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Jinglytruck

Jinglytruck. It’s a truck. It jingles.

JINGLYTRUCK is a brightly coloured Afghan truck – often decorated with chains and bells that make them jingle as they drive along.

Source: BBCNews

Silk Road jewel reveals more of its treasures

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Restoration work at the 15th Century Khwaja Parsa Mosque in Balkh

Balkh province in northern Afghanistan is home to some of the most significant historical sites in the world – its ancient city was even known as the mother of all cities. More than a decade after her first visit, Lynne O’Donnell returns with a group of archaeologists, trying to uncover more of its treasures.

Across the far northern Afghan plain, a hot wind blows the dun-coloured dust into blinding clouds, and the women’s burkas into blue billows. It is 40C in the shade, and even the small black goats being herded through the sand dunes look sapped by the heat.

These are the lowlands of Balkh, where ancient trade routes attracted nomads, warriors, settlers, adventurers and evangelists, who left behind secrets that archaeologists are just beginning to unlock. This area places Afghanistan at the heart of political, economic, social and religious power across Asia, as far back as 4,000 years ago.

The last time I drove across the Bactrian plain was in 2001. I had sailed down the Amu Darya river on a barge from Uzbekistan as British and American forces were pounding the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks in the US.

I have returned 12 years later with Afghan and French archaeologists to tour some of the oldest, most magnificent and historically significant sites in the world – sites that are shedding light not only on Afghanistan’s past, but on the development of human civilisation, from India to China and beyond.

The Bactrian plain is the treasure house of Afghanistan’s secret history. Across this desert, Alexander the Great marched his army, killed the king of Balkh and married his beautiful daughter, Roxanne. Some 1,500 years later, Genghis Khan swept through and destroyed teeming cities that were melting pots of diversity.

The philosopher Zoroaster, founder of the first monotheistic religion 3,500 years ago, lived and possibly died here. Rumi, the 13th Century poet who wrote in Persian, was born in Balkh – and is also, some Afghans like to think, buried here.

Camel trains, loaded with freshly harvested cotton, lope across the parched landscape, against a backdrop of mud walls built to stop the encroachment of the desert on the fertile Balkh oasis.

The French archaeologists are here to take a sample of the walls which surrounded a huge hexagonal fort, its shape only visible on satellite photos, strategically placed for both defence and water.

They dig deep in to the foundations to fill a metal pipe with dirt, so scientists in Paris can gauge the last time the quartz in the clay saw light. For now, they are guessing around 2,500 years.

Nearby in Dawlatabad is the tiny hospitable village of Zadian. We can only go with an armed police escort as the Taliban are active. Little girls in colourful scarves run squealing from the communal water pump as I raise my camera. Men in baggy trousers and turbans emerge to greet us from a shady walled garden.

I look up, and my jaw drops. Against the flawless blue sky, a sun-baked clay minaret towers over us.

It was built in the 12th Century, still nameless, missed by Ghengis Khan and his marauding Mongols – and by most visitors to this corner of the world ever since.

In the oasis of Cheshma-e-Shifa, a huge white rock shaped like an anvil is the sole evidence of a city where Zoroastrian priests performed rituals for the thousands of people who lived here, 600 years before Christ.

On the altar’s flattened top is a well for oil which burned a perpetual flame that would have been visible across the valley. The French like to wonder if it was here that Alexander married Roxanne.

French archaeologists have worked in Balkh for almost 100 years, interrupted by wars and invasions and, in the late 1990s, by the Taliban, who believed history only began with Islam in the 7th Century.

In fact, in Afghanistan, Islam displaced Buddhism. The Taliban showed their contempt for history when they destroyed the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.

Today, archaeologists are confirming Afghanistan’s role in spreading prosperity and philosophy across a quarter of the world for thousands of years.

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Latifa Nabizada – Afghanistan’s first woman of the skies

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Latifa Nabizada often shares her cockpit with her daughter – “She has grown up in a helicopter,” she says

Col Latifa Nabizada, the first female pilot in the Afghan air force, has battled prejudice, the Taliban and personal tragedy – but her ambitions for her young daughter soar even higher.

