Hot wind swishes through the colorful flags that the women of Kampirak raised to mark the spots where anti-Taliban raiders murdered their men ten years ago. Dust eddies in the canals that irrigated the dead men's orchards and wheat fields before running dry this spring. In the middle of the village, the oldest women of Kampirak chew their lips parched by the long, thirsty hours of Ramadan and evoke the name of god.
They also evoke the Taliban. "Under the Taliban life was good. But the Taliban don't care about us," says Zar Bibi, who hennas her gray hair the flame orange of a poppy. "They are looking for places where they can get water and food. They won't come to a poor village," agrees Makai, tattooed on her chin, cheeks, forehead, and arms with symbols that look like Tamashek alphabet. "They are hungry and thirsty themselves," Shah Bibi says, adjusting her black chiffon headscarf to let the scorching desert air dry the sweat in the deepest wrinkles of her neck. "By the name of god," the other women swear, raising their empty palms heavenward.
Since late spring, the Taliban have been expanding their control over Balkh province, which, only a year ago, was considered the safest in the nation. They have been collecting a 10 percent tax from farmers and imposing a lifestyle guided by the strictest interpretation of sharia. The ecru tracks that converge in Kampirak, a village of 375 impoverished farming families, wind past settlements over which the Taliban already have claimed dominion: Shingilabad, with its cotton fields in creamy bloom; Shahraq, with its tobacco fields of tubular flowers; Siogert, with eagles' nests in its hand-slapped roofs.
Some of the villages sprawl only a few miles outside of Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh. Mazar's residents have been watching the Taliban expansion with trepidation. Like many urban centers, Afghanistan's third-largest city has benefited from the efforts of the last decade to rebuild and modernize the country, and it has much to lose if the Taliban regain power here. Young people spend their afternoons at internet cafés updating their Facebook pages; BMWs idle at traffic lights; housewives and female college students sweat on treadmills to pop tunes at the city's only gym for women.
But the comparative wealth has not trickled down to rural Afghanistan, where people endure pretty much the same way they have for centuries, bartering produce for utensils, salt, and tea. They also lack access to electricity, health care, education, and decent roads.
In order to keep Balkh under control, the provincial governor, Ustad Atta Mohammad Noor, a former anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban mujahedin commander, has been paying off village leaders, particularly ethnic Pashtuns like the residents of Kampirak (Pashtuns make up the Taliban's core). Kampirak's chief elder, Gulbuddin, acknowledges being on the governor's payroll, although he would not say how much he is paid.
But, lately, these payouts have been proving insufficient. Demoralized by poverty, exhausted by drought, and disillusioned with yet another impotent kleptocracy in Kabul, Balkh villages have been surrendering to Taliban scouts without putting up any resistance. The Taliban have not yet come to Kampirak, but the villagers talk about the militia fondly. "The past regime was good to us, the Taliban regime," Gulbuddin says. "They were good for our security," Zar Bibi says, and her friends click their tongues: yes, yes it was. "And the water situation was better. Ten years ago, we had enough water. And, since then, there has been less and less each year."
For the second year in a row, little snow fell on the peaks of the Hindu Kush that guard Balkh's southern frontier. Whatever snowmelt has reached the Khorasan plains has been rerouted into orchards and fields closest to the foothills. Government officials who are supposed to monitor water distribution either slack off or are paid off, or both. Three months ago, water stopped reaching Kampirak's irrigation canals.
Wheat withered in the fields. The July almond harvest was tiny and bitter. The village women tramp an hour and a half daily to Shahraq, the closest village that has a well, to wash their clothes, bathe, and bring back enough water to break fast at the end of the day. There are no vegetables at their iftar tables this year and barely any meat: Kampirak's animals have been starving in its dehydrated fields. Over the last three months, the villagers sold most of their skeletal livestock at one-quarter of the regular price.
"The government has done absolutely nothing to help out," Zar Bibi continues, and the women click their tongues again: nothing, nothing at all. "By the name of god," they repeat.
Each day, Zar Bibi and her friends gather to fast for Ramadan in each other's company, in the shade of a drought-stricken mulberry tree that bore no fruit this year. The tree stands in the yard of a house that once belonged to Sarwar, one of the men ethnic Hazara militiamen, celebrating the collapse of the Taliban, killed in 2001 when they swept through the ethnic Pashtun village in a bacchanal of rape and murder. The women fan themselves with the fringes of their scarves and stare at the crumbled, mud-brick hemispheres of Sarwar's roofs, at the clay stumps of tandoors in the corner of the yard where Sarwar's wife and daughters-in-law once baked bread. The landscape's scar tissue mirrors their own. Each of the women has lost a husband, a brother, a father, a son during that raid. The militiamen violated their daughters.
"The Taliban used to protect us," Zar Bibi says. "But now they only go to wealthy villages. You go where you see a big bowl of rice, not where you see an empty bowl."
The women around her nod at the familiar proverb. "Kampirak is an empty bowl," Zar Bibi says. Her hair seems aflame in the noon sun. The women stare at the straw mats upon which they sit, and say nothing.
Conflict and Peace Building