March 8, 2016


[The river’s course is a reminder that life goes on despite violent upheaval, flowing through Taliban and opium country, slowing down in this city, and then running on to Nimruz Province, the smuggling hub on the border with Iran.]


The Helmand River valley of Afghanistan in 2010.
Credit Moises Saman for The New York Times
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The banks of the placid Helmand River have always been the social center of Lashkar Gah, the southern Afghan provincial capital sometimes called Little America during the decades of modernization efforts here.
The appeal of the river stands aside from worldly concerns, and there are many of those lately. The water is calm this time of year, the sunset gorgeous. To unwind at the end of the day, people come to the riverbank for bandaar  easy chat over a cup of tea, or, if in season, delicious pomegranates this region is known for. Other visitors have slowed their worlds with hashish, lying on their backs in the water, away from the crowds, fascinated with the clear sky above.
On a recent reporting trip, I was particularly keen to talk to a friend here, a young university lecturer with helpful insights about this place. Even by its own standard, the surrounding region of Helmand Province has suffered arough, bloody year. The Taliban, making major inroads, are now holed up in one of Lashkar Gah’s suburbs across the river. Was he worried that the city might fall, that the lifestyle he had grown used to — a vibrant educational environment, multiple private TV and radio channels — could be in danger?
After a conversation over milk tea on a worn-out couch at a little cafe facing the river, he suggested dinner with a couple of his friends, also university lecturers, at a fish restaurant that had opened just outside the city. The suburb, Karez, is considered one of the safest, he said. Even when the Taliban entered Lashkar Gah a few years ago, they met fierce resistance in Karez.
Before leaving for the restaurant, the professors spread their shawls by the river for the evening prayer. Everyone savored the beauty of the sunset in its last moments.
The river’s course is a reminder that life goes on despite violent upheaval, flowing through Taliban and opium country, slowing down in this city, and then running on to Nimruz Province, the smuggling hub on the border with Iran.
Its calm waters have sustained agriculture and towns in the middle of the desert, and would-be conquerors have been drawn along its path for eons. It is that role that informs a Pashto poem by Abdul Bari Jahani, who is now Afghanistan’s minister of information and culture:
I ask you in the language of the heart:
Do you recall the cruelties of your time?
You know well what’s happened at your edges.
You watched blood flow with your waves
as hangmen discarded martyred bodies.
And you witnessed those who looted
the nomad girls’ nose-rings:
all in the name of the great lord.
how did you learn to flow with such calm?
For much of the day, I had tried to gauge the mood of the city.
“We are very sad because our numbers are skyrocketing,” said Dejan Panic, who runs the 91-bed Emergency Hospital here. The number of admitted trauma patients has already increased by 20 percent this year, and so did the severity of the injuries, Mr. Panic said. The hospital recently built an underground bunker for staff and patients, in case the violence brings the sort of bombings that happened in Kunduz city.
Jamila Niazi, Helmand Province’s director of women’s affairs, said she had lost touch with the women’s councils in the districts overrun by the Taliban. Girls schools have also been closed there. But Ms. Niazi expressed confidence that the security forces would be able to hold the city.
“For years, there’s been fighting here, and the city hasn’t fallen,” she said.
Ghulam Rabbani, who sells CDs and DVDs in downtown Lashkar Gah, was more concerned. He had not sold anything all day. His retailers from districts overrun by the Taliban, who oppose music and television as un-Islamic, no longer come to buy.
“When the Taliban came close to the city a few years ago, we weren’t as concerned because the foreign troops were still here, and we knew they would be pushed back again,” Mr. Rabbani said. “This time, they are no longer here.”
Trying to find the fish restaurant, we drove through the desert in a small Toyota Vitz, many times asking for directions. Still, we kept hitting dead ends, prompting questions about how much business the place could anticipate if even local customers struggled to get there. But one thing was clear: Fish would be had. The professor had called ahead to make sure the restaurant would be ready.
The two-story restaurant, found after almost an hour of searching, was beautiful, down a slope of cobblestone and facing the river. The lights on the first floor were dim, the doors locked.
A small window on the second floor opened, and a man looked out. “Are you the fish guys?” he said, with a smile.
The normalcy of the adventure, in a place surrounded by war, recalled a lost Helmand that is still so present in the Afghan imagination.
Earlier in the day, a nostalgic politician who is now in charge of the battle here, Abdul Jabar Qahraman, talked about that lost Helmand as he described a conversation with a NATO general.
“If someone sat somewhere in the world and thought of Afghanistan, Helmand would definitely come to his mind,” he recounted saying. “Then he thought of the beauty of Lashkar Gah, and he would say, ‘This is little New York, little Washington.’
“Today, when someone in the world thinks of Afghanistan, he thinks of evil, and he thinks of Helmand — that it is the center of it,” Mr. Qahraman continued, lamenting.
“Forty years ago, we had such a life here — we had a disco,” he said. “But then we fell into the ditch of misfortune. I just want to see that Helmand again in my lifetime.”

@ The New York Times