My sister and I always talked about the stars and the universe.

We talked about how aeroplanes were made and what it would be like to fly one – how it would feel to be a pilot. There were water butts near where we lived and I used to climb on top and imagine I was flying a helicopter.

After we had finished school, Laliuma and I told our parents we wanted to be professional pilots. They were quite shocked. At the time, not many women in Afghanistan could work and there we were, thinking of becoming pilots. But we managed to convince them. My father’s support was huge and it helped us a lot.

Latifa and Laliuma were repeatedly denied admission to the Afghan military school on medical grounds, but they eventually joined in 1989 after being certified fit by a civilian doctor. No women’s uniforms existed, so they made their own.

 

We were the first two women pilots in Afghan air force history.

Latifa Nabizada spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service

The other students threw stones at us. We used to leave the classroom in protest – then our teachers would come out and apologise and we would go back in. We were all so young and such things happened at that time. Considering the social conditions, people were quite positive about it.

We worked really hard and our exam results were quite good.

Of course, our male classmates weren’t that happy and felt a bit jealous. But we didn’t pay much attention to them. It was because of our sheer interest in the subject, and also with the blessing of God that we had potential and talent.

My first independent flight was an unforgettable experience. It was in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, and the flight was part of my examination.

I flew – I flew and it felt really great. And I thought: “This is what you get after all that hard work.” At the time my teachers kept saying: “Please pay attention! Look down at all those government officials, look at all those flowers in their hand! They are just waiting for you to come down and they will greet you.”

That was a tremendous feeling – but I really had to pay attention to the landing. We have two kinds of landing and the horizontal one takes a lot of accurate calculation.

After becoming pilots, Laliuma and I were treated differently from the male graduates. There was war at that time – some provinces were secure and some provinces had conflict and insurgency. At first, we were told to only fly in the secure provinces.

In 1996, the Taliban secured Kabul and Latifa and Laliuma moved to Mazar-e Sharif.

General Dostum was commander at the time in northern Afghanistan and he helped us a lot, giving us a secure place to live. He wanted the news to go out all over the world that he was a supporter of women’s rights. During his time we flew missions – we fought the Taliban.

Mazar-e Sharif was taken by the Taliban in 1998 – the last city in Afghanistan to fall to the insurgency

But before long, the women were forced to flee to Pakistan, where they wove carpets for several years, keeping a low profile and fearing for their lives. Eventually they were able to return to Kabul.

When people said the Taliban were on the way out and there would be another era for Afghanistan – women would work again, and be allowed to go out, and be able to do whatever they wanted – pleasant as that idea was, it was also unbelievable.

I got to Kabul at night, but I just couldn’t wait. I went to the military base and said “I’m back and I want to start working again”. They told me that there would be a celebration in Kabul in a couple of days’ time and my first flight would be during that celebration. And it was beautiful.

Latifa and Laliuma were both married, and in 2006 they became pregnant within weeks of one another. They kept the news quiet from their commanding officers for as long as possible.

There was a need for us to fly and we flew a lot of missions during our pregnancies. Despite that, I managed to bring Malalai into the world well enough.

But my sister had a difficulty in her childbirth. The doctor at the time said she had a choice: “Do you want us to save your baby or yourself?” And she was in love with her baby and she said “Save the baby, whichever way you can.”

The next day at 16:00 she lost her life.

All our life we had been together, played together, flown together. She was my strength and I was hers. And we had been through difficult missions and to the frontline, we had transferred dead bodies and the injured.

So many officials in the Air Force of Afghanistan told us: “We will never see the likes of you two again.” She was an incredibly courageous woman.

I cannot tell you how it feels every day without her, bringing up her child.

In March Latifa (fifth left) took part in a photoshoot for International Women’s Day

Latifa breast-fed her niece Mariam as well as her own daughter, with her mother helping with childcare. She went back to work within months of giving birth.

Unfortunately, there was nobody to take care of my daughter at home and there is no kindergarten in the military. So most of the time I took Malalai with me in the helicopter. She has grown up in a helicopter – sometimes I think she’s not my daughter, but the helicopter’s daughter!

