August 20, 2002 11:00 pm
STREETS OF KABUL: A woman in a burka balances a plate of bread on her head as she carries her baby on the streets of Kabul. (Photos/ERIC SLATER).
STREETS OF KABUL: A woman in a burka balances a plate of bread on her head as she carries her baby on the streets of Kabul. (Photos/ERIC SLATER).

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

No electricity. No phones. No sanitation. No dams. No good roads. Almost no medicine. Tribal warlords filled with hatred for each other — hatred that spans hundreds of years.

"Absolute filth."

Eric Slater described those and other images of Afghanistan — images that, by his own admission, are "depressing," when he spoke during a Blue Mountain Forum Tuesday.

Slater, a former La Grande resident, also talked of the kindness and friendliness of a people who are so violent their national sport is a type of polo played with a headless calf.

"This is a country full of private armies," Slater, Midwest Bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, said, adding that warlords are financially supported by surrounding countries, such as Iran and Pakistan, and the proceeds from opium poppies.

After more than 20 years of war — 10 with the former Soviet Union — and oppression by the Taliban, the country is in worse condition than the "countries of Sub-Saharan Africa," said Slater, who was assigned to Afghanistan for nearly three months last winter.

Before the wars began in the early 1970s, Afghanistan was a Third World country with some infrastructure.

"They had dams; they had roads," Slater said.

Now they have nothing, and in Slater's view, there is little hope that Afghanistan will survive as a nation without intensive international help.

Even in the capital, Kabul, basic amenities are missing. Slater recalled a meeting between Afghanistan's leader, Hamid Karzai, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in an unheated room where the temperature was 45 degrees.

"They had to work to keep from shivering," he said.

The airplane that Slater took from Pakistan into Kabul was "so substandard that I had to sign a document that I wouldn't sue," he said.

The years of war and oppression caused many of the better educated people to flee the country, leaving a serious brain drain. The severe lack of moderate leaders is evident, even in the government.

"A notorious warlord, a man who butchered his own people, is now the assistant secretary of defense," Slater said.

During his time in Afghanistan, Slater said he was rarely afraid, although he always traveled with a driver and an interpreter, also known as a "fixer," who knew all the "rules" and how to deal with the crowds that gather whenever an American shows up.

On a couple of occasions, Slater was in some danger when crowds became unruly. Disobeying his own rule of never traveling alone, he took a walk one evening toward a hill where some boys were playing.

"They don't have any toys; no soccer balls. They play with rocks," he said.

As he neared the hill, "in an instant," a group of about 100 boys, ranging in age from teen-agers to little kids, began to gather around.

"A rock was thrown at my head; then another one, more rocks, I was being stoned," he said.

A man, one who spoke a little English, saw the situation and "beat the kids off, the way they beat children away," saving Slater from real injury. Another reporter was badly injured in a similar situation in another place, he said.

On another occasion, Slater rented an old motorcycle and went for a ride in the country. Suddenly he saw a line of white rocks on the side of the road, and he immediately stopped. Rocks painted white define areas where there are mines, and there are mines all over Afghanistan.

"You can't really assess the danger level," Slater said. "How can you build a country when it's too dangerous to move from place to place?"

At times he came under fire while riding with his driver.

"You just speed up and you get away."

"This is a very violent place," he said. "The rules are simple."

Games, music, laughter, "everything" was banned under the Taliban rule, including the national game played with a headless calf. Slater attended the first game after the Taliban were ousted.

The goal of the game is to get — and keep — a headless calf while staying on horseback. It's every man for himself — no rules, no teams. The players use a calf because its carcass doesn't tear apart as easily as a goat.

"Nobody was seriously hurt that day, but it's not uncommon for players to be trampled to death," Slater said.

Despite the violence, the people are kind to strangers, he said. Several times he stayed with families who shared food and shelter and were "absolutely" warm and friendly.

The lifestyle of women has changed little since the Taliban were ousted, he said. They continue to wear the burkas that cover their entire body, including faces.

"I only saw the eyes of two or three women the whole time I was there," he said. "First of all, you don't see women."

Although he was not allowed to talk to Afghani women, female reporters occasionally were granted interviews, but there was one problem: All the translators are men.

Once when a woman was being interviewed, her family hung a sheet across the room. The Afghani woman and the reporter sat on one side of the sheet, while the translator sat on the other side, eyes turned away from the women.

"Sometimes the translators have had to stand outside the door and shout the questions and answers," Slater said.

The long road that women must travel before reaching equal rights is similar to the journey that must be taken before Afghanistan becomes even minimally stable.

"Will the moderates rise up and build a country out of extremes? I doubt it," Slater said. "The central government is very weak. Only the U.S. presence has kept the country from slipping back."

Allegiance remains with the warlords and their tribes, and the hatred among warlords is equally strong.

"The country is so backward that it has to have years of peace for the moderate voices to rise," Slater said.

He said, however, that he does not know if the U.S. will continue to focus on the plight of Afghanistan.

"I suspect we'll have no real presence there much longer," he said, as American attention is turning more toward Middle East issues.

"We went in to get al-Qaida. Now, I fear, we don't much care about the fate of Afghanistan," Slater said. "We care about al-Qaida. The U.S. does not have an enormous geopolitical interest in the welfare of Afghanistan."

Despite the poverty, despite the violence, despite the despair, Slater said he would return to Afghanistan without question if given the opportunity.

Slater grew up in La Grande. He is the son of Doyle and Connie Slater.