asian art.

A 7th-century Chinese pilgrim wrote of the 175-foot-tall Buddha overlooking the village: "Golden hues sparkle on every side, and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness."

"Our poor people"

Back in Kabul, a chance meeting brought me another evening of Afghan hospitality: the kind family of a Kabul University medical student named Azeem.

His young sisters, shy with their school English, welcomed me. Passionate about becoming a doctor and helping his country, Azeem spoke of Afghanistan's yearning for universal opportunity and education -- and questioned me eagerly about America.

After I had left Afghanistan, Azeem and I corresponded until the 1979 Soviet invasion halted communication. In a matter of months, a smuggled letter arrived: "They are killing our poor people ..."

Years later, Azeem wrote from Pakistan: His family -- he was now married -- fled, on foot and donkey, mostly by night.

The Soviets occupied Afghanistan for a decade, during which 2 million Afghans were killed. Five million became refugees. A million and a half died from landmines.

The West provided over $3 billion in arms to the fundamentalists fighting the Soviets. Between the Soviet and civil wars, 10 million landmines now litter Afghanistan; the United Nations foresees a century to remove them.

In addition, more than 60,000 civilians perished during Afghanistan's civil wars that raged from 1992 to 1996, a time of Northern Allianceperpetrated terrorism and corruption.

Their Taliban successors forbade women to work, attend school, play sports, ride bicycles, stand on balconies, look out windows, or appear in public unless completely veiled in the burqa. The Taliban, with its foreign allies, killed 500,000 Afghans.

In 1998, they "ethnically cleansed" the Bamiyan Valley, heartland of the Hazara tribe, one of Afghanistan's many ethnic groups. In 2001, they blew up the giant Buddhas standing watch over them, leaving nothing behind but the niches in the cliffs.

The sketching, singing and dancing I savored in Bamiyan -- even the young girls' signatures -- would have been unthinkable under the Taliban rule.

That 3-year-old boy Khalil -- if he survived the Soviets, three years' drought, ethnic cleansing, civil wars and mass exodus -- might be fighting under some warlord now.

Not much left

My medical student friend Azeem made it to Canada. In November, while American bombs were falling in Kabul, I reached him by telephone. "I'm not sure what they're bombing," he chuckled bitterly. "There's not much left to bomb ...

"Twenty-three years ago, fundamentalist extremists were gaining power," he continued. "Intellectuals hoped the Soviets would help protect our society. We were wrong. U.S.supported extremists expelled the Soviets, but took over when the West abandoned Afghanistan.

"The education system hasn't functioned in 23 years -- a generation of Afghans without decent education. They don't know what's behind all the politics of the war years. Outside extremists tell them wrong things about their religion."

Azeem has applied to join relief organizations, to offer his medical skills in Afghanistan. But he has his own family in Canada to care for ...

Courage, heart, truth

Regional warlords, bandits and lack of infrastructure all still plague Afghanistan. Disturbing news headlines like the following illustrate the continuing situation:

"Taliban's Law Drives Women to Suicide"

"The Taliban Rapists"

"Execution for Refusing Forced Marriage"

"Women in Afghanistan Suffer from Depression"

"Afghan Women Win Rights: Interim Prime Minister Signs Document Stating Equality"

"Reports of Rape, Looting by Afghan Militiamen"

"Give Me Security, Then I'll Remove My Burqa"

Before the Taliban rule, women composed 70 percent of Afghanistan's teachers, half the government workers and two out of five doctors. Now only 2 percent of Afghanistan's women are literate (and only 10 percent of citizens as a whole).

RAWA -- the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan -- is working to change this.

Formed in 1977 to improve Afghan women's situation in a traditional society, RAWA's agenda broadened after the Soviet invasion.

Independent, multiethnic and nonviolent, RAWA provides education, refugee relief, and medical care, and works to raise public awareness of women's plight in Afghanistan. Many RAWA members risked their lives under Taliban rule: conducting illegal schools for women and girls; documenting atrocities by concealing cameras under their burqas.

Local psychotherapist Laura Smith, deeply moved by the bravery of these women, supports RAWA and feels we can learn much from them. "It's not just about helping these poor women. It's about courage, heart, truth. If you really believe in something, what are you willing to do about it? It's a serious wake-up call."

To underscore what these women can teach us, Smith has organized an upcoming RAWA gathering that includes a CNN award-winning documentary, information, Afghan music and meditation.

Twenty-three years of war have destroyed 80 percent of Afghanistan's buildings. Once-ornate 15th-century blue-tiled minarets are now stumps of rubble painted with landmine warnings. Craters and tank carcasses line roadways. Drought and bombs decimated ancient irrigation canals that made the arid land green. Students study amid broken glass and bullet-chipped walls.

But courage and heart are bringing back learning, dance and hope. It may be just a wall of rubble and mud, but Afghan women are climbing atop it to sing.

The author, a Colorado Springs artist, took a break from graduate school in London to travel in Asia with a friend. She spent two weeks in Afghanistan, a county that, in the 1970s, was an exotic destination still accessible to foreign tourists.

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