She was almost two months’ old when we first flew together.

Five year-old Malalai is named after a Joan of Arc-like figure who rallied Afghan forces to defeat the British at the 1880 Battle of Maiwand. She also spoke to Outlook. Malalai, do you enjoy flying in a helicopter? Yes. I feel as if I am hugging the stars. Do you ever get frightened in the helicopter? No. Do you ever want to push any of the buttons or hold the controls yourself? No – what if something goes wrong? The helicopter will crash, God forbid! What do you want to do when you grow up? I want to become a pilot like my mother.

She would fall into a deep sleep and wasn’t any problem. As she grew up, she’d stand next to me and whenever she felt sleepy she would lay her head on my shoulder and fall asleep. When our American advisers saw this they would say, “Don’t keep her here, she’ll be in danger – put her in the cabin.” But Malalai used to cling onto my clothes and say, “Mum, I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to go there!”

I would assure my American colleagues that if she stayed with me I would fly safely. We were very cautious – we only went together on the routes that we knew were secure.

Nowadays, my daughter goes to school during the day, but I have asked the military to make a kindergarten for the other girls that are coming off courses and starting their jobs here.

Customarily, when you ask a kid whose child they are they give their father’s name, but Malalai always says “I am the daughter of Pilot Latifa”. She is immensely proud – and so am I.

I think her journey will be much easier than the one Laliuma and I had. I’m so thankful to my father, for all the support that he gave us. Now, being a mother myself I’m aware of the difficulties a parent faces raising a child, making sure that he or she achieves all the goals that he or she desires.

She is very interested in space. My ambition is for her to go to space – to become the first astronaut for Afghanistan. I hope my country will provide such opportunities by the time Malalai has grown up.

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Mes Aynak: Afghanistan’s Buddhist buried treasure faces destruction

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Mes Aynak, a magnificent Buddhist city, is the most important archaeological discovery in a generation. But it is sitting on a vast copper deposit and is about to be destroyed

The archaeological dig at Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist city on the route of the Silk Road in Afghanistan. Photograph: Dusan Vranic/Associated Press

In the spring of 1963, a French geologist set out from Kabul to carry out a survey in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan. His destination was the large outcrop of copper-bearing strata in the mountains above the village of Mes Aynak. But in the course of boring for samples, the geologist stumbled on something much more exciting: an entire buried Buddhist city dating from the early centuries AD. The site was clearly very large – he estimated that it covered six sq km – and, although long forgotten, he correctly guessed that it must once have been a huge and wealthy terminus on the Silk Road.

Archaeologists in Kabul did a preliminary survey of the site, mapping it and digging test trenches, but before they could gather the enormous resources needed for a full-scale excavation, first the 1978 Marxist coup then the 1979 Saur Communist revolution and the Soviet invasion intervened. In the chaos of conflict that followed, the Soviets visited Mes Aynak to dig test tunnels into the hillside and investigate the feasibility of extracting its copper. Later, during the Taliban era, one of the abandoned Soviet tunnels became an al-Qaida hideout, while the remote valley became a training camp: the 9/11 hijackers stopped off here en route to New York. During the American onslaught of December 2001, US special forces attacked the tunnel: an unexploded rocket lodged in the roof and burn marks at the cave mouth still bear witness to the attack.

By the time French archaeologists returned in 2004, they found that the secret of the buried city was out. As had happened in many other sites in the country, a large and highly organised team of professional art looters, probably from Pakistan, had systematically plundered the mounds at Mes Aynak and, judging by the detritus they left, had found large quantities of hugely valuable Gandharan Buddha images: the remains of many painted stucco figures deemed too fragile or too damaged to sell were left lying around the looting trenches which now crisscrossed the site. Beside them, the archaeologists found empty tubes of glue and bags of fine plaster – evidence of attempts at restoration and conservation.

