Few in Afghanistan remember 9/11. Two-thirds of its 39 million inhabitants are under 25 years of age. Only the oldest remember the attacks that took place 10,000 kilometers from their country, but which turned their lives upside down and rewritten their future. In the most remote places, they didn’t even learn the facts right away. With television banned by the Taliban, who ruled at the time and has now returned to power, radio and ‘word of mouth’ were the main forms of information.
Wahidullah was 25 years old when al Qaeda toppled the Twin Towers and attacked the Pentagon. At the time, he was already working as a currency exchanger at Saray Shahzada (Prince’s Market) in Kabul, an informal but authorized service. “Two days earlier Commander Massud had been killed and that was the only subject that was talked about in the market and in the city,” he recalls, referring to the assassination of guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massud by al Qaeda. “Then, the attack against the United States took place and everything changed from there”, he summarizes.
He still feels a slight chill as he remembers the news. “We learned on the radio. As television was prohibited at that time, at night my family and I listened to the radio,” he says. “At first, we didn’t know what had happened or who was behind it, but when the US accused bin Laden we were very scared because he was a great power and his threat was dangerous,” he says. Everyone knew who Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, was. “He came to do jihad and stayed,” says Wahidullah.
Within a few weeks the bombing began. “Many people left, but my family stayed and I lived through the attacks on Kabul. None of my relatives died in that war, but some of our neighbors did,” he recalls. The damage came later, when the occupation was prolonged and many Afghans were killed in the bombings of the USA and its allies and in the attacks of the Taliban against its presence.
Today, this father of eight daughters is convinced that American intervention has improved their lives. “There was more work, schools opened. I continued with mine, but my business also grew a lot”, he summarizes. Now, he says he has not received threats nor is he afraid, he is only concerned with the economy. “The situation is very bad and there is no work. This is our problem”, he concludes.
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Outside Kabul and other cities, information circulated more slowly. Even today, only 30% of the Afghan population is urban; at the time, 80% lived in the countryside. Shaima, a 50-year-old housewife, was among them; he resided in Surhood, a small town in Nangarhar province. “We heard it on the radio the next morning. We didn’t know what would happen when the United States attacked, but we decided to stay,” says the woman —covered with a veil but with her face uncovered—, during a visit to the market. She doesn’t regret the decision.
Her husband, who had joined the Communist army and was then working on a small plot of land adjacent to the family home, decided to join the new army. “We had a good life thanks to his salary and that of our son”, he reveals. “Our children studied, the oldest is an engineer, the second has just finished accounting and now, without income, we can’t pay for the little one’s school”, he explains. “I’m not afraid of the Taliban, I just want work for my husband and children, so I can live and pay for Maryam’s education,” she adds, as her youngest 12-year-old daughter shyly hides behind her mother.
Mohsen Kayumi must have been one of the few Afghans who learned of 9/11 on television. “Although it was prohibited, at home we had a hidden device and at night we watched TV,” says the 52-year-old man, who owns a small gold jewelry store. “At first we thought it was a mere plane crash. We only understand the seriousness when the US threatened the Taliban with an attack if they didn’t hand over bin Laden. We were wondering what would become of us”, he recalls.
Even so, the Kayumi did not leave Kabul during the “American War”. “I continued to work with my father in this same store, as my children do with me now,” he says, pointing to Bashir and Navid. A relative was killed in the bombings, but there were no victims in the family nucleus. Bashir, 28, remembers the agitation and nervousness of those days. Navid, 18, only knows what his elders have told him.
The father agrees with other interviewees: the US intervention was positive, although what followed ruined it. “Business was not going well with the Taliban. With the new Government of [Hamid] Karzai everything has improved. Now we’re back in 2001, people don’t have money and they’re worried about the future”, he sums up, while giving a 10 afganis (about 60 cents) to each beggar who knocks on his door (and there were at least half a dozen in the half hour that this journalist spent with him).
Afghanistan’s economy took a heavy hit last year, when the poverty rate rose from 55% to 72% as a result of the contraction caused by covid-19, according to World Bank data. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that, in the next six months, the number of Afghans living on less than $2 a day will reach 97% because of the interruption of foreign aid and the prolonged drought.
Kayumi explains that Afghans used to buy gold as an investment, for weddings or, in the case of girls, “because they like it and, since they earned money, they could afford it”. However, he says he hasn’t sold anything since August 15th. “Furthermore, life remains normal. It’s not like before 2001, when the Taliban beat people in the streets for no reason. Now that doesn’t happen, it’s just that the economy is at a standstill”, he emphasizes.
However, their children are suspicious. “Young people are afraid. So far they haven’t told us anything about clothes or hair, but we’re afraid for the future,” says Navid, who wears jeans and a printed T-shirt. “Nobody is happy”, says Bashir who, like his father, opts for the traditional shalwar kamiz (long shirt over baggy pants).
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