An archaeologist examines the remains of statues of Buddha at Mes Aynak. Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Things did not begin well. The first set of guards placed on the site in 2004 ended up shooting each other in a gun-battle; indicating, presumably, that profitable looting was continuing long after the site had passed into Afghan government control. But it was now beyond dispute that Mes Aynak was a discovery of major significance. In the months that followed, the excavators uncovered 19 separate archaeological sites in the valley. These ranged from four fortified monasteries, a Zoroastrian fire temple and several Buddhist stupas (commemorative monuments), through ancient copper working, smelting workshops, miners habitations and a mint, as well as two small forts and a citadel. They also found a hoard of Kushan, Sassanian and Indo-Parthian coins, more than 1,000 statues, and several perfectly preserved frescoes showing donor portraits and scenes from the life of the Buddha.

As more data slowly emerged from the ground, it became clear that the site was a major Buddhist settlement, occupied from the first century BC and to the 10th century AD, at a time when South Asian culture in the form of the Buddhist religion and Sanskrit literature were spreading up the Silk Route into China, and when Chinese scholars and pilgrims were heading southwards to the Buddhist holy places of the Gangetic plain: Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, and the Buddhist university and library of Nalanda, the greatest centre of learning east of Alexandria. Mes Aynak was clearly an important stopping-off point for monks heading in either direction.

Then, in 2008, the Chinese returned, this time not as pilgrims or scholars but instead as businessmen. A Chinese mining consortium – Chinese Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper Co – bought a 30-year lease on the entire site for $3bn (£2bn); they estimated that the valley contained potentially $100bn worth of copper, possibly the largest such deposit in the world, and potentially worth around five times the estimated value of Afghanistan’s entire economy. Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s government hailed the mine as a key component in bringing about a national economic resurgence that would not be dependent on aid and military spending – which, between them, currently make up 97% of the legal economy – or, indeed, the profits of the illegal opium trade. Some observers estimated that the project could bring in $300m a year by 2016 and provide about $40bn in total royalties to the Afghan government.

Gold and jewels discovered at Mes Aynak. Photograph: Jerome Starkey/FlickrVision

Copper had created the site and probably drew the Buddhist monks to the valley in the first place, but now it would imminently lead to its complete destruction. In order to retrieve what they could before the site was levelled, the archaeologists of the French Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan (Dafa) began a major rescue dig to which the Chinese contributed $2m, the US $1m and the World Bank $8m: by providing the cash, everyone hoped the mine would not be halted by protests – the press had already begun comparing the destruction of the major Buddhist site at Mes Aynak to the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in the summer of 2001.

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The Taliban will have his Royal Bollocks

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Prince Harry has put put in the corner for being a very naughty boy; he’s being sent to Afghanistan for a second tour. I wonder if ‘deployed’ really means deported.

He’d better not go flashing the Crown jewels around over there, or the Taliban will using his royal bollocks for target practice.

Prince Harry deployed to Afghanistan

Prince Harry faces a “difficult and demanding job” in Afghanistan, his group commander says

Prince Harry has been deployed to Afghanistan for four months, the Ministry of Defence says.

The prince, an Apache helicopter pilot, arrived on Thursday night at the main British base, Camp Bastion in Helmand.

The 27-year-old, who is third in line to the throne, will take part in combat missions against the Taliban.

It is his second Afghanistan deployment – he spent 10 weeks in Helmand province in 2007-08 but was pulled out after media reported his secret deployment.

Captain Wales, as he is known in the military, arrived as part of the 100-strong 662 Squadron, 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps.

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Talk about getting a right royal bollocking…

Worse than being sent to Coventry.

Afghanistan… Did you know?

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Back in June I read an interesting article on the BBC News about Afghanistan, while my general knowledge of the country is probably better than the average Joe Bloggs, it produced some surprises.

It's here

It is surprising that Afghanistan has been pretty much constantly in the news since the US invasion 11 years ago yet it is even more surprising that many people still don’t have a clue as to where the country is.

The country has had an unsettling history having been invaded by Alexander the Great, the Mongols (twice), the Russian Tsars, the British (twice), the Russians again and now the USA. It should be noted that all but the last invaders have realised they will never win and gone home again with their tails between their legs like sensible dogs.

Ten facts you may not know about Afghanistan

For a decade and more, one country has dominated the news headlines more than most – Afghanistan. Mention this country and what comes to mind? Probably Taliban and terrorism, burkas and beards. But Afghanistan is much more. Beyond the headlines of war, there is another country where ancient traditions endure and a new country is emerging, says Lyse Doucet.

1. Afghans celebrate their new year, Nawroz, on 21 March, the first day of spring. Thousands travel to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif to welcome in Nawroz, a pre-Islamic festival. Local strong men raise a great Janda, an Islamic banner, to herald the beginning of spring and the start of the new year. If it is lifted in one smooth motion, it is seen as a good omen for the months to come. (You have to hold on to something when you live in a country that has already survived more than 30 years of war.)

Buzkashi

2. Afghanistan would like its national game, buzkashi, or goat-grabbing, to be an Olympic sport. Regarded as the world’s wildest game, it involves riders on horseback competing to grab a goat carcass, and gallop clear of the others to drop it in a chalked circle. It has been played on Afghanistan’s northern steppe for centuries. The game used to be the sport of rich rival warlords but is now also financed by Afghan mobile phone companies and private airlines. But it is still not a sport for the faint-hearted, and women should not apply.

3. Mobile phone coverage is expected to reach 90% of the country this year, even though the percentage of Afghans with access to electricity is still one of the lowest in the world. Mobile phones are transforming Afghan lives and culture. Even Taliban have fancy smartphones with e-mail and skype. They are status symbols, too – if you have cash or contacts you can get a memorable number including, for example, one that has the letters of your name. (Mine has my lucky number from when I used to play basketball.)

4. Poetry is a cherished part of Afghan culture. Afghans have told their stories in verse for more than 1,000 years. Thursday night is “poetry night” in the western city of Herat – men, women and children gather to share ancient and modern verse, listen to traditional Herati music, and enjoy sweet tea and pastries long into the night.

5. Alexander the Great was the first to build Herat’s ancient citadel when he captured the city in 330BC. The only woman to capture the heart of the Macedonian empire builder was the beautiful Roxanne, from the northern Afghan province of Balkh. She bore him his only son before Alexander died at the young age of 33.

6. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the poster boy for legions of young Afghan men. Photographs of a muscled Arnold in his prime hang from the walls of hundreds of body building centres across the country. Some Afghans say the action-star-turned US governor looks like an Afghan.

7. Afghan cuisine is more sophisticated than kebabs and rice. This landlocked country has been at the crossroads of major civilisations for centuries and that is reflected in what is on the menu. Sample its delicate ashak, a ravioli stuffed with leeks, and topped with minced meat and yogurt, or Mantu pasta filled with lamb and onions. And new influences are still emerging as Afghanistan opens its doors to the world. If you yearn for something lighter, former Japanese journalist-turned chef Hiromi (now known as Mursal which means Rose in Persian) fell in love with the country, married an Afghan and is training Afghans to make mouth-watering sushi.

8. Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan is said to be the busiest single runway airstrip in the world. No wonder it is also the place Nato has its first complete air traffic capability in a non-Nato country. Last year’s arrival of more than 30,000 extra US troops, along with more civilian personnel, added to constant landings on a base also used by non-US militaries. Of course, lots of journalists and dignitaries also fly in to one of Afghanistan’s most volatile cities, the most decisive battle in this war. Afghans have long said whoever controls Kandahar, controls Afghanistan.

Bamiyan paintings

9. The world’s first oil paintings were drawn not in Renaissance Europe but in the caves of Bamiyan, in the central highlands of Afghanistan around 650BC. Bamiyan boasted a flourishing Buddhist civilisation from the 2nd Century up to the Islamic invasion of the 9th Century. This is where the world’s two largest standing Buddhas once stood, until the Taliban destroyed them in 2001. A newly opened tourism company is trying to attract tourists back to beautiful Bamiyan. Last year, they had a grand total of two (along with Afghans and foreigners who live in the country). But the people of Bamiyan remain hopeful.

10. Oh, and please remember, Afghanis is the currency, not the people. They are called Afghans. And they have a country that, for all of its hardship and heartache, they are still proud to call home.

Story from BBC News Images selected by me, BBC ones on the link.

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